Church leaders in Canada hope action will follow a public apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to victims of a situation whereby aboriginal children were placed in residential schools run by churches under a government policy of enforced assimilation - writes Kristine Greenaway.
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the leader of the Anglican Church of Canada, said he was moved by the apology given by Harper in Ottawa on 11 June in the lower house of the Canadian parliament on behalf of the government, followed by apologies from other party leaders.
"I was very encouraged by their determination to make sure that this apology is seen as a beginning, and that it will be accompanied by actions that will significantly improve the quality of life for First Nations people in this land," Hiltz said in an interview with the Anglican Journal after the prime minister's statement.
A law passed by the government of Canada in 1920 made it compulsory for aboriginal children aged 7-15 to leave their communities and live in residences at schools run by churches including the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and United Church of Canada. The last of the schools closed in 1996.
During the 1980s former students began making allegations of sexual and physical abuse inflicted on them in the schools. In 2006, a class action suit on behalf of a group of students resulted in the awarding of the largest financial settlement in Canadian legal history.
"The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history," Harper said in his parliamentary speech. "Today, we recognise this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country. The government of Canada sincerely apologises and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly."
The moderator of the United Church of Canada, the Rev. David Giuliano said his denomination hoped the apology would spark a substantive grass-roots response. "The 11 June apology offers the opportunity to begin the process of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation," said Giuliano.
The 2006 settlement included provision for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first time the model used after the demise of apartheid in South Africa has been applied in a stable democracy.
The commission, headed by an aboriginal judge, Justice Harry S. LaForme, has a five-year mandate to travel throughout the country to meet former students. LaForme, a member of the Mississauga tribe, is joined by commissioners Jane Morley, a lawyer, and Claudette Dumont-Smith, an aboriginal nurse from the Algonquin tribe.
"We know what occurred," said LaForme. "What we now want to hear are the stories from themselves not so we can punish, but so we can walk forward into the future and build a new relationship."
In Geneva on 13 June the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, the Rev. Ishmael Noko welcomed the Canadian government public apology to the First Nations, as a significant indication of the willingness to confront painful legacies of injustice against Indigenous Peoples.
"Honest examination of past wounds is a necessary step to the healing of memories. I pray that these apologies represent the beginnings of an open process of deeper reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-indigenous peoples," said Noko, who is a Zimbabwean.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]