Residential school survivors, advocates hope Archbishop of Canterbury brings more than apologies to Canada

·5 min read
The new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gestures after being enthroned during a ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral, in Canterbury, southern England, on March 21, 2013. Welby is scheduled to visit James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan this weekend to meet with residential school survivors. (Gareth Fuller/Pool /Reuters - image credit)
The new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gestures after being enthroned during a ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral, in Canterbury, southern England, on March 21, 2013. Welby is scheduled to visit James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan this weekend to meet with residential school survivors. (Gareth Fuller/Pool /Reuters - image credit)

Tom Roberts is still recovering from his time at the Prince Albert Indian Residential School run for decades by the Anglican Church.

"Your opinion didn't matter. Your ideas didn't matter. There were three things that we were taught there: Do what you're told, what to do and how to do it. And don't ask questions or you'll get a smack, or worse," Roberts said.

"For many years, I couldn't say 'I love you' to my kids. Why? I didn't know what it was."

Roberts heard a rumour a couple of weeks ago that the religious head of the global Anglican Church was coming to Canada, possibly even Saskatchewan. A few days ago, Anglican officials confirmed Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby would be coming this weekend to the James Smith Cree Nation, east of Prince Albert, Sask., this weekend.

Roberts, a member of the Lac la Ronge Indian Band, said he's planning to make the four-hour trip, but is frustrated survivors were left guessing about details of the visit until the last second.

"All of sudden he's like, 'I'm coming.' They're setting their own agenda," Roberts said.

No one from the Anglican Church of Canada was available for an interview Thursday, but Welby released a written statement Wednesday in advance of the visit, which also includes a stop in Toronto on Monday.

"A significant purpose of this visit is therefore to repent and atone for where our relationships and actions have done more harm than good — and to honour the sovereignty of Indigenous communities," Welby wrote.

Roberts is glad Welby is "showing some interest," but said an apology is meaningless without action.

"Reconciliation will never start until someone apologizes and then does something about it," he said.

Saskatoon Cree lawyer and former Truth and Reconciliation Commission general counsel Donald Worme agrees.

"What exactly is an apology? Is it simply public relations? Is it feel good?" Worme said. "Deal with some of the historic impacts that they have been involved in as the Anglican Church. That would actually be meaningful."


The Anglican Church was one of four Christian denominations operating Canada's residential schools for more than a century. The Roman Catholic Church ran the majority of the schools, but 36 of them were Anglican.

Top Canadian Anglican officials apologized in 1993 and again in 2019 for the Church's role in the schools. Canada's Roman Catholic Bishops first apologized collectively last fall.

Welby's visit to Canada comes just weeks after Pope Francis apologized in Rome for the conduct of some members of the Roman Catholic Church in the system. Francis is set to visit Canada this summer.

In 2006, the federal government, churches and survivors signed the Indian Residential School Survivor Agreement. It allowed the church to settle billions of dollars in liability from survivor lawsuits.

Each Christian church agreed to turn over all relevant documents and pay compensation.

Worme and another former TRC lawyer, Thomas McMahon, said the Catholic Church was by far the most litigious and obstructionist. But the Anglican Church still hasn't fully disclosed what it knows either, they say.

"I don't think any of them gets a free pass. Less racism is still racism and less hate is still hate. We want them to actually live up to their their obligations," Worme said.

McMahon said the Catholic Church's disclosure was "absolutely atrocious," but the Anglican Church "should have done more, should do more."

Ken Gigliotti//Winnipeg Free Press/The Canadian Press
Ken Gigliotti//Winnipeg Free Press/The Canadian Press

As for compensation, the Anglican Church agreed to pay $15.7 million. The Anglican, United and Presbyterian Churches all complied and paid the full amounts they agreed to. The Catholic church did not.

When the Catholic Church later negotiated a side deal, and eventually a controversial buyout, that altered the compensation formula. The Anglican Church was refunded $2.8 million, according to the Anglican Church of Canada's website. Anglican officials said all of the $2.8 million was invested in Indigenous ministry programs.

The compensation amounts and the refund may have been legal, but they weren't right, said Roberts, Worme and McMahon.

In recent months, Catholic survivors have pushed the Vatican to fund badly-needed healing programs for survivors and their descendants. They note the Vatican has billions in assets.

Roberts, Worme and McMahon say the Anglican Church is no different.

Worme said his research with the TRC indicates total assets of the global Anglican Church, or Church of England, to be at least $13 billion CDN. That includes 105,000 acres of real estate in Great Britain alone, much of it in the highest-priced districts of London.

Others note that the Archbishop of Canterbury may be the religious leader of the Church of England, but the person at the very top, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, is the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The Church of England was founded in 1534 by Henry VIII after the Roman Catholic Pope of the day refused to grant Henry an anullment of his marriage to the first of his six wives.

The British monarchy has assets of at least $28 billion, including $500 million in personal assets for Queen Elizabeth II, according to Forbes magazine. It also brings in more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

"Where is the monarchy in all of this?" McMahon said. "We rightly vilify John A Macdonald, Egerton Ryerson and others for their role in the schools, but this was all done in the name of the monarchy. They all swore allegiance to her."

Tom Roberts said he's not sure how he'll feel when he sees Welby this weekend. But he's sure he'll draw strength from the other survivors.

"We were conditioned to walk with our heads down, to show no emotion. We became stone people," Roberts said.

"Now, I hope we'll all be able to laugh and cry together."

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