Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress Tasmanian-based minister Rev Tim Matton-Johnson still recalls, with some emotion, witnessing a cleansing and healing service for indigenous Canadian children in Saskatchewan earlier this year.
The moving service – for those who died while in Canada’s residential school system – was a memorable moment of the three-week exchange with local Indigenous leaders organised by the United Church of Canada (UCC) in July.
In Canada the residential school system began in the 1800s and the last one only closed in 1996. Children were each given a number as they entered the schools.
Uniting Aboriginal Islander and Christian Congress (UAICC) members who participated in the exchange were particularly struck by the similarities with the Stolen Generation experience in Australia.
Mr Matton-Johnson said, like in Australia, the British had sought to break down language and assimilate Indigenous children by taking them out of their own homes. Not surprisingly, stories of abuse and neglect arose from both experiences.
“Like us in Australia, the intergenerational process of that is still happening today,” he said.
“The cultural disruption because of the loss of language is still prevalent. And ongoing issues of poverty, high crime rates and substance abuse are still prevalent in both Indigenous communities.”
Learning about the school system helped the UAICC delegation when it stood before the Reconciliation Totem Pole in the grounds of the University of British Columbia later in the trip.
UCC Elder Ray Jones is a hereditary chief of the Gitxsan Nation and a residential school survivor. He read the pole’s images to the gathering, which included children from residential schools.
The delegation also visited an unmarked graveyard near the site of a former residential school.
Seven UAICC members as well as assembly general secretary Colleen Geyer took part in the exchange, which formed part of UCC Moderator Rev Jordan Cantwell’s Reconciliation Dialogue.
The group learnt how the UCC had worked through sovereignty and treaty discussions with its First Peoples. This will help inform the conversation currently happening in the Uniting Church.
Mr Matton-Johnson, who represented the Vic/Tas synod, said while there were some differences in the First and Second Peoples’ relationship in the two countries there were also similarities.
“They have a longer history of identifying native ministry than us and probably have more congregations that are mixed (aboriginal and settler) but in theological development, such as the revised preamble to the constitution, we would be a couple of steps ahead,’’ Mr Matton-Johnson said.
“They are probably ahead of us in the use of Native American cultural and spiritual practices as part of their liturgies.
“In their liturgical practices they would speak of ‘The Creator’ as the dominant word for God while we are inclined to use Lord, Father or God.’’
Mr Matton-Johnson said he was also struck by the use of a traditional smudging ceremony to prepare people and implements for worship.
Ms Geyer said the group had the opportunity to learn about the treaties of Canada, their intent and what they did and did not offer to First Nations people.
“According to our UCC hosts, sadly, treaties in Canada have not brought certainty for First Nations people,” Ms Geyer said.
Ms Geyer said it took more than goodwill and good words to be open to change.
The group were special guests at the UCC’s All Native Circle Conference (ANCC), a national gathering of the Church-based bodies representing different Indigenous cultural ways of life and languages.
Members also attended a powwow at Carry the Kettle Reserve in Saskatchewan.
Ms Geyer said she saw some possibilities for the Uniting Church and its covenant with First Peoples through the Congress arising from the trip.
The Uniting Church will host a Canadian delegation in March.