Land Acknowledgement as Confession

Image by: Keith Chan

 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1

Peter Flynn points to this opening line of the Gospel of John to emphasize the connection between the word and embodied, Christ-like action in the world. At St. George’s Anglican, The Committee on the Land Statement, of which Peter Flynn is a member, is wrestling with this question as they reassess their parish’s land acknowledgement.

The statement that currently exists at St. George’s was written in the early days after the launch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015. It includes fairly standard language expressing gratitude for Indigenous peoples’ stewardship of the land and their hospitality to settlers. The trouble with this statement for Flynn is the emphasis on gratitude ignores the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s argument and extensive evidence that Indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their lands and subjected to cultural genocide. “It should have been distressing from the beginning,” Flynn says, “it’s a feel-good and self-deceiving statement.”

Another member of the committee who preferred to remain anonymous emphatically asked, “At what point do you make a statement and say ‘we will not tolerate this’ at what point does silence make us complicit?”

This concern over the fatuousness of the statement led to the formation of a committee to discuss how it might be altered to confront the past and present of colonialism more honestly. The committee has an understanding that whatever they develop may be changed in the future as both they and the Anglican church as a whole grow to more deeply understand the reality and ongoing impacts of colonialism.

The committee decided to rewrite the statement as a confession rather than an acknowledgement as a way to both admit the Church’s complicity and to incorporate reconciliation as a value into their confession of faith. The confessional nature of the statement also makes it possible for it to be incorporated into liturgy. This way it can be chanted every Sunday instead of just read at the beginning of service or printed on pamphlets and written materials.

For Flynn, the purpose of confession is to ask “what does the church have to say now?” Given that both the church and the Canadian state’s complicity in cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples, the mere admission of responsibility is not enough; this confession is also a call to action.

Furthermore, Flynn describes that the confessional nature of the statement means “The church cannot [make apologies] from the point of view of us being God and saying “we were fine”—we weren’t. We’re saying we come into this equally in need of reconciliation.”

The text as currently proposed by the committee on the land statement reads:

We confess that we live, work and worship on Treaty One land, traditional territories of the Anishinaabe, Cree, and Dakota peoples and Homeland of the Red River Metis. As our nation emerges from an era of deliberate suppression of Indigenous culture, community, and economy by way of the Indian Act and the Residential School system, we as members of God’s family recognise the sins and wounds of the past and commit to the work of restitution and restoration in a spirit of truth and reconciliation.

It felt important for Flynn and others on the committee that the Indian Act and Residential School system were named as primary mechanisms of dispossession and colonization as a way to foreclose the common misunderstanding that colonialism was an unfortunate accident. Furthermore, he hopes the confession will spark deeper reflection on difficult questions like “Has the Anglican church set up and implemented a reasonable action plan for what it can usefully do to advance any of these acts of restoration and reconciliation? What can it reasonably do [in addition to] advocacy?”

The committee discussed previous formal apologies for the Anglican Church’s role in residential schools such as Archbishop Michael Peers’ 1993 statement. Flynn explains his view that while statements such as Peers’ are important, one individual, even one in a position of authority, cannot speak for a whole institution and that a deeper commitment to change requires collective action. “We all have to be engaged in the process, we can’t say, ‘we will reconcile ourselves with you,’” says the anonymous committee member.

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