On the Path to Reconciliation

by Andrew Lang

Living Hope Native Ministries was formed in 2006 because of the realization that we needed to do ministry in a different way than had been done as Northern Light Gospel Mission and Impact North Ministries. The needs that prompted this change were: the need to emphasize partnership, the need to have First Nations Leaders giving oversight at the board and executive level, and the commitment to work through what had happened at the Mennonite-run residential schools led by Impact North/Northern Light Gospel Mission and Northern Youth Programs (NYP).  A number of our current staff have ties to the schools, and a number of the people we work alongside attended the schools.

I recently attended a gathering put on by the former students of the Mennonite-run residential schools.  During the gathering I was able to listen to many stories from the former students about their experiences while at residential schools. Those stories included physical abuses, an encounter with the one true God, sexual abuses, memories of loving staff sharing their love for God with them, neglect, the formation of life-long friendships, and cultural abuses amongst other experiences.

I’m going to be sharing some stories from the schools as part of a series of letters to supporters. We are working with the former students to share their stories. The reason for sharing the stories is three fold:

First, the students of the schools wanted Living Hope and Northern Youth Programs to make sure that the whole history of missions in northern Ontario is being told (it’s also one of the Call to Action items that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission laid out), because without the truth being talked about, true reconciliation is not possible.

Secondly, we are publishing these letters in tandem with NYP so that any staff and students of either school will get a similar message no matter where the communication is coming from. One student at the gathering was upset because the school they went to (Poplar Hill) hadn’t been included in the apology on NYP’s website, when the apology for Poplar Hill had been on Living Hope’s website for over a decade. This sort of incomplete communication and misunderstanding shouldn’t happen. If there’s a way for us to better communicate, we want to do everything we can to make it happen.

Finally, God is in the business of reconciliation. The students have clearly communicated that they want us to help them in their healing journey, and our hope is that you will join with us on this journey and together we can heal.

It’s really important to communicate clearly that there were abuses that happened at the schools. It’s important because we cannot tell only the good from our history and pretend like nothing bad or traumatic happened to the people we serve. Sometimes because of our cultural differences we may not hear or understand what is being conveyed accurately. My hope is that through these letters you will be able to understand the students better, to empathize with them, If you were a staff member who hurt these students, that you would want to meet and reconcile with those whom you hurt.

While listening to stories, I had a realization that the language students used for physical punishment was not the same language I would have used. It has possibly caused some confusion amongst people hearing stories of the students, so I’d like to clear the air: when a student talks about being strapped, there were times when the strapping was a belt spanking. This is something staff and readers may have had happen to them in their own childhood. Other times when students talk about being strapped, their experience was much different. They were brought to a basement and four staff held them down while a fifth staff used the strap on the student until they were so sore they couldn’t sit down afterwards. Sometimes there was blood. This isn’t the type of discipline talked about in the Bible. It is abuse, and should never have happened to any child for any reason.  There’s a need for the students to talk about what happened to them. Some haven’t shared with anyone; some only shared in front of a tribunal that was there to put a price-tag on their suffering, and then were sent on their way.

Here are two stories directly from former students of residential school:

“I went to school to get an education, but my experience was indoctrination of another religion and belief system and inadvertently think less of my culture and language. We were not permitted to speak our language.”

– Emily King, Cristal Lake High School (1982-1984)

“The Indian Residential School legacy has left terrible generational effects on the First Nation people and its communities. The trauma continues to this day. It is important that the Mennonite community is aware of the lasting effects that happened in their operated run Indian Residential Schools. The same atrocities and mistreatment happened there as in the other church-operated schools: Catholic, Anglican, and others.”

“There are two legacies: the ones you hear from your sent missionaries and the former students that attended your schools. Truth and Reconciliation. In order for that to happen. The whole truth needs to be told and heard.”

– Jonathan Kakegamic, Stirland Lake High School (1986-1988)

What we need is people who are willing to listen to the stories of the students, to meet them where they are at, grieve with them. When students are ready to continue their healing journey, to move with them. I learned more about redemption and true forgiveness in one weekend with the students than I have learned in a hundred sermons. I saw students share disturbing stories, and at the end some would talk about having to wrestle with anger and ultimately give that over to God and seek healing and peace in him. I would love to think of myself as being that gracious, but I’m not sure I would be. Some of the students are ministry leaders, graduate students, and working professionals, yet they still feel shame, grief, and confusion over what they experienced at school. I feel it is our responsibility to come alongside those who would wish for us to be a part of their healing journey, and support them and their families as they work through these experiences.

We recognize that former staff and supporters may be shocked by what is shared. There will be the need for people on all sides of the story (students, staff, supporters) to get together and talk through their experiences. We are hoping to do just that in the future with the intent of seeking to reconcile together. We can’t just talk about what happened. We do need to work together with grace and humility, so that Christ is honoured and glorified by how we care for each other. The content of this letter may be unsettling for you, and if you’d like to talk it over, we are willing and open to discuss further with you.  No matter where you are in this conversation, know that we love you, God loves you, and that by dealing with respect for all people involved, we share the Good News of Jesus that reconciliation in all things is possible.