Tuesday, May 19, 2020

First Nations, Schools, & the Christian Legacy

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So many of us receive information digitally these days but I still subscribe to the Globe and Mail newspaper (only Saturdays now) and a couple of magazines, including Orion and Canadian Geographic. I like turning pages and leafing back and seeing the piles of past issues I particularly enjoyed. Canadian Geographic reminds me of what a diverse, immense and truly beautiful land we live in.

In recent years there has been a lot more attention to First Nations, Inuit, and Metis history, current concerns, and contributions to the fabric of what many of us assume to be Canada. In the most recent issue there is a pull-out map of schools across the country, including residential schools, which have not been included in compensation packages for those who attended them. Some were operated pre-Confederation, but that doesn't mean that there aren't descendants of those educated in these institutions. 

I felt a bit of a jolt when I saw Grape Island and Alderville First Nation included on the map (centre, bottom, 2 yellow circles.). Bridge St. United Church in Belleville celebrated it's 200th anniversary several years ago and we acknowledged that the then Methodist congregation of 1825 established a mission community on Grape Island in the nearby Bay of Quinte. According to the Missionary Society of that era:

At Grape Island there are two hundred and twenty natives under the Christian instruction of one missionary 120 of whom are regular communicants and 5 ? children are taught in the schools. Very considerable improvement have been made here in also in the arts of civilized life and especially in meliorating the condition of the females.

Around the time of the anniversary Ruth and I kayaked out to Grape Island which is now home to one cottage, and that seemed about right. We circumnavigated the small island and wondered how it was possible that so many people resided there. The  reports of the time celebrate conversion and baptisms, education, and efforts to feed the community. Yet within a decade the Grape Island community was all but gone, and most residents had moved to Alderville First Nation, where there is still a United Church presence.

During the 200th anniversary year David Mowat came as a speaker from Alderville in Sunday worship and he was also a character in a play about the early history of Bridge St. which included a character from Grape Island. It was important that we did this, but I did think about  how close to home the colonial or settler realities were for us. 

 l know that the Christian zeal of the missionaries was genuine and lives were no doubt changed through sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Still, looking at the Canadian Geographic map reminded me that that there is also an ambivalent and sometimes dark legacy for churches in this country and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples  is far from accomplished.

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