Carving a New Story: Of Residential Schools and First Steps


“To kill the Indian child” was aimed at severing the artery of culture that ran between generations and was the profound connection between parent and child sustaining family and community.  In the end, at he point of final assimilation, “all the Indian there is in the race should be dead.”

Professor David A. Nock, “A Victorian Missionary and Canadian Indian Policy: Cultural Synthesis vs. Cultural Replacement.”

The dark side of Canadian history which festers to this day is the continued marginalization of the First Nations people.

Starting in the 1840’s the Canadian government developed a policy called “aggressive assimilation” to be taught in church-run, government funded industrial schools which later became known as ‘Residential Schools.’  The hope was to ‘kill’ the ‘Indian’ so that ‘they’ could be better prepared for mainstream society.  The government decided that it would be easier to mould children as opposed to adults, and to put those children in a boarding school environment to reach this goal.


The final ‘Residential School’ closed in 1996.

There has been some mild progress in recognizing the atrocities of this time.  Yet, it is high time for our churches to make a significant effort to enter into purposeful reconciliation with our First Nations brothers and sisters.  It is not possible to say with integrity that we will engage our neighbours or neighbourhoods if we continue to be disconnected from our First Nations people.

We need to be forgiven, but before we can even ask the question of forgiveness we owe our First Nations brothers and sisters the respect and dignity of mutual human relationship where we  listen.

Our church chose to participate in a first step.  The beginning of a new story between the church and our First Nations people.

The whole weekend focused on a “Healing Pole” which is an in process totem pole.  It offered a first step in carving a new history.

The weekend was full of story, of learning to understand what the horrible impact of the Residential Schools had on countless generations of First Nations people.

One woman shared her experience. It was brutal. But as she begun she told us that her husband was waiting in the car outside because he could not bring himself to enter a church.  The pain runs deep.

A totem pole speaks to the history of a people.  As we were invited to participate in carving the “Healing Pole” we begin to shape a new story as we listen to the anger, hatred and pain that is the result of the ‘Residential Schools’ and seek a new reconciled reality for the future.  Carving of the healing pole is to work together in this special way.  We together create a new history.  I am thankful for Isador Charters, Don Klaassen and all the other collaborators for initiating this all important first step.

It was a beautiful moment for me to see my almost 3 year old son carving.  A live and living colour participant in a ritual of redemption and reconciliation.  He was not completely aware of what was going on, but to expose him to this kind of reconcilatory environment, to tell him of this moment when he is older is to remind him of Jesus Christ’s nitty gritty participation right in his backyard.

Much more is to be done.  Much more.  But these kinds of relationships and rituals which point us to divine redemptive realities are a place to start.  This “Healing Pole” will be headed to other churches in the province.

May we continue to pursue relationships with our neighbours in humility, compassion and may it be grounded in Christ.

How can you and your community build relationship with First Nations people in your neighbourhood?  In what other ways can we pursue forgiveness?  What other rituals can we create?

For those interested, Mennonite Church Manitoba is collaborating and creating long term partnerships between Mennonite congregations and First Nations people in Northern Manitoba. They are simply building relationships. Check out one example here.


  1. Ryan · November 1, 2012

    Thank you for this, Chris. It is encouraging to see the church taking steps, however small, to bind wounds rather than inflict them.

    • Chris Lenshyn · November 1, 2012

      Hey Thanks Ryan.

      They are small steps indeed! Hopefully they are the first in a long journey of humility, forgiveness and reconciliation.

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