The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently met with Indigenous community leaders and residential school survivors in Toronto to work toward true reconciliation after offering an apology for the Anglican church's role in residential schools.
"Why did it take the churches and the government so long to bring out this apology? Don’t they know the schools closed in 1970?" asked Geronimo Henry, a residential school survivor. "That’s when they should have come and gathered us all up and said they were sorry. But they never."
Henry spent 11 years in the Mohawk Institute residential school near Brantford, Ont. He was at the meeting with Welby on May 3, hoping for more than cheap words, according to the Anglican Journal.
To the crowd that gathered, Henry recounted his time at the school. He shared the times he was locked in a 'playroom' with one window for hours, digging through the dump behind the school for extra food, and wanting his mother to come to take him back home.
The Mohawk Institute closed in 1970 in Brantford yet it took the Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008 to officially apologize.
"The Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada year after year after year had the choice of saying ‘this is not what should happen.’ And I don’t understand why they didn’t. [The church] deliberately colluded, went along with … —[and] invoked the name of God to support—the most terrible evil," says Henry.
The Archbishop's Reply
Welby’s tour marks the first time an Archbishop of Canterbury has officially apologized for the Anglican church’s role in the residential school system. He spent time with Indigenous leaders and survivors in Prince Albert, Sask. on May 1.
In his speech at James Smith Cree Nation, Welby was upfront about the Anglican church's role in the schools.
"The difference about that bit of hell is that it was built by the church and in the name of the church. For that terrible crime, sin, evil of deliberately, consciously, stupidly—because evil is stupid—building hell and putting children into it and staffing it, I am more sorry than I could ever, ever begin to express. That is, both personally and in my role as archbishop of Canterbury."
Welby went on to address the fact that in the past too many in leadership have over-promised and under-delivered. He hopes to under-promise and over-deliver.
"I want to see some results first. Words are cheap," Henry says.
Welby offered Henry a token of faith that action would be taken. Welby gave him a handmade stained-glass paperweight and said that if he didn't take real steps toward reconciliation in the next four years, Henry should use the paperweight to smash his window.
According to the Anglican Journal, one concrete promise Welby did make was to release any records on residential schools in the church’s possession to survivors and to push for the New England Company, the society that originally ran the Mohawk Institute, to do the same.
Survivors' Encounter with Jesus
Dawn Hill was also at the meeting in Toronto with Welby. She is a member of the Survivors Secretariat and survivor of the Mohawk Institute and recalled an encounter while she was there.
"We were living in an environment of uncaring individuals," says Hill. "Often [there was] physical abuse from staff, also sometimes from other kids because no one was watching us."
After falling asleep on a bench one afternoon Hill shared a dream that changed her.
"When I fell asleep, I had the most vivid dream of Jesus. He was standing on top of the building where the dining room is. He looked down at me and told me he would always look after me… I felt this physical wave—it started right down at my feet—of peace, love and goodness. I had the most overwhelming experience I’ve ever had in my life."
Hill encouraged Welby on behalf of the Anglican church as well as the Catholic church to restore the language that was stripped away from many Indigenous children that survived the residential schools.
"You’ve got all this money; what are you actually doing for people? … I don’t figure I need any help now. But I certainly think the restoration of language would be really important."