Canada 150 or Canada 15000?

Expo 67I remember Expo 67. I was five years old, and my parents put me on a leash so that I would not get lost amidst the crowds of people who gathered on Île Sainte-Hélène. I remember seeing some innovative movies – which later influenced the creation of IMAX. I remember the monorail. I remember the Canada Pavilion, and upside down pyramid whose interior was decorated with various sculptures. I remember the Metro, my first experience of a subway system. It was all in celebration of 100th year of confederation, and it was a Very Big Thing.

centennial-logoAlong with Expo there were other things. In the garden in behind our house on 3rd Avenue in Geand-Mere Quebec one of my brothers grew a garden in the form of the centennial maple leaf.  My family went to Prince Edward Island for a vacation and there were Confederation displays there. I remember listening and singing along to Bobbie Jimby’s “Canada – We Love You”.

It feel different for our sesquicentennial.  Maybe I am just older. Then again, 150 years isn’t as evocative a number as 100. In a year that ends in a 50 there’s a feeling that we are half-way to something. A fifty year old celebrating a birthday is a middle-aged person, neither young or old. A centenarian is beyond the experience of most folk. So I approach the Canada 150 celebrations with less enthusiasm.

But part of it is also that the country has changed in the past 50 years. Our national story is no longer one of biculturalism and bilingualism, but one of immigration and multiculturalism, a policy that since 1982 has been enshrined in our constitution. Underlying that story is a parallel one of 500 years of colonialism by the French and British empires. The colonists took the land from the indigenous peoples by violence, was indifferent to major epidemics among the Inuit, Metis, and First Nations, confined them to marginal reserves, and sought to assimilate the survivors through the Indian Residential Schools. Many indigenous peoples and their allies are ambivalent about Canada 150 because much of the past century and a half represents a stage in the attempt to eradicate “the Indian problem forever.” While the past fifty years have also seen the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, and the reclaiming of their traditions and lands, this has been slow coming, compelled by court cases and the testimony of injustice.

The indigenous peoples have been here since “time immemorial”. Archaeologists suggest that the ancestors of the First Nations of British Columbia came to these shores somewhere between 14,000 and 20,000 years ago, and probably earlier. In all likelihood there were waves of migration, the most recent being the ancestors of the Inuit over 1000 years ago. In contrast my ancestors came to Canada East and New Brunswick about 180 years ago, and I only arrived in British Columbia in 1995.


Josh Vickers, of the Heiltsuk First Nation and the archeological team, holds up a rare 6,500 year old carved wooden bi-point. (Joanne McSporran – CBC News)

Sea level was 100 metres lower 15,000 years ago, and so it is difficult to find sites of human habitation from that long ago in what is now the province of British Columbia. One site off the shore of Haida Gwaii has been dated to 13,800 before present, and a Heiltsuk village site has been dated to 14,000 years ago.

Let’s put this in perspective. This village is three times older than the pyramids. Great Britain and Ireland, from whence my people came, was not to be settled for another 5000 years. The roots of the Haida, the Heitsuk, the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Coast Salish are deep in this land.

So, perhaps as we approach Canada 150, and give thanks for living in Canada, we can also celebrate Canada 15000. As Canada Day comes let us honour our nation by committing ourselves to a process of decolonization.


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Whose Land Am I On?

The following is a continuation of the first draft of my dissertation Unsettling Theology. This is probably the most personal section.

At a G20 meeting on September 25, 2009 the Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, stated that Canada has no history of colonialism; that it was a highly developed country without the baggage other countries carry.[1] While one can see what he meant – Canada has not gone overseas to conquer, exploit, and colonise other lands, like Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, the Russian Empire (and the USSR), and the USA[2] -it is demonstrably a colony that just happened to have quietly gained its independence. That said, the main languages spoken, French and English, are those of its old colonial masters. It maintains a monarchy that is resides in the capital of the old British Empire. The system of government is based on the Hoses of parliament in Westminster. The colonies and dominion took land from the indigenous population, drove them into poorly supported reserves, and sought to assimilate them. Canada is a former colony from which the colonists never left, and they will likely never leave. As the Chief Justice of Canada Antonio Lamer said, “After all, we are all here to stay”.[3]


