The Vision of the Indigenous Church

The Vision of the Indigenous Church

The Vision of the Indigenous Church
Rev. Heather Burton

Reading: II Corinthians 5:16-20


For most of my time in active ministry, I was involved in various ways in the wider Church, both at the Conference and the National level. That involvement gave me a broader and more comprehensive view of the work, advocacy and polity of the UCC, and I enjoyed all of the committees and task groups in which I took part.

The precipitating push to explore the wider Church may have come shortly after I was ordained in 1997. The General Council, our national elected decision-making body, was meeting in Camrose that summer. I was not an elected commissioner, but I decided to attend (on my own dime) as a guest and see what this Church of mine was all about. At the time, Marion Best was Moderator, and her husband, Jack, and I sat through the multi-day meeting in the “cheap seats” at the back of the room.

I remember a feeling of stress and anxiety in the meeting, centred around two attendees – Chief Willie Blackwater from Kispiox in north-central BC and Alberta Billy, a We Wai Kai elder from Quadra Island. At that point in UCC history, the Church had been struggling for a decade with Indigenous calls for an apology for the harm done to the indigenous peoples of this land.

Alberta Billy had demanded of the General Council Executive as far back as 1985 that The United Church of Canada apologize for its role in colonization and the loss of Indigenous languages, culture, and spirituality. In essence, she shocked the Church into looking at itself through indigenous eyes, and her mission continued for decades, keeping before the Church her call for deep change. Alberta was always faithful and committed both to the Indigenous ways in which she lived and was raised, and also to the church which she believed could always do better.

Alberta was a long-time advocate of reconciliation, reminding us as recently as the 30th Anniversary of the 1985 Apology by Moderator Bob Smith, that the living out of that apology is not complete. The Indigenous Church has continued to look to the United Church to concretely demonstrate its commitment to a nation-to-nation relationship rooted in mutuality and respect.

The second Indigenous attendee at that meeting of the General Council in 1997, Willie Blackwater, was one of the people who were abused by a teacher named Arthur Plint at the Port Alberni Residential School, against whom criminal charges were laid in 1995. Blackwater and his fellow former students had hoped that the trial would finally afford them the opportunity to tell their stories. When Plint pled guilty, the opportunity to tell their stories was denied them, and so Willie Blackwater had decided to initiate a civil suit against the UCC, which had run the Alberni school.


It is hardly surprising that the presence of Alberta Billie and Willie Blackwater at the General Council in Camrose led to the feeling of tension and unease that Heather experienced. Alberni was one of fifteen residential schools run across Canada by the United Church of Canada. If Blackwater’s lawsuit resulted in a judgment for millions of dollars in compensation it would open the door to many more claims and the potential for legal liability in an amount that would bankrupt the Church several times over.

Financial vulnerability was not the only cause for anxiety that the lawsuits raised and from the perspective of our claim to be an embodiment of God’s love for all people it was the least important. The voices of indigenous people both within the United Church and in the communities in which the church operated had been speaking with increasing clarity for a number of years about the abuse they had experienced in residential schools and in their communities as a result of the church’s role in the colonization of indigenous peoples across Canada. But the shocking details of their experiences had been little more than a murmur if they were heard at all in our congregations. Blackwater’s lawsuit and the telling of his story forced the church to acknowledge complicity in activities which contradicted the gospel of love and inclusion we claimed was ours.

Learning the truth about the role of the church that we love in activities that were abhorrent, and learning that the missions to the native peoples that we were once so proud of gave rise to physical, sexual and cultural abuse; these were hard truths to confront: they shook and continue to shake the foundations of the church that most of us, white, middle class, comfortably well off Canadians thought we knew. And of course this dawning awareness of our past was resisted by some and accepted tentatively over time by others.

The English legal system which we have inherited in Canada does not reward confession and the acknowledgment of wrong doing. Most of us have probably heard TV lawyers tell their clients not to say anything when they are charged with an offense. That is why police officers warn suspects of their right to remain silent when they are arrested. So when Willie Blackwater accused the United Church of responsibility for horrific crimes the advice our lawyers gave to the church was not to admit anything. Make him prove it in court.

In fact, that was exactly what Blackwater wanted. He wanted to tell his story in a forum where it would be publicly heard and the church could be held accountable. But a lawsuit, where stories are told and then witnesses cross-examined in an effort to discredit their credibility amounts to a revictimization of the former students. The defense lawyers try to convince the court that the stories are not true, that they are made up.

Over the following years, as the lawsuit proceeded, Blackwater and the other plaintiffs recognized how painful it was to tell their stories in this way. Many settled their claims without subjecting themselves to cross-examination. The church too began to recognize the harm caused to indigenous plaintiffs and to the institution when stories are told in this forum. The Blackwater case helped the United Church recognize its own role in the harms caused and to realize that even if it created a risk of legal liability and the fiscal uncertainty that posed for our denomination, if we were to be faithful to Christ we had to confess, to admit our culpability.

There had already been apologies made, the church had begun the process of changing its structure to include Indigenous peoples at the very core of our denomination and efforts were underway to make restitution to Indigenous communities, but, as the elders pointed out in 1986, apologies need to be lived out, not merely spoken. Apology is a first step on the long road to reconciliation.

Willie Blackwater finally told his story in a way that the church began to hear. It is his story, and those of the thousands of other Indigenous persons impacted by the actions of the United Church, that serves to spur us all along that road to reconciliation.

