Meetings of the United Church’s General Council are a bit like life on a cruise ship. The more the outside world recedes from view, the more the meeting becomes a reality unto itself, with its own customs, codes and ranking systems.
It did not take long for the cruise-ship mentality to take hold of the 42nd General Council meeting in Corner Brook, N.L., this past August. At the outset, commissioners declared that agreeing on a new system of governance for the United Church would trump just about everything else. And so it did.
As the days passed, the gravitational pull of the governance work grew so intense that it seemed to suck everything into its orbit. But on day five, the meeting encountered a force it could not overpower: history.
History arrived in the form of Marie Wilson, one of three commissioners on the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which wrapped up its formal work last spring. A lifelong member of the United Church, Wilson was taking part in a session on the legacy of residential schools.
I interviewed Wilson in Ottawa last winter. Back then, she was still on the TRC payroll and seemed tired and guarded. In Corner Brook, she looked and sounded refreshed. And her message was uncompromising: The United Church of Canada will forever own its part in the sin of residential schools and may never be clear of the debt it owes to Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
The meeting hall grew silent as Wilson declared that the very idea of the United Church is now tied to its residential school past. “Wherever [the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement] says ‘parties to the agreement,’ that’s you. Wherever it says ‘the churches,’ that’s you. Wherever it says ‘faith communities,’ that’s you.”
Wilson’s speech challenged any temptation to view residential schools as an abstraction. She compared her own Dene grandchildren, and the choices they enjoy today, to “the other images I perpetually see in my head: countless boys and girls huddled in their rows of single beds, far from home, bed sheets sometimes tied down around themselves in a desperate effort at scant protection as they pretend to sleep. They’ve grown up with numbers instead of names, without the comfort, kinship or security of nearby brothers or sisters, parents or grandparents — alone, often hungry, often sick and far too often afraid, abused, ashamed, abandoned and angry.”
As a non-Aboriginal person raised in the United Church, “I have at times felt the entire weight of the residential schools on my personal shoulders,” Wilson continued. “I have at times felt like I bore the face of the perpetrator, and I have felt deep shame at the superior presumptions of transplanted government and the superimposed religion of my ancestors.”
Over the course of the week in Corner Brook, commissioners voted to recommit the church to healing and reconciliation efforts, press for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and protect funding for Aboriginal ministries. But Wilson made it clear measures such as these were a beginning, not the end: “The residential school story is nowhere close to being over.”
Commissioners eventually went back to work on governance, reaching an 11th-hour agreement on the framework for a pared-down church structure. Many of the details still need to be ironed out. Marie Wilson will not be part of the process, but she will have contributed enormously if her words in Corner Brook bring some perspective to the effort. The 42nd General Council learned that governance is how you do things, but history is who you are.