There was a time when I knew nothing about Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships. I admired stunning totem poles in Vancouver’s Stanley Park and watched The Lone Ranger.
What I didn’t realize was that these images hid the ugly reality of subjugation of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and that the United Church of Canada had a part in that.
There had been a time when one could argue that some First Nations actually worked as partners with settlers, including the churches. But as immigrant numbers grew, cooperative relations deteriorated. The Crown and Indigenous peoples negotiated treaties, nation-to-nation. Signed treaties validated the presence of settlers on Indigenous land.
Meanwhile, the colonies became “Canada” and the British North America Act of 1867 assigned to the Crown everything related to “Indians and lands reserved for Indians.” With that constitutional mandate, the John A. Macdonald government imposed the Indian Act in 1876. The legislation effectively negated the treaties. Today, the government of Canada still follows the Indian Act – legislation the United Church and its antecedent churches has played a role in creating and maintaining.
In the 1980s, I discovered, as did the whole church, that we had a lot more to learn about (and from) First Nations. Until then, we had assumed that learning was a one-way street. As a United Church person, I shared in the 1986 apology for our hubris.
Then in 2020, I experienced an epiphany. I watched Doctrine of Discovery, a documentary that the Anglican Church of Canada produced. It dawned on me that since the mid-19th century, settler Canadians blithely accepted the Crown’s assertion of sovereignty over all Indigenous lands and lives.
The Indian Act created two separate worlds: that of newcomers as citizen owners of land and resources and that of Indigenous peoples, dependent wards of the all-owning patriarchal Crown. I’m not alone in calling this apartheid. It contradicts the fundamentals of Christian faith.
The Indian Act aimed to assimilate Indigenous peoples of northern Turtle Island into Canada’s British Christian society. Churches partnered with the government to implement the goal. Church-run Indian Residential Schools imposed settler ways and afflicted generations of Indigenous survivors.
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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and former Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin called it “cultural genocide.”
The United Church has done much to repair its relationship with Indigenous peoples. It has apologized for not listening and for its part in residential schools. It worked willingly and closely with other churches to repent of harmful roles in the schools. In church life, colonial ways have been identified and the church has done much to get beyond them.
What we have not done is repudiate the Act. As a largely settler community, we have been complicit in this apartheid system.
I believe the Spirit is calling us and all people of faith to confess our complicity and denounce this colonial legislation. It’s time to call on the government to negotiate in good faith with self-determining Indigenous peoples and find a new way of being together in this land. It’s time for the government and Indigenous peoples to jointly develop an honourable and just nation-to-nation treaty or covenant.
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Ingredients for this task abound in various reports, court judgements, treaties, declarations, Crown fiduciary commitments, and much more.
What is missing is the will to make it happen. A movement of faithful people, like the United Church, other Christians and those from diverse faith communities raising their voices could help break the logjam.
I hope that by 2026, the 150th anniversary of the Indian Act, we can all say that that system has finally been replaced by the “two-row wampum” vision — of two peoples coexisting in friendship and peace.
Rev. A H Harry Oussoren is a retired United Church minister and the author of The Indian Act – A Proposal.
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