Indigenous man in sunglasses looking at camera
Willie Blackwater, who survived residential school, says apologies don't cure everything, but they help with healing (Photo by Rick Collins)

Topics: Justice | Indigenous

United Church apology 10 years ago helped set bar for federal government

The church apologized for its involvement in running residential schools for Indigenous children, and for all the pain and hardship those schools caused


Ten years ago this month, then-United Church moderator Bill Phipps sat behind media microphones in a small Winnipeg chapel and apologized for the church’s involvement in the residential school system. It was an extraordinary step, one that no other church facing lawsuits from former students could bring itself to take at the time.

To Willie Blackwater, who had been raped and beaten two decades earlier at a United Church-run residential school on Vancouver Island, and more recently had watched with dismay as the church danced around the question of apology, it was an initial step in a long journey of healing.

Last June, Blackwater sat weeping in the gallery of the House of Commons and listened to another apology, one of historic proportions: Prime Minister Stephen Harper telling First Nations, Inuit and Métis that the government of Canada was sorry for the harms caused by residential schools.

Ottawa’s apology did not occur in a vacuum. It evolved over many years of policy shifts and hard bargaining.

Throughout, the United Church’s 1998 apology loomed in the background, helping to frame the discussion, setting the moral bar and proving that apologies don’t lead to institutional suicide. “Without the 1998 apology, the road to 2008 would have been extremely difficult,” observes Rev. David Iverson of Kingston, Ont., the church’s senior staffperson for residential schools in the late ’90s.

But the church’s apology was itself the result of an evolution. The story of how Canada’s biggest Protestant denomination came to apologize for its residential school past is the story of the difference a year can make — the story of a church moving from fear to faithful courage.

WILLIE BLACKWATER had been invited to the 1997 General Council in Camrose, Alta., to help raise awareness about residential schools. Blackwater, who then lived in Hazelton, B.C., had been a student at the Alberni Indian Residential School and a victim of a pedophile who worked there as a dormitory supervisor. In 1996, he named the United Church and the federal government in a lawsuit that became a test-case for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others waiting in the wings.

The 1997 General Council had been presented with two petitions, one from British Columbia Conference and the other from St. Andrew’s United in Port Alberni, B.C., both urging an unconditional apology for the church’s role in the residential school system, and both mindful of the church’s 1986 apology for its role in devaluing Native spirituality and culture. In his address to the delegates, Blackwater made one request of General Council: “I ask that you make this decision not wisely, not intelligently, but with your heart.”

While Council passed many bold and heartfelt resolutions that year, calculated caution informed the decision in question. Instead of apologizing, Council adopted a “repentance statement” that expressed regret, sorrow and contrition, but avoided the five-letter word that survivors longed to hear.

What held Council back, of course, was the concern that an apology would undermine the church’s position in court and pave the way for a series of lawsuits ending in bankruptcy. “I remember the early years being dominated by fear,” says Cynthia Gunn, a United Church staff lawyer who started her job the same week Blackwater filed his suit. “We were being served every week or two with a new lawsuit. The numbers were mounting….It was a huge unknown.”

Furthermore, lawyers from the federal Justice Department insisted the church should bear 100 percent of any liability. “They said, ‘Well, it’s really the churches’ fault, not our fault, so we’ll take a strong, aggressive position,’” recalls Rev. David McDonald, a former federal cabinet minister hired by the church in 1998 to facilitate dialogue with the government. “It didn’t go well at all. I would call it the dialogue of the deaf.”

After the General Council issued its repentance statement, the media showed no sympathy for legal niceties or bankruptcy fears. “Cowardice sits in the front pew of the United Church,” declared the Edmonton Journal. “Church’s courage failed when tested,” read a headline in the Toronto Star.

Muriel Duncan, then-editor of The Observer, wrote that the resolution had “more lawyers’ fingerprints on it than tears.”

But financial protectionism was only part of the story. At the time, some of the Camrose delegates had never even heard of residential schools and most had yet to absorb its legacy. Blackwater, who had come to Camrose to make delegates aware of the abuse he lived through in residential school, reassured the Council in its moment of weakness. “If you need to take smaller steps, that too is a start,” he said. A few days later, though, Blackwater revised his position, saying he really didn’t “know what the word ‘repentance’ means. It just doesn’t cut it.”

It took 15 months for the church to agree. In October 1998, the General Council Executive overrode the Council’s repentance statement and Phipps offered a clear, humble and unreserved apology. So what changed?

For one thing, in June 1998, a landmark ruling had come down in the Blackwater case. After months of excruciating testimony in a Nanaimo, B.C. courtroom, the church and government were found jointly liable. Even then, lawyers hired by the church continued to advise against an apology.

By that summer, with the number of plaintiffs rising, church members had begun to panic. “We weren’t sure of the financial implications. It was hugely tense,” Phipps recalls. “There were people phoning General Council Offices all the time asking, ‘Are our church buildings going to be sold to satisfy claims?’”

When General Council decided to appeal the court’s decision, the West Coast contingent that had been petitioning for an unconditional apology was livid. “The problem was with the whole western legal system, which is adversarial,” says Rev. Brian Thorpe, then-executive secretary of B.C. Conference. “The impact it had on survivors, of sexual abuse particularly, is often the feeling that they’re being re-victimized.”

That’s exactly how Blackwater remembers it. “During our court case, I hated the church and government even more….I kept asking myself, why would The United Church of Canada do a national repentance and yet continue to deny that they’ve hurt us in court?”

To help quell the anger emanating from the West Coast, the General Council Executive sent 10 of its members to meet with B.C. Conference’s executive, the congregation of St. Andrew’s United (which had issued its own apology to former students a year earlier), and survivors of the Alberni residential school.

“Basically, we sat in a circle at the church and heard stories from people from First Nations as well as from the congregation,” remembers Phipps. “There was a lot of anger, intensity and very moving statements from everybody. The stories were excruciating, and they hit home.”

The meeting with B.C. Conference was emotional, too. “I was attacked,” Phipps says. “The General Council Executive was highly criticized. I was told I should drop everything I was doing as moderator and focus on this.”

When the General Council Executive met again a month later, the delegation that had been to Port Alberni was eager to apologize. “They were converted, they were transformed,” says Phipps. “They listened and learned, and they brought that story back to the Executive in October 1998.” After strenuous debate, the General Council Executive voted to let the legal and financial chips fall where they may and turn their focus to healing.

TEN YEARS AFTER the apology and four months after Harper’s national apology, only residential school survivors and their descendants can judge whether the United Church has succeeded in living out the words Phipps spoke. For some in the church, the movement from ignorance to apology has been transformative. Iverson compares it to a levee bursting. “For me personally, there had been something that held me back from fully entering into the stories I was hearing,” he says. “If the apology hadn’t happened, it would have been extremely difficult for me and others to give ourselves wholly to the work of right relations.”

Today, as a full-time advocate for residential school survivors, Willie Blackwater continues to help former students heal. He says he’s undergone immense change since the early days.

“There was a lot of anger. It wasn’t just the church I blamed. I blamed our community, I blamed my dad for letting us go, I blamed my grandma for letting me go. I didn’t even know what healing was. I was just pissed off because I was hurt, and nobody seemed to care,” he recalls. “[The apology] didn’t relieve the blame immediately, but it started to give me a bit more patience to concentrate more on actually doing the healing….It made me feel more comfortable going into a United church for weddings and funerals. Before that, I used to wait outside.”


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s October 2008 issue with the title “The apology, 10 years later.”


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