Youth at council with colourful streamers
Photo: The United Church of Canada

Children of the Apologies

On the Thursday evening of General Council, July 26, Youth Forum pilgrims gathered with commissioners to remember the church’s colonial legacy while recommitting to the work of right relations. Pilgrims recited the words of the 1986 Apology to Indigenous Peoples; and the 1998 Apology to Former Students of United Church Indian Residential Schools, and to Their Families and Communities. Those words, whether one is hearing them for the first time or has encountered them many times before, are a powerful call to action today. 

“We did not hear you when you shared your vision,” reads an excerpt of the 1986 apology offered by the Very Rev. Bob Smith. “In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ.” Twelve years later, the Very Rev. Bill Phipps apologized on behalf of the United Church for its involvement in Indian Residential Schools. “We are truly and most humbly sorry,” he said.

Hearing the words of the apologies spoken aloud by Youth Forum pilgrims was powerful, given that it was young people who were taken from Indigenous families and communities to be placed in residential schools with the cooperation of the churches, including The United Church of Canada. “We all have a role in the apologies,” said Madison Blackwell, London Conference Youth Forum Pilgrimage co-leader, who noted that all the GC43 Youth Forum pilgrims have been born since the apology was made. “The only church we have known is the church that made the apologies.”

Several pilgrims reflected on what it meant to grow up in a post-apology United Church, emphasizing their responsibility as youth to fully inherit the work of right relations. Jason O’Hearn, a commissioner from Maritime Conference, emphasized the “united” in the United Church: “As The United Church of Canada, we recognize that when one of our brothers or sisters are in pain, we are all in pain.” We have much work to do, he said, in continuing the work started by Indigenous Elder Alberta Billy when she asked for an apology in 1986. 

Lora Laleva, a youth commissioner from Hamilton Conference, reminded us that our pride in being United Church should never obscure the realities of the church’s participation in colonial structures. “We cannot forget the damage we have done,” she said. “The United Church dehumanized Indigenous children.” She ended by encouraging us to choose the way of humility: “Walk humbly down this road of reconciliation and we may get there sooner.”

Isabella Barbeiro, a youth commissioner from Manitou Conference, greeted attendees in Ojibway, which she is learning as part of her personal commitment to right relations. Despite growing up in the small northern Ontario town of Chapleau, ON, which is surrounded by four reserves, Barbeiro heard little about the Anglican-run residential school just outside town. “I never really talked about reconciliation until the conversation was initiated by my United Church congregation,” said Barbeiro. She urged the United Church to live into its vision of reconciliation, carried forward by God’s presence and the momentum of its current efforts.

In table group discussions, commissioners discussed what reconciliation means to them and where they have stumbled in their efforts. With colourful streamers, they joined with others to create a woven structure that will symbolize the church’s commitment to right relations across generations.