‘Your identity was death. Now, let repentance make your identity life.’

A glimpse of the Kamloops Residential School Memorial held in Robson Square, Vancouver, on May 30, 2021. Photo: Gotovan/flickr

Editor’s warning: The following article contains a frank discussion of abuse and deaths within Canada’s residential school system. It is an upsetting read but, I think, a good, important read. I hope you agree.

By Matthew Townsend

The Most Rev. Mark MacDonald, national Indigenous archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, has spent his career among Christians who, like himself, identify as Indigenous or have Indigenous heritage. The scope of his work – providing leadership for the self-determining Indigenous church and pastoral support for Canada’s Inidgenous bishops, priests, and congregations, in addition to his role as North American president of the World Council of Churches – beggars the imagination even in normal times.

But these are not normal times.

The use of ground-penetrating radar to discover the unmarked graves of thousands of children at former residential school sites has brought intense pain to the surface in Indigenous communities, and it has shaken many Canadians’ understanding of their country. And because these children were Indigenous and because they were living subjects in a church-run social experiment seeking to “kill the Indian in the child,” two central pillars of MacDonald’s life are interwoven into this story. He is an Indigenous person whose family survived the schools, and he is a leader in one of the organizations that explicitly sought to erase children’s cultural identities and sent many of those children to forgotten graves.

Archbishop MacDonald spoke with Gazette editor Matthew Townsend in August about the discovery of the graves and what comes next. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.


The discovery of the 215 graves in Kamloops – and now the number is in the thousands, with the additions of graves discovered at other schools – what has that meant for the self-determining Indigenous church? What has that meant for you as the national Indigenous archbishop?

It’s manifold, it has a number of different facets. If I only had one facet to call upon – if I only had one thing to say – I would say that the voice of these children is a voice of resurrection. God has allowed them to speak in a way that their voice will be heard above all voices in this matter. In the final analysis, their voices will eclipse all of the brutality that was held against them. The empty power that was wielded against them is suddenly revealed for what it was: its evil, its emptiness, its cruelty, its barbarity. Suddenly, the children are revealed to be the sheep. And the amazing thing is that we have to say that those that hurt them, and the system that hurt them, were wolves in sheep’s clothing.

I think the voice of these brutalized children cries out to say something that is astonishing and must be heard. If I only had one thing to say, that would probably be it.

But, I have more to say.

It’s going to be an extraordinary thing for the churches to absorb, understand, incorporate all of this.

For Indigenous people in the church, it’s a difficult time. Right now, the astonishing thing is that Indigenous people – our elders and our leaders in the Indigenous church – the vast majority of them are residential school survivors, or children of residential school survivors, or rarely, grandchildren. They know the horrors of this up close and personal.

I got this really nasty, awful letter from somebody talking about the church. I wrote back and mentioned that I was the grandson of somebody in the residential schools. And that made what they said a little different, I think. Indigenous Christians, many of whom were victims and survivors of the schools, are paying a price. They have differentiated themselves from the colonial institution. They have taken pains to differentiate themselves from the practices and policies that led to the schools. They’ve promoted a program that led to things like the apologies. But still, they are called traitors by Indigenous people, and are lectured, with fingers wagging at them, from white people.

Turning to non-Indigenous people, I heard some spectacular sermons on Aboriginal Day from non-Indigenous people. I was so moved by them that I followed some of these people on Facebook. On the following week, or two weeks later, there was nothing. So, I had to ask myself: In Germany, did they have a Holocaust Sunday, where they said, “Oh gee, we were nasty to the Jews. Too bad. Next Sunday, we’ll have the rummage sale.” It was surreal for me. That was rough.

But I also began to see, when I would talk with non-Indigenous people, that they were absorbing a realization about the country that they love and have prided themselves on – “Ah, we’re not the U.S., we don’t have any skeletons in our closet and we didn’t have slavery” – here they were realizing that this was the residue of genocide. You could see it on their faces when I would talk to them. I hadn’t really thought about it much, but I said, “You know, all these children were baptized.” I could see on their faces – it was like I had thrown cold water on their faces. So, there was this kind of realization that even baptism hadn’t made the children human enough to get put in a church register. Or to be treated humanely. Or to stop this awfulness.

So, it wasn’t just cruelty. And all of the pretty sermons they had ever made about baptism suddenly were falsified. All of the things they said about the change that happens in baptism – it didn’t ring true anymore.

That’s the hard part. The hopeful part is that if people can face this – if they can incorporate this into their lives and into their hearts – it will mean salvation.

