Nisga’a receive Anglican apology for residential schools

Apology given in Nass Valley in northwestern B.C. on April 27

SENIOR OFFICIALS from the Anglican Church of Canada gathered in the Nisga’a community of Laxgalts’ap in the Nass Valley, north of Terrace, on April 27 to apologize to residential school survivors for its role in the federal government’s aboriginal residential school program.

The event followed a Nisga’a Lisims Government request sent to Archbishop Fred Hiltz who is the Primate and senior-most official in the county, citing that many of the Nass Valley’s former students of Anglican-run schools were not included in the church’s 1993 blanket apology to aboriginal peoples across Canada.

Church officials said they were unaware, even years later, that the earlier apology was not well-known among Nisga’a peoples.

“[This] is a historic event,” remarked hereditary chief and Laxgalts’ap village councillor Willard Martin, Sim’oogit Ni’is Yuus, referring to the event on Nisga’a lands.

“Our purpose was not to continue to blame the church and the Government of Canada, our purposed was to search for ways we can establish a good working relationship and a genuine process of reconciliation.”

Archbishop Hitlz noted that this was the first time the church had re-delivered their apology in over two decades, but it was now necessary that it now look at doing to same in other indigenous communities.

“We were wrong, we need to say that,” he said. “[This apology] needs to be replicated in communities all across the country.”

Martin and fellow hereditary chief William Moore, Sim’oogit Duuk’, accepted the church’s redress on behalf of survivors in the Nisga’a communities.

In the apology, Hiltz explained he “confessed the sins of the church with respect to being complicit in the federal government’s policy of assimilation of indigenous peoples and acknowledged the wrongs that were done in residential schools.”

“The real tragedy of the residential schools was that we took children out of their communities, we said their spirituality was evil and we imposed a certain way of being Christian and it was really destructive,” he stated.

Hiltz also acknowledged the abuse alleged to take place in Anglican institutions.

In light of the apology, names of hundreds of survivors from Nisga’a communities were read out at the ceremony and Laxgalts’ap dancers performed the history of Christian missionaries destroying important religious objects from the community.

These parts of the ceremony were very emotional for many survivors, Martin reported, and the apology acted as a first step in helping the communities reach closure.

Many Nisga’a children attended the two Anglican-run residential schools in B.C. — St. Michael’s in Alert Bay and St. George’s in Lytton – between 1882 and 1975. Recently, the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission implicated the schools in undertaking a policy of “aggressive assimilation” and exposing indigenous students to abuse, according to a report released last year.

Martin says that the schools have left a complicated legacy in Nisga’a communities.

“We hear a lot about mostly the negative stuff,” explained Martin of his experience attending St. Georges in the 1950s.

“Some, like myself, look at the positives – I went there because I wanted to go to high school. That enabled me to develop a world view that’s very different from what we see today, a broader horizon.”

The Anglican-run residential schools were places where Nisga’a students formed bonds with other indigenous youth from across the province, he continued.

The church has also become an important part of the Nisga’a communities and has been given a local flavour.

“Over the years the Nisga’a have been successful in inculturating the church – and by that I mean incorporating our traditions like drumming [and] wearing button blankets in the church,” he said.

However, for others residential schools have left a different intergenerational effect, disrupting families and cultures.

The officials’ visit comes after the relationship between the church and the local indigenous communities has become “strained” over the years, according to Martin.

In addition to the legacy of residential schools, Nisga’a groups haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with the church on issues of cultural tradition in church functions and same-sex marriage.

Still Martin and Archbishop Hiltz say they are feeling positive about the partnership moving forward.

“We’ve taken the calls to action seriously – so I’m not only hopeful, but I’m optimistic,” Hiltz reflected.

This outlook was echoed by Martin, looking to a positive future.

St. George’s Residential School was located in Lytton and not Lilloet as indicated in an earlier version of this article.