So what is Willie Blackwater’s story? It was written as an article in the Broadview Magazine in March of 2016 and I’d like to tell you an abridged version in the few minutes that I have:

Willie Blackwater’s story encapsulates the raw essence of residential schools: the radical inequality, the depravity, the brutality — and occasionally, a ferocious determination to resist. His 5’3” stature belies his strength, fierce determination and sheer courage.

Blackwater begins his story: “I was 10 years old when I was sent away.” He remembers the journey vividly. It was a three-day, 1,400-kilometre trip by bus, he says. “The bus started in Prince Rupert and stopped at Terrace for the Nisga’a children, then onto Kitimat and Hazelton for the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en kids. We ate and slept on the bus. Kids were crying. I cried myself on that first trip. They hauled us there like sardines.”

Within days of arriving at Alberni, Blackwater says, he was called into Arthur Plint’s office to “take a phone call from my father.” It was a ploy to get him alone and marked the beginning of the sexual and physical abuse. When he went home that first summer, Blackwater told his father what was happening. “He thought it was a story to get out of going back.” He surmises that Walter Blackwater must have said something to the school, though, because when he returned to Alberni in the fall, Plint soundly beat him. Lesson learned.

Jump ahead to spring 1968, Alberni Indian Residential School on Vancouver Island. Early on a weekday afternoon, most of the 300 resident students are out of the building in classes at a local public school. But not all. In the office of the boys’ supervisor, a scene is unfolding. School supervisor Arthur Henry Plint is tipped precariously far back in a swivel chair, face distorted, eyes wide with fear. At his throat is a knife in the fist of a 13-year-old Gitxsan First Nations boy.

Willie Blackwater spoke to Arthur Plint in a low, controlled voice. “I told him I’d been sharpening the knife for two years and it could cut through bone, and if he moved I’d cut his head clean off. I told him I wanted three things. First, quit picking on me: the rape, the extra chores, all that. This torture is coming to an end. Second, I said, when I come back for Grade 8, I want to be boarded out. Some students got to live with families in town instead of in the school, and I wanted that for me. Third, I said, I know it’s not just me. You have to quit abusing the other boys. If you don’t, I’ll kill you. And there are other boys with knives, and if I don’t kill you, they will.”

When Blackwater returned to Alberni the following fall, he was indeed boarded out to a family in town, and he suffered no more sexual or physical abuse from Plint. The confrontation that marked the beginning of the end for Arthur Plint also marked the beginning of a life of resistance for Willie Blackwater.

That experience taught young Willie Blackwater that you can fight back, a discovery that would shape the rest of his life. It was the first in a series of critical acts of resistance that Blackwater would spearhead against the despised Indian residential school system, acts that would ultimately trigger the national truth and reconciliation process and perhaps a new day in relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

“I don’t mind sharing my story,” Willie Blackwater told the interviewer from Broadview. “It helps understand what we’ve been through and explains why we are the way we are,” he says, without need of further elaboration.

Although the sexual and physical abuse ended for Blackwater, the isolation, loss of language, tradition, connection to family and community remained.

When he last walked out of Alberni Residential School at age 18, Blackwater’s community was lost to him and his family was fractured, because he didn’t feel that either had cared for their young ones as they should have.


A bitter irony of the residential schools was that, although they claimed the objective was to “take the Indian out of the Indian” and thus make Indigenous people assimilable into mainstream Canadian culture, that culture refused to accept them as equals. They remained Indians, consigned to the margins even in areas such as British Columbia where they constituted a substantial portion of the population. The Indigenous still faced barriers in their career aspirations, inferior medical care and more difficult access to higher education.

Those who survived Residential Schools were not accepted as “real” Canadians, but they were no longer accepted by their own communities. The Schools had stripped them of their language and culture. Their ties to clan and family were broken. They didn’t know the traditional stories, songs and dances. They didn’t know where the best spots for hunting and fishing were. The Residential Schools left many survivors unable to function in the mainstream culture or in their own. Left to their own devices, as outsiders many of them stumbled into lives of substance abuse, violence toward one another and family and marital dysfunction.

Some of you will know that for two years I served as the United Church’s minister for the North Coast of B.C. This was the ministry that succeeded the Thomas Crosby ministry by mission boat that operated from the late 1800s to 1985. Heather and I will talk about that ministry next week but I want to share one story with you before we close today.

In the spring of 2007, I was honoured to be invited as one of the United Church’s representatives at a feast and festival held by the Nuxalk people in the Village of Bella Coola to welcome home, albeit decades late, residential school survivors from that community who had suffered the pain and ostracism that Willie Blackwater experienced when he left Alberni.

Late in the afternoon some 200 or 300 people gathered in the community hall for a welcome home dance and feast. The people of the village and guests gathered in a large circle of dancers as drums kept us moving. The survivors who had never been formally welcomed home came into the circle one by one, each bearing a paddle that they stroked, symbolizing the journey from Alberni to Bella Coola – hundreds of miles up the Inside Passage. Once inside the circle those being welcomed and those representing the continuity of the village merged into a single body.

When all the survivors were present, they were invited to tell their stories to the circle. Some stories were as harrowing as Willie Blackwater’s. Some survivors spoke respectfully of their teachers and the positive impact their education had had on their lives. Others recalled the Residential Schools as a time of loneliness and isolation. With the telling, each individual story became part of the community story and each speaker became known to the community as part of it, not as a stranger.

Doreen Clelleman was an elder I came to know who had experienced Residential Schools but had come home and built a life in Bella Coola. Doreen remained a faithful member and supporter of the United Church throughout her life. When Voices United was being compiled, she shared her song with the church – the song we hear today giving voice to hope, determination and devotion.

Let’s take a moment of quiet reflection as we listen.

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