My name is Sam Whitehawk. I am a Canadian Pastor in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. I am a First Nations man, and a member of Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan. As a child and grandchild of living Residential School survivors, it has been painful and heartbreaking to hear the news of found remains of murdered children outside of Residential Schools across Canada. Sadly, since their inception, I am only the first generation in my family to not have to attend these horrific places, and my three beautiful daughters are only the second.
I am fortunate to also work as a Program Coordinator for a First Nations College in Saskatchewan with many survivors and children of survivors who have had to carry the pain and burden of knowing this took place for decades. This news was never surprising, but knowing all along doesn’t make it any less painful. Finally, the world now shares in this grief as well.
One of the things I love about our country is that Canada is home to many new Canadians who are welcomed as refugees to escape a violent homeland. However, for the Indigenous people of Canada, this country was our tormentor from whom there was no refuge.
Why did this happen?
In 2015, Canada released the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report, seeking to bring to light what happened in darkness. They documented the truth from thousands of survivors who shared their stories. Residential schools were not an accident and the results were as intended. This was part of a larger destructive plan now known as ‘cultural genocide.’
The TRC defines this term as ‘the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next. In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.’
Many non-Indigenous Canadians tell me they never knew these things growing up or never heard about it until they were adults. Sadly, the motives were an open secret. The original government wanted to abolish the newly signed treaties and secure control of First Nations land, but they couldn’t outright kill all Indigenous people. So Canada designed aggressive policy designed to quietly steal land, and destroy Indigenous culture and families through legislation known as the Indian Act. The schools were the largest arrow in a quiver of arrows aimed at destroying a people for profit.
Originally Canada wasn’t built for people like me, but residential schools were. The TRC documents “In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883:
‘When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.’”
The architect behind this evil system was our first Prime Minister. He is a man still championed for all the ‘good’ he did for this country as his statues stand, his face remains on money, and his name on our schools and roads. His evil intentions were maintained and accelerated by many leaders who came him after until the last school was closed in 1996.When evil deeds were being done by evil people, in evil places, at the approval of an evil government policy, where was the church and why was this allowed to take place for over 100 years? Click To Tweet
What happened there?
As Christians we know the value and importance of words. We know the devastating effects of questions like, ‘did God really say?’ and the triumphant joy of statements like, ‘it is finished.’ For many people, they still struggle to wrestle with ‘unmarked graves’ at ‘schools’ in ‘Canada.’ But if we were honest, those words should read, children were intentionally kidnapped, trafficked, tortured, and murdered by a government intent on funding this evil. I say murder, not to exaggerate or be flippant, but to demonstrate that even if the abductors didn’t intend every death, regardless of how each child died, they were stolen from their parents, so I, for one, would consider that to be murder.
With the help of the RCMP, our federal police department, children were ripped from their homes. Parents were arrested if they didn’t comply. Parents were often not told where in the country their child was sent, and many weren’t told if their child was killed. With the support of government policy and funding, children were taken from the care of their parents to these schools across the country where they were tormented. I’ve heard some personal accounts of survivors and also read about the dehumanizing abuse they endured: beaten, ridiculed, and called by a number instead of their name. Children were physically, verbally, mentally, emotionally, and sexually abused. Children were starved, neglected, murdered, and babies born to students were also burned alive. The children were taught they were demonic, evil, inferior, and no good. They were taught to be ashamed and hate themselves and each other. Let us remember that they were CHILDREN! Stolen from their homes for generations. And sadly this treatment was the norm and not the exception.
A couple of years ago, I finally worked up the courage to ask my grandmother what it was like. Immediately, she answered that it was ‘like prison!’ My grandmother and all her siblings were forced to go to and live at these awful schools only 10 minutes away from our reserve. Their childhoods were stolen, based on a government’s sadistic desire to dehumanize an entire people group for political and financial gain. I exist today only because my grandmother is a survivor. Sadly, one of her siblings never made it home.
I came across an article that told some heartbreaking details about my great uncle. ‘On June 4, 1965 three boys ran away. One of them, Alfred Whitehawk, died when he attempted to cross the Assiniboine River.’
If this were a non-indigenous student this would have been a much bigger story. But in the past, Indigenous people were viewed less as a people to be loved and more of a problem to be dealt with harshly. Instead of condolences, apologies, or a desire to look within and change the circumstances where three boys would rather risk crossing a river than staying in a school.
