Our hope as church, society and Aboriginal peoples rests in establishing new relationships of trust and promise and working together for a better future.
Jubilee with its three themes–release from bondage, redistribution of wealth and renewal of the earth–is a vision that speaks with potential and hope to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike. It is a vision that we have been living in the church for some time.
We began to live the first theme in the mid sixties, when we realized that policies and attitudes in our own church formed a kind of bondage for Aboriginal people. We realized that residential school policies had been a mistake and that we had to determine what else in church and society did not stand up to Christian principles.
In 1967, General Synod commissioned a study, which took two years to complete. The report, entitled Beyond Traplines, was startling.
It was also a turning point for our church, resulting in reform of how the church relates to Aboriginal peoples and how ministry is conducted in Aboriginal communities. As a church we have made a commitment to no longer do things for Aboriginal peoples, but rather to do things with them, sometimes at their direction.
The first steps to self-determination for Aboriginal Anglicans was in 1970 when we hired an Aboriginal staff person to oversee the church’s Native ministry programs, and we saw the beginnings of our National Aboriginal Council. Now, almost three decades later, the church has an Indigenous Ministries Coordinator, who works with 225 Indigenous congregations to help them find new ways to worship and to help them find a voice in the church. Since the 1992 General Synod, we have also had an Indigenous Justice Coordinator. In this capacity, it was my job to work on advocacy with Aboriginal peoples regardless of religious affiliation. A major part of my work was to educate non-Indigenous peoples in the church about social realities for Aboriginal peoples and to foster the understanding that is essential to a healthy society.
To ensure that the voice of the people is heard, the church has the gifts, experience and wisdom of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, which is made up of representatives from all parts of Canada. The council meets to envision what the church could be for our families, our communities and our communion.
The Jubilee theme of redistribution of wealth is also evident in our church. The church’s true wealth is the gifts, wisdom and efforts of people in community. For many years, our church lacked a way for Native people to gather and discern their voice and find their vision.
Then in 1985 the church agreed to support a National Native Convocation. When it was finally held, the convocation turned out to be an affirming and surprising experience for many participants.
Out of the first convocation came a recognition that future such gatherings are vital to the life of Indigenous ministries in the church. It was decided to hold a convocation every three to four years.
At the second convocation in 1993 many people spoke of their experiences at residential school and of abuse they often suffered there. The Primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, apologized on behalf of the church. Then, for a day, the elders reflected and prayed about what they had heard and then returned to the gathering. Our elder, Vi Smith, acknowledged and accepted the apology.
The call to gather again came in 1997 when delegates met in Lethbridge, Alberta. This third national gathering brought together Aboriginal Anglicans and non- Aboriginal partners to discern and raise up God’s sacred call to covenant together. The theme was “Our Journey of Spiritual Renewal.”
I believe that part of the theme of redistribution of wealth lies not just in asking those who are rich to give to the poor but also in recognizing that we all have gifts, that we must value the gifts of others and learn to accept them graciously. The ministry, theology and love of Native peoples in our church is a wealth that we are learning to recognize.
It has been said that the Old Testament Jubilee year was to be a time of new beginnings, of redressing social wrongs, of renewed spirituality through a return to right relationships with our brothers and sisters. This is also the spirit of a covenant between our church and Aboriginal peoples, which is now five years old.
The road towards covenant began in 1992, when the General Synod launched a discussion aimed at picturing what the face of ministry would look like in the Anglican Church for the next one hundred years. Although there was Indigenous representation in this process, in some parts of Canada, there was little or no interaction with Indigenous peoples.
The Council of Native Ministries reacted to this concern and decided to invite all Indigenous national committee members to join it to discuss these issues. Indigenous representatives decided that the package was not appropriate for Indigenous Anglicans because it did not take into account the way Indigenous peoples consult, discuss or envision. The consultation package was rejected.
The council knew, however, that Indigenous peoples within the Anglican Church were also being called to envision a new church, so they began the process of preparing a document which outlined their plan for the future. It was realized that a plan for the next hundred years could not be envisioned until Indigenous peoples had fully expressed the feelings and experiences of being in the church during the past hundred years. The stories, feelings and experiences were shared, tears were shed and hopes were expressed.
A small working group of six people from across the country and from different committees was formed and began to work at writing down the hopes, fears and memories into a document that could be presented to the wider church. This Covenant, as it came to be known, was accepted unanimously by the members and ultimately by the church.
The Covenant expresses the need of Indigenous Anglicans to have part of who they are reflected in church structure and policy, in the Christian education of adults and children and during the liturgy and use of the sacraments.
This journey continues to be a priority of the Anglican Church. Teachings and experiences about Covenant were at the heart of the Lethbridge gathering where the Covenant was signed and affirmed.
The theme of Jubilee, of people coming together for a new beginning, is also the spirit behind the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. This report, when it was published in 1996, did much to bring attention to ongoing social, environmental and economic problems.
The theme of renewal of the earth was evident in the Royal Commission’s examination of issues such as land rights, mining, and disposal of industrial and nuclear waste. Although theological language was not used, certainly the idea of Native peoples being the traditional stewards of the land was examined.
The report produced some 440 recommendations for a new, positive relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples and provided a new reporting of the history of Canada, in which Aboriginal peoples were significant architects in the formation of our modern nation.
Many of the groups who made special submissions to the Royal Commission have continued to work on education on Aboriginal issues and to pressure the government to implement the recommendations. One of those groups is the Aboriginal Rights Coalition (ARC), which includes the Anglican Church as one of thirteen member churches and about a dozen Aboriginal groups. With the support of the Anglican Church, ARC has produced an education and resource kit on the Royal Commission, entitled So Long as the Sun Rises and the River Flows.
Since the 1969 Hendry Report entitled Beyond Traplines, the Anglican Church has strived to be an example in how it deals with Aboriginal issues and has urged the federal government to embody principles of social justice in its own policies. We radically changed the structure of the national office and our church committees to respond more appropriately to Indigenous ministry and issues. We have made a very painful apology in response to the residential school problem and lived out that apology by continuing to make changes by going in directions that seem frightening but are where we hear the call of God.
In the Hendry Report, we stated many of the things that the Royal Commission turned to twenty-five years later. In our church’s Covenant with Indigenous Peoples we expressed the spirit regarding the hope for a new relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples that was presented in the RCAP three years later. Since the late 1950s we, as a national church, have been passing resolutions that have changed church structure and expressed our commitment to education and advocacy. Since we accept the fact that the Anglican Church of Canada is a church that is “in the world,” we must also accept responsibility to be a positive influence on the world.