Much has been made of the historic 2008 apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to aboriginal peoples about the residential schools system. But long before that there were Alberta Billy and Canada’s United Church.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the apology to aboriginal peoples from the United Church of Canada, the first denomination to do so. In 1981, Billy, a member of the Laichwiltach We Wai kai Nation in British Columbia, stood before the leaders of one of Canada's largest churches and asked for something that few had even discussed before.
“The United Church owes the Native peoples of Canada an apology for what you did to them in residential school,” she told the stunned members of the United Church Executive General Council.
Billy, a lifelong member of the United Church, attended the Executive General Council to represent aboriginal church members interested in participating in the church's political body. However, it was Billy's own idea to ask for an apology.
Thelma Davis, a member of the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, was there too. She remembers the tension in the room.
“Their mouths dropped,” Davis recalled recently. “But it needed to be said. It got things rolling. People are still hurting from it [residential schools].”
At the time, Billy says, prejudice was alive and well in the United Church.
“The church had no idea they were going to be asked for an apology. They hadn't a clue,” Billy told Indian Country Today Media Network in an interview. “All I remember is when we got there, the non-Natives looked at us like, Who let you in the door?”
Operated for more than 100 years, residential schools didn’t officially close down for good until 1996. Thousands upon thousands of aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in church- and government-run schools, where, sadly, many were sexually and physically abused.
The United Church ran 15 of these schools across the country.
Although Billy herself was not a student, both her parents attended residential schools. Her mother mentioned it occasionally, but her father adopted a code of silence that Billy says was common in aboriginal communities.
“Thirty years ago you couldn't even talk about residential school, you couldn't even say the word. Our own people would say, 'No, don't talk about it!'” Billy said. “I realized we hadn't dealt with it somehow. That was the reason I asked for the apology, so there would be reconciliation.”
The United Church of Canada officially apologized on August 15, 1986, for its role in the schools.
“We accepted [the apology] in principle,” said Billy. “We were not happy with it because it didn't say, 'We the United Church of Canada.' ”
Instead, the apology addressed issues relating to the church's role in imposing European culture onto the aboriginal people.
But while Billy thought the first apology was too vague, the United Church offered a second apology in 1998, this time clearly addressing the legacy of residential schools.
James Scott is the United Church's General Council Officer for Residential Schools. His role is to keep the church faithful to the apologies made to aboriginal people.
“We had an initial reaction of fear of what this might mean for the church, in terms of lawsuits and bankruptcy,” said Scott. But he added that the apology has sparked sweeping change within the United Church.
The church has advocated for aboriginal causes in Canada, including harvesting rights, land claims and the plight of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
The Aboriginal Ministries Circle—a unit created to advocate for aboriginal inclusion—recently received equal governance within the structure of the United Church, another move that Billy was instrumental in.
And in 1992, Reverend Stan McKay (Cree), who stood with Billy 25 years ago to ask for the apology, was named moderator of the United Church of Canada, the first time an aboriginal person has ever held this most senior position.
Today, aboriginal members are working to get the United Church to consider changing its founding statement and crest to include aboriginal peoples.
Other churches have followed the United Church’s example and since apologized. In 2007, survivors of the schools began to receive financial compensation from the Canadian government, a process the United Church says it remains committed to.
“This is a long process,” says McKay. “Institutions don't change easily. To ask to change the basis of union is very difficult. There have been very few changes over the past 85 years.”
Billy—now 70—travels across Canada facilitating workshops on aboriginal and European contact, with a particular focus on residential schools. She said she lives in both worlds, having learned to embrace both United Church and aboriginal customs.
Quoting the words of her 'granny,' Billy holds onto her identity: “Don't forgot your dances, don't forget language, don't forget your songs, and don't forget what your Indian name is. And, don't forget who you are.”
Noting that aboriginal art and symbolism can now be found in many United Churches—including her own—Billy said it's a small sign that both sides are trying to make reconciliation a reality.
“We are still coming to some kind of healing. Our people continue to heal, and that's a good thing,” she said. “They are doing the best they can to heal with us.”