Flag of Newfoundland and Labrador

One of the pre-judgements of this work is that one must keep in mind past history. Canada was not a blank slate on which a highly developed country was erected. The current situation is grounded in a history of colonialism that continued past independence in 1931.[4] Canada used a red ensign with the Union Jack in the upper left corner until 1965, when the Maple Leaf flag came into use. Four provinces continue to use the Union Jack in the design of their provincial flags; Alberta’s flag incorporates the English flag of St. George, Nova Scotia the blue St. Andrew’s cross of Scotland, and Quebec uses the Fleurdelisé, a variation on the old French Royal flag.


Flag of British Columbia

Up until recently all of the main ferry ships in the BC Ferries System were called “The Queen of . . . ”. The colonial legacy is everywhere and most Canadians are largely unconscious of it, leading to statements like the former Prime Minister.

It is therefore important to remind ourselves of this history. One way to do this is by remembering whose land we are on.

It is normal in British Columbia and in other parts of Canada to preface any lecture, sermon, speech, and address by acknowledging whose land one is standing on. For example, living in the city of Victoria British Columbia I might begin by saying, “I wish to acknowledged that we have gathered on the traditional and unceded territory of the Lekwungen, also known as the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations, of the Coast Salish Peoples.” Someone from Calgary Alberta might say, “I grew up on Treaty 7 land, the traditional territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy.” While I live on the west coast of Canada, I grew up in a pulp-and-paper town on the St. Maurice River in Quebec, north of the St. Lawrence River. I had no idea whose land it had been, or what had happened to the indigenous people who lived there at contact.

I am the descendant of poor, pious Presbyterians who made their way from the border lands of Scotland and Protestant settlements in Ireland to the colonies of New Brunswick and Canada East[5], where they obtained the freeholds on farm land of varying quality. Those on marginal land also worked felling timber. After four generations some of my forebears were obtaining university degrees and moving into manufacturing and management, mirroring the gradual movement of Canada from farming and resource extraction to industrialization.

Grand-Mere Rock

The Grand-Mère Rock. Originally on a small island in the St. Maurice River (a tributary of the St. Lawrence), it was disassembled and moved to a park when a hydro-electric dam was built in 1916.

As a child in the 1960s and 1970s the “Indians” were a distant reality. The town in which I grew up, Grand-Mère, was named after a rock formation that looked like an old woman, supposedly an Indian woman who became old waiting by some waterfalls for her Indian brave to return. Who she was, what her name was, what language she spoke – these were all unasked and unanswered questions. The next door city, Shawinigan, where I was born, was named after an Indian name for the waterfalls on that part of the Riviere St. Maurice, but there was no context in terms of the indigenous peoples.[6]

In retrospect it is now clear to me that land had been part the original territory of a people whom later historians termed “St. Laurence Iroquoians”. It is thought that these people came into the St. Lawrence valley below Lake Ontario sometime around 1000 CE. They developed fortified villages within which they lived in the longhouses typical of Iroquoians. Their culture was based on corn, and every few years they would move their fields as the land became exhausted; their food was also supplemented by hunting, fishing, and gathering from the wild. In the 16th century, in 1535 and 1537 the French explorer encountered these people in the fortified villages of Stadacona (present day Quebec City) and Hochelaga (Montreal). The word “Canada” was the Laurentian term for “village” and Cartier applied it to both the land and the river. Cartier sought to establish a fort at Stadacona in 1541, but because the harshness of the winter, scurvy, and the hostility of the local St. Lawrence Iroquoians, the effort was abandoned.