You mentioned genocide. As we know, this is a term that people in the church have sometimes struggled with. Do you think that switch has now flipped for people? That in that way, maybe the children’s voices are being heard sufficiently that there’s a sense, even for reluctant people, that it looks like genocide?

Yes. I think so. I think that all of the sudden, and when you bring in U.S. history, you’re witnessing the residue of genocide. It’s like finding the gas chambers.

I was going to say the gas canisters. That’s what came to mind.

Right. So, I find more and more people are showing a willingness to use that term.

You talk about the voices of the children being heard. What do you think that they have to say to us?

First of all, it is a word of revelation, an unveiling of the reality of what happened. And the reality of what that institution was. Again, I would describe it as wolves in sheep’s clothing. In Luke 10, Jesus says, “Behold, I’m sending you out as sheep among wolves.” I think sheep don’t show up with Mountie escorts.

The word is “an unveiling” – but there is hopefully kindness in it. It’s not a hateful word. This is who you were. It’s calling us to be something. I always used to preach, I’d say to Canadian Anglicans, “Your identity is the North. Why are you trying to imitate England all the time? We are arguably one of the most northern churches in the world.” Now the children are calling us to have a different identity – this is for the Anglican church, as the Indigenous church is a little bit different – to be the church that did this awful thing and found new life in repentance.

There’s so many examples of individuals – Moses the Black, John Newton, Bill W., all these people in Christian history, people who incorporated their moral downfall into their identity and through that became not only lifegiving to themselves but to so many thousands of others. I think that’s really what the children are saying to us. “Your identity was death. Now, let repentance make your identity life.”

The phrase that appears on tee shirts and online profiles is that “Every child matters.” One of the interesting questions I’ve seen raised is, “Now we’re trying to hear the voice of the children who were killed or murdered in the residential school system. What about the voices of Indigenous children who are alive now? How should Anglicans hear the voices of children who are with us now, including in our own diocese?

I was in a Jewish-Christian dialogue when I was at seminary. (Adam [of the Book of Genesis] was just a year ahead of me, so it was a long time ago.) It still rings in my ears, this Orthodox Jew said, “We understand repentance as someone turning away from something sinful and evil. We understand you’re sorry; we can see that. But we don’t see that you have turned away from what you did.”

This is the heart of your question, and this is at the heart of what I would say to Justin Trudeau in this election. I see he’s a really sorry guy, but where is the rest of it? It’s pretty dismal. He gets really defensive about it – I’ve been in conversations on Zoom with him and a bunch of other folks. But the reality is we’re seeing sadness, but we’re not seeing repentance. That’s really critical.

It’s part of the Canadian character to say you’re sorry for something, but it’s not necessarily part of the Canadian character to stop doing something that is harmful. Those are different things.

That’s right. That is right.

For Anglicans in Quebec who are reading this interview, how can they get involved? How can this become something in front of us, that’s long-lasting and actually produces reconciliation and repentance?

I would say that this is something that is critical to the identity of the whole church.

The relationship between Quebec and Indigenous people is an uneven one, and there are really inflamed, ongoing issues in Quebec with Indigenous people. Even though the Diocese of Quebec has one Indigenous community, they have one of the most beautiful, spectacular opportunities for partnership. It’s just so powerful, and all of that could morph into advocacy – education. French colonialism was different from British colonialism, and it has little twists and turns that are important. All of these things should be understood. It’s something to understand and to know and to live. It’s a part of relationship.

So, the aspect of partnership for Indigenous people is making relatives. That’s what treaty means in Indigenous context. It’s what we would understand as the baptismal covenant. It’s a similar kind of process. The Diocese of Quebec has an opportunity to live that out on so many levels. It really has a great opportunity. It might not look like that on the surface, but there are some really inflamed issues between Indigenous people and Quebec. There’s a lot going on there. A place where there is a long-term partnership and a place that understands covenant, that’s really important.

One last thing. We tried to get the archbishop of Canterbury to understand this: Often times, the church was a signatory on treaties. But even when the church was not a signatory, a lot of Indigenous legal experts say our ancestors would never have signed the treaty without the church’s involvement.

The church was a broker?

Yes, that is true, but there was another aspect to it. Indigenous people saw the covenant-making that is a part of treaties as a spiritual process. When they saw the church, they said, “Ah, this is something we understand. This is a spiritual reciprocity. This is relative making. So, the church is here? Okay, we understand this, we can go along with it.”

What these Indigenous legal experts have said is, our ancestors would never have signed these things without the church’s presence. Not because they trusted the churches any more, but because of the spiritual element. “They got their spiritual people there, we got our spiritual people. OK, we understand what’s going on now.

“We’re doing a spiritual thing here? OK, we understand it.”

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