The principal stated that he expected he would ‘need the help of the RCMP to bring back to school the other boys who are still at large.’ He complained, ‘I feel that we do not get from the people the cooperation we need in locating these boys. The reserves are too big an area for me to cover, especially when some of the people purposely hide the children and pretend not to know where they are!’
The general disdain for these boys in that one quote is indicative of how the view of Indigenous people had not changed at all in the 80 years since our founding Prime Minister’s comments on the matter. He confidently had the police at his disposal because Indigenous people weren’t viewed as worthy of justice. In fact, for roughly the first 50 years of Canada’s existence, it was illegal for Indigenous people to hire legal counsel. Sadly, the kids were viewed as prisoners who escaped, instead of children fleeing torment. But it never mattered that they were children, made in the image of God, worthy of dignity, value, and respect.
Where was the church?
The plan to kidnap children and torment children had to be seductive in nature, a ‘make one wise’ kind of plan, so that even the most naïve people would want to participate and think they were doing good. The church in Canada, for the first 100 years of its existence, enjoyed a role and influence in society that will likely never be seen again. But if they were so influential, where were they when this was taking place? When evil deeds were being done by evil people, in evil places, at the approval of an evil government policy, where was the church and why was this allowed to take place for over 100 years?
Sadly, the churches ran these schools! This was all done in the name of ‘god’. This evil was perpetuated by a collaboration between Catholic and Protestant Denominations. The TRC says ‘Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches were the major denominations involved in the administration of the residential school system. The government’s partnership with the churches remained in place until 1969.’ Canada became a country in 1867. So for the first 100 years of the country, the churches in Canada willingly and gladly participated in the attempted destruction of an entire culture and people group. Instead of being frontline missionaries, the churches took the role as frontline abusers and it still took over twenty years, in the 1990’s, before many of these mainline denominations apologized for their role in this evil residential school system.
There are many issues still plaguing Indigenous families and communities including low levels of education, addictions, and suicides. We still deal with the effects of the family structure being sabotaged by sinister people. As a pastor it pains me to look at Indigenous People in Canada and not have to ask ‘where was the church?’ but instead say this happened because ‘the church was there.’
In his book, 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, author Bob Joseph shares a letter that was sent to parents from the school in Kamloops where the murdered remains of 215 children were found:
KAMLOOPS B.C.November 18, 1948
It will be your privilege this year to have your children spend Christmas at home with you. The holidays will extend from DECEMBER 18th to JANUARY 3rd. This is a privilege which is being granted if you observe the following regulations of the Indian Department.
1. THE TRANSPORTATION TO THE HOME AND BACK TO THE SCHOOL BE PAID BY THE PARENTS …
2. THE PARENTS MUST BRING THE CHILDREN BACK TO SCHOOL STRICTLY ON TIME
Rev. F. O’Grady, O.M.I.,
This entire system was evil cloaked in benevolence done by wolves in sheep’s clothing. As Paul warned the Corinthian church, ‘even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14).
What does the church do now?
As a pastor, the residential school system has always caused me frustration and anger. However, I find comfort in knowing that Jesus and His Gospel are infinitely different than ‘Christian Religion’. Although we know the perpetrators of this crime were never criminally prosecuted in Canada, God will judge them. And I find comfort that Jesus says there will be people who did works in his name but Christ will say ‘depart from me I never knew you.’ I now know that those that were labelled ‘churches’ were not all the church of Jesus Christ, the people he died for on the cross. Jesus loved children, and died so that any person who believes regardless of their race could become an adopted child of God.
As true gospel churches in Canada, the reputation of ‘the church’ precedes us. As we proclaim the gospel and plant churches we must be mindful of the harsh realities of those exposed to religion. As an Indigenous person who has experienced the transforming work of the gospel in my life, I offer three suggestions for the true church around the world in light of this tragic news: awareness, discernment, and clarity.Our calling is to love and live the gospel in such a way that our words and life don’t contradict the beautiful grace displayed to us in Jesus Christ. Click To Tweet
Every Gospel missionary and messenger (which is every true Christian) must realize that in the neighbourhoods, cities, and countries we live in, there are all kinds of stories similar to this one. The church must not turn a blind eye to the evil deeds done in darkness, but take the light of the gospel we have and be a place of refuge for communities who are hurting. Especially when that hurt and pain has been done in the name of religion. If we are going to be missionaries in the places we live and are called, we shouldn’t be the last to know what is happening or what has happened. We should be the first to mourn with those who mourn, not the ones inflicting the pain.
