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A Heart of Forgiveness
The First Nations, Metis and Inuit leaders’ joined in a response to the Prime Minister’s request for forgiveness concerning past injustices as a result of the residential schools.

Two years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an official apology to the former students and succeeding generations impacted by Canada’s Indian residential schools. As the apology concluded, he stated, “The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.”

This apology on behalf of the government of Canada was issued to remove “an impediment to healing and reconciliation” and was added to the succession of apologies that had been made by the RCMP who removed the children from their homes and the churches that operated many of the schools.

Over this past weekend, I was privileged to attend some of the National Forgiven Summit that took place in Ottawa in person, via live streaming and watching a DVD of a portion I missed. Several chiefs and other First Nations, Metis and Inuit leaders organized a cross Canada tour called the Journey of Freedom that culminated with the weekend of individual substitutional response to the request for forgiveness made by the churches and the Prime Minister.

Some have difficulty with the concept of such a substitutional response. At the Forgiveness Summit it was repeatedly and clearly noted this expression of forgiveness was not a conclusion to a process but a step in the process that may prove helpful to many, and an invitation was extended for others to join in. Substitutional forgiveness is based on the biblical concepts of substitutional atonement – I like the word atonement because it breaks down simply into its component parts about a restoration of “at one ment,” i.e. being one again – and the process for relational restoration outlined in the New Testament, particularly Matthew 18:15-19. For example, Jesus was a substitutional atonement for sin for those who accept His atonement. Repentance for sin (or apology) is required, as is forgiveness (releasing the victim from the continuing power of the sin and the sinner, while freeing the sinner to engage in additional steps of reconciliation to restore the relationship if the victim is willing).

On the Friday evening, several individuals in leadership positions within the Church – the Body of Christ – in Canada offered a substitutional statement of repentance on behalf of the Church, of which several component denominations had operated residential schools. This was followed by a moving expression of forgiveness from several residential school survivors and aboriginal leaders, including Chiefs Elijah Harper and Billy Diamond.

Earlier in the evening, the audience had heard the stirring story of Chief Harper’s standing against the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord while a member of the Manitoba legislature because it had only recognized the British and French as Canada’s founding peoples, failing to acknowledge Canada’s First Nations.

On Saturday, there was a ceremony of forgiveness – including presentation of a Charter of Forgiveness and Freedom – to Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Chuck Strahl. The Prime Minister made an appearance by video, acknowledging the benefit of forgiveness in the healing process and the continuing responsibility of the government to pursue reconciliation with the First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples.

A First Nations’ friend of mine has taught me that while my European cultural positioning often encourages looking forward and moving forward, the aboriginal cultural positioning encourages looking back, learning from the past, and seeking the healing of past pains in order to have the freedom and the wisdom to move forward while remembering the lessons of the past in the process.

The concept of the weekend was that the substitutional exchange that took place would open the door for those who participated to experience the freedom of forgiveness, release from being bound by the paralyzing pain of the residential schools’ impact, and the freedom to remember from a place of acceptance as equals in relationship with the churches and government in the process of reconciliation. It was also intended as an open invitation for others to join in the experience.

Time will tell whether this summit has its desired effect. I hope so. Whether or not it does, it presents a fitting introduction to the long awaited first meetings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission scheduled to take place just days from now in Winnipeg.

Don Hutchinson is vice-president and general legal counsel with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and the director of the Centre for Faith and Public Life.

The above article may be republished with permission in print publications. For more information contact Gail Reid:

Originally published on Activate CFPL Blog, June 14, 2010. 

Used with permission. Copyright © 2010

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