Unsettling Theology: Introduction


Map of the Anglican Church of Canada, 1960

How do good people wind up doing evil things? How are Christians to deal with an evil legacy? Behind these simple, very general questions, is an actual story, and a very real theological legacy.

Between the 1870s and the 1970s some 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children in Canada attended what were then known as Indian Residential Schools (“IRS”). These institutions were organized and funded by the federal government of Canada with the explicit purpose of assimilating these children into mainstream settler society – to get rid of the “’Indian problem’ forever.” As Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs, reported to the Special Parliamentary Committee on the Indian Act of the House of Commons:

I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone . . . Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill. [1]

The schools were almost entirely staffed by missionary teachers, lay, ordained, and religious, from the various Christian denominations in Canada, primarily Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church of Canada. These schools were prominently featured as ministries of these churches,[2] and the hierarchy and many clergy and laity were enthusiastic about them.


This is not a story that is well known outside of Canada, but the legacy of the Residential Schools has been recognized by contemporary Canada as a stain upon its history. Europeans, mainly French and British, settled in what became Canada from the 17th century through to the present day, and effort to educate and help aboriginal peoples adapt to the European societies seemed peaceful and beneficial. Indeed, many aboriginal leaders asked for help in education, and this was written into numerous treaties. However, in conception and implementation the results were horrific. The results of this policy included:

  1. the deliberate and forced loss of language and culture by a majority of attendees;
  2. legally mandated apprehension and separation of children from their parents, as if they were abusive;
  3. physical abuse by teachers and staff at the schools;
  4. sexual abuse by a number of staff;
  5. a failure to inculcate parenting skills;
  6. the exploitation of children for labour;
  7. experimentation on the children for nutritional studies; no consent was ever received from the children or their parents;
  8. the failure to provide basic necessities of food and shelter, and disregard for the prevention of disease, resulting in death rates of up to 60% in some years; and
  9. the failure to actually train the students with useful skills.

The ongoing consequences of the Residential Schools continues. To this day indigenous populations experience in comparison to the Canadian population as a whole greater unemployment, higher poverty, a higher rate of incarceration, and a higher rate of alcoholism and addiction. Although the schools closed in the late 1960s and ‘70s, the trauma of the IRS continues to affect the lives of aboriginal peoples today.

The history of the IRS and the ongoing effects only came to be well known in the 1990s when the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples met and then issued its Final Report. A key report submitted to the Commission in 1996 was John S. Milloy’s A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System 1879-1986.[3] Milloy, a professor at Trent University, Peterborough Ontario, was the first academic to comprehensively catalogue the suffering of children in the schools. Subsequently lawyers, on the principle of vicarious responsibility, began suing the federal government and church entities on behalf of thousands of former residents. When, after a couple of settlements, it became apparent a) that this threatened the continued existence of most of these religious bodies, and b) that the law courts were not the best means to achieve a quick resolution to the suits, the government, churches, and lawyers acting for the plaintiffs arranged for a comprehensive settlement which was finalized in 2006. It arranged for CAN$2 billion compensation for some 86,000 former residents. It also required the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (“TRC”) of Canada , which over six years held many events and heard testimony from former students and some staff. The TRC Final Report[4] confirmed and expanded the evidence presented in Milloy’s A National Crime. As well, a national archives for the TRC was established in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the Prime Minister of the day, the Right Honorable Stephen Harper, gave a heartfelt apology on the floor of the House of Commons in 2008. The churches and other political bodies have at various times since the 1990s offered apologies as well.[5]

All of this is progress. However, it must be observed that the churches were proud of their involvement in the Schools at the time. Why did they see the schools as a positive good in spite of the evidence of harmful consequences? Could it be due to their theology of mission? And if it was theological, are we in danger of repeating their errors in different contexts?

One might argue that this was simply the result of colonialism and imperialism of the time – that it was not really theological. What theology was involved, it might be thought, was simply subsumed into the general approach of the colonizing peoples. This is the same approach that describes the history of settlement in Canada as generally benign, especially in contrast to the wars with “Indians” in the United States in the 19th century. However, this is largely a self-serving history that is not well documented by the facts. In truth Canada repeatedly made and broke treaties with indigenous peoples, and reacted with violence whenever First Nations and Metis attempted to revolt and assert their rights. By the time settlement began on the west coast of British North America even the need for treaties was dispensed with, and First Nations were forced by gunboat diplomacy to reserves.