The church should be students of history. We shouldn’t rely on the world to instruct us when this information was already available online, and in the stories of those who survived. Many have said they never really considered that I was Indigenous or treated me any different. I have always been grateful for this, but at the same time, the trouble in ‘never seeing colour or a person’s race’ is it can often come with a lack of awareness or the inability to fathom how the government, police, and church all weaponized against a people for over 100 years.
Awareness and understanding helps the church know that not every experience in Canada has been the same. It helps us know that evil in the past still has an impact on the present. I think Christians should learn just as much about the Indian Act as they learn about Critical Race Theory. One is a theory about how the government and society might conspire against non-Indigenous people if the church is not discerning, while the other is historical fact about how government, society, and the church conspired to decimate an entire people group. Christians should be aware of the evils of both.
It’s easy to judge the evil deeds of those in the past, but it’s painful to look in the mirror of God’s word and examine our own hearts, homes, and churches to see where we are blindly and joyfully participating in the work of Satan, cloaked in the language of charity and benevolence. It happened in Canada for over 100 years, and it can happen again.
Jesus said in Matthew 10:16 (ESV) — “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Sadly the ‘church’ in Canada, has at times been as wise as sheep, as innocent as serpents, and destructive as wolves. As gospel believing churches, we need to have more discernment. We need to be aware that Satan is always seeking ways to distract the church, divide the home, and deny people from seeing the glory of Jesus Christ. So being aware of his schemes, we need to be able to discern what he has done and been doing to Indigenous people, or else those who claim to follow Christ will again careless and destructively join alongside of evil and call it good.
Take for example adoption and foster care. This is one of the most beautiful acts of the love of Jesus Christ that the church can demonstrate, but we must be discerning. In Canada, as the secret of residential schools was being revealed, and was proving too costly to sustain, the Canadian government funded another destructive policy against the Indigenous family known as ‘the 60’s scoop.’ As the residential schools were designed to ‘kill the Indian in the child,’ the 60’s scoop carried on the legacy of stealing children through adoption and foster care. The examples of adoption that I have seen in our church and sending church have been amazing. I have seen love, care, patience, and heartache as families work to expose their kids to their culture and family, while providing love and safety for their children. But this wasn’t always the case in the past, as adoption was another way for government to steal children and destroy families. So even in situations like this, the church needs to be very discerning.
Without discernment we will continuously be deceived. At the same time, Christians should also never buy into the myth that all government, police, churches, or white people are evil. These too are lies that are disgusting and must be rejected. We know that racism doesn’t solve racism, violence doesn’t solve violence, and that political policy doesn’t solve sin. There is only one person powerful enough to help Indigenous heal, forgive, reconcile, and thrive, and his name is Jesus Christ.
One chief recently said ‘most residential school survivors hate the church.’ We have seen why this statement would ring true, but as a pastor this is heartbreaking to me. Most have experienced religion, but have never tasted the beauty of the gospel. In his book, The Inconvenient Indian, author Thomas King says:
‘I can’t think of one that could be termed a “seduction religion,” where converts are lured in by the beauty of the doctrine and the generosity of the practice. Maybe Buddhism. Certainly not Christianity. Missionary work in the New World was war. Christianity, in all its varieties, has always been a stakeholder in the business of assimilation…’
As messengers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, this should motivate us. The Gospel completely changed my childhood, home, life, and eternity, all because of the grace of Jesus Christ. He is the only one who can truly break down dividing walls of hostility put up by the ‘god of this world’ and by the destructive power of religion. But the power of the gospel can overwhelm this. So as true ambassadors of true reconciliation between God and man through Jesus Christ, we must provide clarity between the gospel and religion. In Canada, with First Nations, Gospel messengers are not starting from a neutral position so we must strive to bring clarity to the gospel.
We know the Spirit of God through the light of the Gospel needs no assistance from man, but our calling is to love and live the gospel in such a way that our words and life don’t contradict the beautiful grace displayed to us in Jesus Christ. The Gospel gives us a new hope that is everlasting because Jesus died and rose again. And through Jesus, we can comfort the broken, as we have been comforted by Him.
We must always remember the death and destruction that religion brought in Canada as we mourn what happened at these schools when thousands of children were murdered. Wherever we are, religion has in some way devastated our communities and neighbours. So if we are going to be gospel missionaries that bring hope instead of pain to people who have had religion weaponized against them, then the Gospel we speak and live needs to be that much more clear as to who Jesus Christ is in all of his beauty and all of his glory and grace.