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Christianity in Canada: A Complicated History, Part 1

Staff writer Makenzie McNeill continues her series on The Misunderstood Missionfield of rural Canada by looking at Christianity in Canada.

A Disclaimer

Before I begin, let me provide a disclaimer.

First, I am an outsider (i.e., not Canadian). Therefore, despite my research, I still lack the cultural and historical awareness that people who grow up here have.

Second, I am aware of the immense gravity of this topic. The potential to cause harm or offense is tremendous if this blog is not handled with humility, compassion, and sensitivity.

(If one thing assists me, it’s that I too am a Christian from a Western nation a complicated and tragic history between its foreign settlers and native peoples.)

Thankfully, many wonderful people across Canada lent their voices, knowledge, and insight to make sure this blog was as carefully constructed as possible. This blog is not comprehensive, so I’m sure I missed important points along the way. I humbly ask for your grace and forgiveness.

Christianity in Canada: A Forgotten Gospel Opportunity

Glenn Daman, a rural pastor who serves on the board of directors for Village Missions U.S., released the book The Forgotten Church in 2017. It addresses the need for spiritually vital churches in rural areas.

In one chapter, he states:

“When we think of missions to an unreached people group, we focus our attention on some forgotten, uncivilized people in the jungles of South America or the 10/40 window. Yet in our own backyard, the Native North American Indians remain largely unreached with the gospel.” (The Forgotten Church, p.207)

According to Interact Ministries, “There are over 200 hundred First Nations communities across western Canada without a significant Christian witness.”

In 2016, “over 1.6 million people in Canada identified as indigenous, making up 4.9 percent of the national population.”

Although most of the indigenous population reside in urban areas, a considerable portion continue to live on reserves in rural areas.

Often called “rural ghettos,” the isolation and remoteness of many reserves “have contributed to the high rate” of poverty, substance abuse, and other challenges in many indigenous communities.

The communities of several Village Missionaries serving in rural Canada are located near reserves. Members of the First Nations are their neighbors and friends. Naturally, their ministry includes building relationships with these folks.

So, to be a missionary in rural Canada, you need to know the painful history between the Canadian government, Christianity, and the indigenous peoples.

“The Darkest Chapter in Canadian History”

In the 19th century, the Canadian government sought a way to assimilate the indigenous peoples into Canadian culture.

They developed a system of “church-run, government-funded industrial schools, later called residential schools” designed to teach native children English or French and “adopt Christianity and Canadian customs.”

This, the government and participating churches believed, provided the “best chance for success” for the indigenous children.

“[Residential schools] were the product of churches and government…a calculated effort to eradicate Indigenous language and culture…called cultural genocide.”

Beyond 94

In fact:

“in the eyes of many state officials, the agent that could and should bring about such rapid change was the Christian church. Missionaries of all denominations embraced the cause of civilizing the Indigenous Peoples in Canada…”

Sadly, however “noble” the original intentions of the residential schools, history remembers the schools as places of abuse and neglect.

Title: Cree students and teacher in class at All Saints Indian Residential School, (Anglican Mission School), Creator(s) / Créateur(s) : Bud Glunz Date(s) : March 1945 / mars 1945 Reference No. / Numéro de référence : MIKAN 3191693, 3625039…… Location / Lieu : Lac La Ronge, Canada Credit / Mention de source : Bud Glunz. Library and Archives Canada, PA-134110/Bud Glunz. Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, PA-134110 Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan, March 1945 /
  • Approximately 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children were forcibly removed from their families and required to attend residential school
  • Every province and territory – except Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick – had “federally funded, church-run” residential schools
  • Children suffered emotional, spiritual, physical, and sexual abuse at residential schools, including:
    – Punishment for speaking their native language or expressing their culture
    – Forced labour
    – Malnutrition
  • As many as 3,000 children died at residential school. But due to poor record keeping, we do not know the exact number.

While some former students have spoken of their time at residential school in a more positive light, for the majority it was a negative experience.

I encourage you to watch these testimonies of residential school survivors. Their stories deserve to be heard.

*Warning: these videos discuss distressing and upsetting situations*

Recognizing the Atrocities

The last residential school finally closed in Saskatchewan in 1996.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, “the largest class action settlement in Canadian history…recognized the damage inflicted on Indigenous peoples…and established a multi-billion dollar fund to help former students in their recovery.

In 2008, former prime minister Stephen Harper issued an official apology to the survivors of residential schools for the Canadian government’s role in this egregious “policy of assimilation.”

Additionally, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created to help “[reckon] with the devastating legacy of forced assimilation and abuse.” The commission released a full report in June 2015 with 94 calls to action “to guide governments, communities and faith groups down the road to reconciliation.”

The Long-lasting Effects

Approximately 80,000 residential school survivors remain alive today. The trauma that residential schools have inflicted on the indigenous community cannot be fully known. A study released by Harvard Divinity School points out just a few of the devastating consequences of the residential school system:

  • Many native languages are nearing extinction (almost 70%)
  • Alcoholism, substance abuse, domestic violence, and unemployment are disproportionately high among Canada’s indigenous population
  • A disproportionate percentage of the indigenous population make up the prison population of Canada “

These issues and more all stem in one way or another from residential schools.”

Sadly, the damage from this horrific time has transcended generations. Former students of the residential schools – broken and hurt from their gruesome experiences at residential school – often pass on their trauma to their children. Then they pass along that trauma to their children.

It’s a vicious and merciless cycle. Despite the great resiliency of the indigenous people, many still grapple with the aftermath of the residential school system.

The Role of the Church

It’s difficult – and devastating – to believe that people who claimed to be Christians – ambassadors of our Saviour – willingly participated in the abuse and neglect in the residential schools.

In the 1970s, “the churches of Canada were coming under increasing scrutiny because they were so closely identified with the colonial project of civilizing and Christianizing the Indigenous Peoples…

By the 90s, churches involved in the residential schools were called “to acknowledge the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse endured by students at the schools.

Over the years, many churches and denominations apologized for their involvement in the residential schools, helping the governmentto design a plan to compensate former students.

The residential schools show not only a dark stain in Canada’s history – but also a tragic blow to the credibility of the gospel.

Fred Kelly, “a residential school survivor who was a member of the indigenous team that negotiated the settlement agreement,” shared this sobering declaration:

“A church that… overrun [the native] cultures by condemning them as ways of the devil is one I am also prepared to discuss reconciliation with… A clergy…whose own agents inflicted sexual and physical abuse on Aboriginal children are men and women I am prepared to meet in my community to discuss reconciliation… In ultimate personal reaffirmation, it was not God that hurt generations of innocent children, but the human beings in the churches who undertook to deliver Christianity and inflicted the sorrow in His name.”

Is there hope?

Innumerable, horrific things have been done in the name of Christ by people who claimed to be His followers through the centuries. The residential school system is one of those tragic examples.

In situations like this, a legitimate question arises. Is there any hope of rebuilding trust and credibility in the message of Jesus Christ, after His name and reputation have been so horribly misrepresented?

As Interact Ministries shares, “Today there is a need for trust, and for true believers to show and live out the deep and abiding love of Christ among these tribes.

We must not onlypray for racial reconciliation, but most of all for First Nations people to be reconciled to Jesus Christ.”

In Part 2 of this blog, we’ll look at how a few Village Missionaries and their churches in Canada love the indigenous community around them, in the hopes that they will come to saving faith in their Saviour, Jesus.

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