By the time I was in high school in the 1970s the story of indigenous peoples seemed to stop somewhere in the mid-19th century. After having been important allies of the British against the American revolutionaries in the War of Independence and the War of 1812, First Nations such as the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) were given large reserves that were steadily encroached upon and taken away until they were shadows of themselves. The revolts of Louis Riel in Manitoba and Saskatchewan were described in terms of how they affected settlement, the building of the national railway, and the creation of provinces, but the horrific repression of First Nations and Metis that followed were left undiscussed. Canadians of colonial and settler background grew up knowing a history of relatively benign expansion, where First Nations were pushed aside as being inconvenient occupiers of the land and inefficient stewards. It was, as we now know, a very partial truth.

In her book Unsettling the Settler Within (UBC Press, 2010) Dr. Paulette Regan, director of research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada asks:

How can we, as non-Indigenous people, unsettle ourselves to name and then transform the settler – the colonizer who lurks within – not just in words but by our actions, as we confront the history of colonization, violence, racism, and injustice that remains part of the Indian Residential Schools legacy today?

Regan’s answer is that non-Indigenous Canadians need to let go of the myths of settler Canadians as peace-makers, and acknowledge the damage done. The development of a historical counter-narrative will allow for Aboriginal and settler peoples to move beyond colonial relationships.

I believe that much more must happen for Christians in Canada. Part of the challenge for non-indigenous settler peoples in Canada is also to reclaim the parts of our tradition that call into question and judge the actions of previous generations. It is all well and good to have a great epiphany in an aboriginal feast, but the challenge for settler Canadians is to transform the major institutions of the country in the light of the legacy; rewriting history is a necessary first step, but it is not enough. These public institutions encompass education at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary level, but also the legal understanding of property and treaties. As well, given the negative effects of colonialization, the issue of citizenship and the rights that adhere to individuals of aboriginal ancestry also arise. The source of this transformation will be found not in the appropriation of aboriginal practices, but in turning to the very best values and practices in western traditions.

Canadian Christians need to unsettle their theologies – decolonize themselves and their theology of mission. It is not sufficient to apologize, offer compensation, and then move on. True μετἀνοια requires a critical examination of those theologies, and the construction of an alternative. This is unsettling emotionally as well as ideologically.

Further, I am bold enough to argue that this is an issue not only for Christians in colonized lands like Canada, but also for Christian theologians in the lands from whence the colonists came, such as the UK and France. While these nations may no longer be colonial powers, the theologies that encouraged colonization came from them, and may continue to wreak havoc on people.

This is a dissertation about how we might decolonize theology. I have entitled it Unsettling Theology as a kind of riff on Regan’s book. I pray that it will not only unsettle the practice of theology, but help those of us descended from settlers to somehow move on to new relationships with the indigenous peoples, the land, and beyond.

[1] National Archives of Canada, Record Group 10, volume 6810, file 470-2-3, volume 7, pp. 55 (L-3) and 63 (N-3)

[2] See the detail of the map of the Anglican Church of Canada in 1960.

[3] John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System 1879-1986 (Winnipeg MB: The University of Manitoba Press, 1999).

[4] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Volume One: Summary. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (Toronto ON: James Lorimer & Company, Ltd: 2015).

[5] See “Appendix 4 – Apologies” in the TRC Final Report Volume One.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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2 Responses to Unsettling Theology: Introduction

  1. Michael S. Pearl says:

    Just in case this is cut and pasted from your dissertation draft, in the paragraph which begins, “The history of the IRS …”, you have “$86,000”, and I’m sure you don’t mean to have the dollar sign.

    This is probably outside the considerations of the dissertation, but it would be interesting to compare and contrast with the Australian control of aboriginals.

    I am especially looking forward to the Levinas sections as per your previous summary posting.

  2. Bruce Bryant-Scott says:

    Michael, thank you for the comment and correction. I’ve updated both the draft manuscript and the blog post. And, yes, you are right, the comparable situation in Australia (and New Zealand, and the USA, and elsewhere, too) is important, relevant, and outside the scope of my dissertation. Levinas will be coming soon!

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