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Chakastaypasin Band Chief Calvin Sanderson, left, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rev. Justin Welby, right, at the Bernard Constant Community School on the James Smith Cree Nation, on April 30.Handout

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of one of world’s largest Christian denominations, told survivors of Prairie residential schools their stories of abuse at the institutions had “opened a window into hell,” as he listened and apologized to them during a historic visit to Saskatchewan.

Travelling in the James Smith Cree Nation and Prince Albert, Sask., over the weekend, Reverend Justin Welby, the senior bishop of the Church of England, said his trip to Canada was meant to allow the church “to repent and atone” in locations where its actions did more harm than good.

But an Ontario leg of the Archbishop’s visit, which will begin on Monday, is not unfolding as originally planned, after survivors of one of the largest Anglican-affiliated residential schools in the country declined to meet with him.

While the Anglican Church ran some of Canada’s federally funded residential schools, many more were run by the Catholic Church. One month ago at the Vatican, Pope Francis made his own apology to Indigenous peoples for the “deplorable” conduct of some church members at the institutions. The Vatican and Catholic Church officials in Canada are now preparing for the Pope to visit Canada this summer.

First Nations leaders call on Pope Francis to visit residential schools

The apologies are the latest in a wave of contrition from religious and government authorities, following last year’s announcements by several First Nations that they had located unmarked graves, which they have said likely belong to children, at the sites of former residential schools in western and central Canada.

“For building hell and putting children into it and staffing it, I am more sorry than I could ever, ever begin to express,” Rev. Welby said to residential school survivors and community leaders on Saturday in a community school gymnasium on the James Smith Cree Nation.

“I am more sorry than I can say. I’m ashamed. I asked myself where does that come from? That evil? It has nothing to do with Christ. It is the rawest, wickedest, most terrible thing to molest a child while you read them the Bible.”

Canada’s residential schools operated for more than 100 years, with an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children forced to attend, most of them barred from speaking their Indigenous languages or practising their culture.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has documented more than 4,100 children’s deaths at residential schools – many from disease, neglect, malnutrition and abuse – and estimates thousands more died. The Anglican Church of Canada oversaw three dozen institutions for Indigenous children between 1820 and 1969.

In 1993, Michael Peers – then primate of the Anglican Church of Canadaapologized for the Church’s role in residential schools. One of his successors, Fred Hiltz, delivered another apology in 2019 for the “spiritual harm,” done to Indigenous people in Canada.

On Saturday in Saskatchewan, the Archbishop said he was apologizing in his role as the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, which includes nearly 1,000 bishops, and 80 million people who identify as Anglicans and Episcopalians in dozens of countries around the world.

”You’ve opened a window into hell. And you’ve called us to look into hell, where you were,” he said.

When the Archbishop’s agenda was first announced, it included an informal meeting with survivors of the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., on land belonging to the Six Nations of the Grand River. The institute was one of the largest and oldest of the Anglican-affiliated residential schools.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation lists 48 students known to have died there. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission mentions the Institute having “punishment rooms” in its basement where students were kept for up to a week after trying to run away.

The meeting, scheduled for Monday, was to have been followed by an evening prayer service with Indigenous leaders at the nearby Mohawk Chapel, the first Anglican Church in Upper Canada.

But the Survivors’ Secretariat, a group spearheading a search for unmarked graves near the Mohawk Institute, turned down the invitation, saying Rev. Welby’s visit was announced without enough lead time to respect Indigenous protocols and without any promises of concrete action.

Kimberly Murray, executive lead of the Survivors’ Secretariat and the former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said in a statement that a group of Mohawk Institute survivors met in early April and expressed “mixed emotions” about the Archbishop’s visit.

“Survivors indicated they were not looking for more empty words of regret but want action,” she said by e-mail.

On April 12, the group sent a letter to the leader of the Anglican Church in Canada, saying survivors would only be willing to meet with Rev. Welby if he was prepared to discuss how the church could provide financial support for the revitalization of Indigenous languages and help retrieve records from the New England Company, the Anglican-affiliated group that founded the Mohawk Institute.

The secretariat suggested the visit be postponed, “to allow time for proper Indigenous protocols to be followed.”

Donald Worme, a Cree lawyer and former general counsel for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said although the Anglican Church was generally more willing to help the Commission with its work than the Catholics, that doesn’t mean more can’t be done.

“The fact of the matter is that while the Anglicans may have been less unco-operative than the Catholics they did not live up to their obligations in totality, and we know that because there are still demands upon them for records,” Mr. Worme said.

He added that survivors of residential schools need more than kind words from the Church of England.

“We’ve had 25 years and more of apologies, and the healing that has been done by Indigenous people has largely been on their backs, by their efforts. That is simply unacceptable … words are not enough. It must be followed by concrete action.”

Rather than reschedule the trip, the Archbishop will not be visiting Six Nations territory at all. He will instead meet with Indigenous clergy and Six Nations leaders in Toronto.

“The broader consultations proposed by the Survivor’s Secretariat were not possible within the time frame of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit,” Joe Vecsi, a spokesperson for the Anglican Church of Canada, said by e-mail Sunday.

He declined to say who the Archbishop would be meeting with in Toronto.

Barry Hill, a Mohawk from Six Nations and the warden and historian at the Mohawk Chapel, said he was part of a small group from the Six Nations community planning to drive to Toronto to meet with Rev. Welby on Monday.

He said the primate of the Anglican Church asked him in early March to help pull together the Six Nations portion of the visit. Mr. Hill told The Globe and Mail that he found it, “disturbing and flabbergasting,” that the tour was planned so hastily, and with so little apparent involvement from Canadian officials.

“They should have formulated this ahead of time,” he said of the church. “It should have involved the Governor-General, who’s Indigenous … it should have probably had a word from our Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister.”

But Mr. Hill, whose grandmother attended the Mohawk Institute, said he still felt it was worthwhile to speak with the Archbishop and try to explain the complicated and intertwined history of the Six Nations people and the Anglican Church.

At the community school on the James Smith Cree Nation on Saturday, Martha Stonestand was the first to tell her story to the Archbishop. The 79-year-old recalled running away from the Gordon’s Indian Residential School in September 1954 with three cousins. The adolescents walked through the rain and caught rides on their 200-kilometre journey north, back to their on-reserve homes, she said.

Ms. Stonestand said she was able to spend just a few hours with her family before RCMP officers came to take her away, threatening to jail her father if she didn’t return to school. Once back at Gordon’s, Ms. Stonestand was beaten, strapped and her long hair was cut and shaved as punishment, and to serve as a warning to others who might contemplate escape, she said.

Ms. Stonestand also told the Archbishop of the sexual abuse at the residential schools she attended, how school staff withheld her mother’s letters from her, and how she was kept at the institutions for 10 months every year, “without even coming home for Christmas or Easter.”

Last month, the George Gordon First Nation said it had located 14 possible burials on the grounds of the Gordon’s school. It is the 10th community to make such an announcement since last May.

“It was hard to tell the people about what happened. And emotional,” Ms. Stonestand said in an interview following her meeting with Rev. Welby.

“It was a good feeling to tell the Archbishop what happened. And I wish there could have been more elders who could have told what happened.”

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