Low-profile apologies from Archbishop of Canterbury amounted to a missed opportunity, says former TRC chair

The former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission says the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent visit to Canada was a missed opportunity for the Anglican Church to have a greater influence on reconciliation.

Murray Sinclair says Anglican Church should have made visit more inclusive for survivors

An elderly man is pictured.
Former senator Murray Sinclair chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2009 to 2015 as it investigated the history of residential schools. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission says the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent visit to Canada was a missed opportunity for the Anglican Church to have a greater influence on reconciliation.

Murray Sinclair told CBC News the apologies issued by Archbishop Justin Welby for the Anglican Church's role in residential schools last weekend were meaningful, but more survivors should have been able to witness them. 

"When a leader of that magnitude steps forward and takes responsibility for what the institution that he heads has done, that's an important thing," said Sinclair, a former senator and judge.

"If not enough people hear you, then it doesn't really benefit the population because they still will dwell in a sense of mistrust about that relationship."

WATCH | Archbishop of Canterbury concludes visit to Canada

Indigenous communities wanted more from Archbishop of Canterbury meeting

1 year ago
Duration 2:06
After apologizing for the Anglican Church’s role in residential schools, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s private meetings with members of Indigenous communities left some wanting more details regarding documentation and providing reparations.

Welby apologized three times to survivors during his trip through Canada. Each apology, delivered in a separate location, built on the previous one.

He delivered his first historic apology last Saturday to residential school survivors at James Smith Cree Nation, about 200 km northeast of Saskatoon.

The next day, during a gathering with more survivors and Indigenous leaders in Prince Albert, Sask., he apologized on behalf of the Church of England for residential schools and its broken promises to Indigenous Peoples. 

LISTEN | Residential school survivors recall meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury

On Tuesday, at the Anglican Church's Toronto headquarters, he apologized during a private meeting with survivors and representatives of Six Nations of the Grand River and the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. 

Children were sent from these First Nations to the Anglican-run Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont. — known as the "Mush Hole" due to the low quality of the food.

The apologies also expanded on two previous apologies the Anglican Church of Canada delivered in 1993 and 2019. 

'Almost like a slap in the face'

Sinclair, now the chancellor of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said it's important that the archbishop announced the church is taking responsibility for the conduct of its members and is not simply blaming them for their misdeeds.

"They themselves acknowledged that they had undertaken a policy of forced assimilation and cultural genocide," Sinclair said. 

"It was an important part of the process of reconciliation."

Dennis Sanderson (left) was among those to greet Rev. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, when he arrived in James Smith Cree Nation's Bernard Constant Community School on Saturday. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

But Sinclair said more effort should have been made to include as many survivors as possible in the Canadian visit — the first by the Archbishop of Canterbury in eight years.

"Speaking to survivors in one community is good for that community, but for the remainder of the survivors, it's almost like a slap in the face in the sense that you're being ignored," he said.

Although the trip was announced by the Anglican Church of Canada back in February, it wasn't widely publicized.

Sinclair said he only found out about Welby's visit shortly before his arrival.

"I would have liked to have met him," Sinclair said.

Patricia Ballantyne, a residential school survivor, speaks to supporters in August 2021 on Parliament Hill after completing a 79-day 'Walk of Sorrow' that she started in Prince Albert, Sask. after learning of hundreds of unmarked graves at the former residential school sites. (Ben Andrews/CBC)

Welby was invited to visit Canada from April 29 to May 3 by Archbishop Linda Nicholls, the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.

He was also invited by former national Indigenous Anglican archbishop Mark MacDonald, who resigned shortly before Welby's trip over what the church called "acknowledged" sexual misconduct.

Patricia Ballantyne, who attended the Anglican-run Prince Albert Indian Residential School from 1978 until 1987, said she was surprised that few survivors knew the events in Saskatchewan were happening.

"They say they want the residential school survivors to share their stories, but yet they didn't notify our First Nations people," said Ballantyne, a Woodland Cree woman from Saskatchewan who met Welby over the weekend. 

"It makes me sad."

'There was no intent to keep it secret'

When questioned by CBC on Sunday, Welby said he's sorry some survivors couldn't attend.

"It was intended to be a totally public visit," Welby said in Prince Albert. "There was no intent to keep it secret."

He said the local church is better positioned than the Archbishop of Canterbury to make a difference with reconciliation. 

"If this visit helps create more momentum and helps us pull things together from around the Anglican communion, that's wonderful," Welby said,

"I don't have the power … to flick a switch and make everything suddenly right so they haven't missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Children's shoes and stuffed animals sit on the steps of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont. (Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images)

Some survivors called for financial support from the church. Welby said he couldn't commit to that during the visit because the Church of England's billions of dollars in assets are not under his control, but are regulated by an act of Parliament.

The Anglican Church of Canada paid $15.7 million to former residential school students under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement.

It was refunded $2.8 million — which it said it invested in Indigenous ministry programs — after a different compensation formula was negotiated with the Roman Catholic Church.

Ottawa responsible for funding, Sinclair says

Sinclair said more money for healing and support programs is needed but churches can't be relied upon to contribute.

Sinclair said Ottawa needs to bear the brunt of the responsibility. 

"Even the large Catholic Church would not be able to fund all the healing programs that are needed for survivors and their families across this country," Sinclair said.

"That will need to come from the Government of Canada, as it should, because it was the Government of Canada's policy to establish residential schools, and it was their direction and support that allowed the churches to do what they did when they were running the schools."

The Archbishop of Canterbury addressed people gathered last Saturday in the James Smith Cree Nation's Bernard Constant Community School. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Sinclair said churches need to recognize the right of Indigenous Peoples to their own spiritual beliefs and should not try to indoctrinate them.

He encouraged churches to contribute money to residential school healing initiatives, such as language revitalization and other cultural programs. He also called on them to use their influence to pressure the federal government to commit more money.

"They should contribute what they can, but they should also ask those in society … who can do more than what they have done," he said.


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.