Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Over the past week many of us have been watching the Pope’s visit to Canada with great interest. Every one of his words have been analyzed as to what was said, and perhaps more importantly, what was left unsaid. Apologies are hard work because it requires us to tell the truth about ourselves. It is hard to admit that even good people can do hurtful things. A right relationship requires that we be vulnerable and honest with one another. It also requires us to follow through with the promises we make to each other. Only a spirit of mutual love and respect can foster right relations, whether it be with our spouse, our family, our church, or even our nation.

I am not a Vatican scholar nor an indigenous spokesperson, so I am not qualified to comment on how successful the Pope’s visit will be in the long run. For it is in what happens next that will determine the success or failure of this moment. I do know that for the United Church of Canada, seeking right relations with the indigenous peoples of this land has been a long and difficult journey which is still a work in progress.

In 1986 the United Church made an apology to the indigenous peoples of Canada for our role in colonizing this land. We confessed “We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.” As a result of this apology, in 1988 the All Native Circle Conference was created which gave indigenous congregations greater autonomy. The Healing Fund was created in 1994 to support healing initiatives for survivors of the residential school system and its ongoing intergenerational impacts.

In 1998 the United Church made a second apology which addressed the harm done by the residential schools which we had run. The United Church was responsible for 15 residential schools which operated that between 1849 and 1969. We apologized “for the pain and suffering that our church’s involvement in the Indian Residential School system has caused. We are aware of some of the damage that this cruel and ill-conceived system of assimilation has perpetrated on Canada’s First Nations peoples. For this we are truly and most humbly sorry.” The most difficult part of that apology stated “To those individuals who were physically, sexually, and mentally abused as students of the Indian Residential Schools in which The United Church of Canada was involved, I offer you our most sincere apology. You did nothing wrong. You were and are the victims of evil acts that cannot under any circumstances be justified or excused.”

In 2008 the UCC became actively engaged in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which was created to address the history and legacy of Indian Residential Schools. The United Church paid in full the $6.45 million which was ordered under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which helped fund healing supports for survivors.

Reconciliation is a two way street and the United Church has opened itself to hearing the voices of our indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ. In 1994 the Rev. Stan McKay became the 34th Moderator of the UCC. He is the first indigenous person to lead a Protestant denomination in Canada. Rev. McKay helped add the line ‘To live with respect in Creation’ to the New Creed.

In 2012 two further acts of reconciliation took place. The United Church of Canada, along with the World Council of Churches repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. The United Church’s crest was then modified to include the 4 colours of the medicine wheel. The phrase “All My Relations” was also added to reflect that our church was built on native land, and that we must seek to learn how to live as kin in Christ.

This process is still ongoing. This month the UCC elected its newest Moderator, the Rev. Dr. Carmen Lansdowne. Dr. Lansdowne is a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation. She was born in Alert Bay, British Columbia, and has been a lifelong member of the United Church. She is the first indigenous woman to lead our church. Our General Council has also voted in measures to give greater autonomy and self-determination to our indigenous ministries. The Indigenous Church identified this as a clear action to truly move away from the missionary past and toward being “partners in God’s call to all the earth.”

The trauma of residential schools and colonization has left scars on Canada’s indigenous peoples that will take generations to heal. Apologies are just the first step in the healing process. We are already starting to see the first fruits of this ministry of reconciliation in the church and in Canadian society. We can only dare to dream that both the Christian church and our country will be all the richer for this rebirth.

As the Very Reverend Dr. Stan McKay says, “If you believe we are all children of the creator, then there is more to unite us than divide us.”

The full text of both apologies can be found at