Seventy-five years passed before another explorer came, this time Samuel Champlain, who, like Cartier, came from France. In between there had been limited contact between the native population and Basque fishermen, but apart from the drying of fish on the mainland and the obtaining of fresh water there was no attempt at landing. Champlain, after previous efforts in the Bay of Fundy, established the Habitation at the site of Stadacona in 1635, which eventually grew to become Quebec City. When Champlain came there was no village at the site, and indeed no sign whatsoever of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians; they had all disappeared. In their place the Haudenosaunee of the Five Nations (known by the French and English as the Iroquois) came from the south, from what is now present day New York. Also present were the Algonquins from the north and east were using the St. Lawrence River Valley. Both the Haudenosaunee and the Algonquians were using the St. Lawrence Valley as hunting grounds, and only gradually moving in to settle. There was no clear explanation at the time as to what had happened to the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. Later historians believed that in the intervening years they had been in conflict with the Iroquois of the Haudenosaunee and had been decimated and assimilated, but it seems to me that this assumption was based on a retro-projection of historical conflicts in the 17th and 18th century (the Huron and the Iroquois, mainly). In all likelihood they were destroyed by diseases from the “Old World” for which they had no acquired immunity. In other parts of the Americas there were mortality rates of 90%, and it is not hard to imagine something similar happening in the valley. What few survivors there were would have been assimilated into their neighbours. In the 1950s historians and philologists, examining Cartier’s records, determined that the peoples spoke a language related to those of the Haudenosaunee, but quite different in many respects. The word Canada, meaning “village” in St. Lawrence Iroquoian, has survived them. The river was renamed the Fleuve Saint-Laurent, but the land was still called Canada.[7] Shawinigan, where I was born and went to school, is an Abenaki name referring to a portage around waterfalls,[8] but the Abenaki only came into the St. Lawrence Valley from further south in the 17th century, at the urging of the French colonists. Likewise Grand-Mère is a translation for kokemesna, an Abenaki word for old woman.[9] The land I grew up on was the traditional and unceded territory of a people that were inadvertently wiped out by contact with Europeans, and ironically gave a name to the nation that came after them.

So, now I know what to say. I am a Canadian of British heritage who was born and raised on the traditional territories of the St. Lawrence Iroquois, who disappeared and were replaced by the Haudenosaunee, Abenaki, and Algonkians.

All of this may seem strange to a non-Canadian, and, indeed, it is not universal to do this the further east one goes in the country. However, it is important to say these things, because it acknowledges the colonial reality of modern day Canada. We are a colony from which the colonists never left. While the formal ties of government between Canada and the United Kingdom were severed in 1931 by the Statute of Westminster, culturally those ties remained strong until the 1970s. The official story taught children in elementary schools was that Canada was had two founding nations of the Britain and France. Multiculturalism, a policy of the federal government starting in the 1970s and enshrined in the Constitution in 1982, built upon the official bilingual and bicultural nature of the country, and was made concrete by significant immigration from countries other than the UK or France. That story now needs to be rewritten.

[1] Dwight Ljunggren, “Every G20 nation wants to be Canada, insists PM” from accessed June 7, 2017.

[2] Although it has sent troops overseas to South Africa in the Boer War, to France in WW I, Europe and Asia in WW II, Korea in 1950-53, the Gulf War in 1990-1991, and Afghanistan in 2001-2014.

[3] Chief Justice Antonio Lamer, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia 1997, para. 186 at accessed June 7, 2017.

[4] The cutting of colonial ties has been long process. Canada as a dominion of the British Empire was formed by an act of the UK Parliament, namely the British North America Act 1867 out of older colonies, each of which had a degree of autonomy in internal affairs. Other colonies and territories were added to create the current geographic entity. The Statute of Westminster of 1931 recognized the legislative independence of the British dominions – the Irish Free State, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Newfoundland (not yet a part of Canada). Appeals from the Supreme Court of Canada to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London ceased in 1949. Canada created its own citizenship in 1947, but Canadian passports continued to identify Canadians as British subjects up until the late 1970s. Canada never introduced an amending formula into its constitution, so changes had to be rubber-stamped by the UK parliament. Canada “repatriated” its constitution in 1982 when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau forced through an agreement with nine out of ten provinces which the legislatures in London passed; this incorporated an amending formula, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Article 35 which stated “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed” and that the “aboriginal peoples of Canada” includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.” I like to joke that growing up as an Anglophone of British decent in Quebec I was not aware that the British Empire was over.

[5] In 1867 the Province of Canada, consisting of Canada East and Canada West, became part of the Dominion of Canada, and were renamed the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario, respectively; the colonies of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia at this time confederated with Canada, and became provinces.

[6] Grand-Mère was absorbed into Shawinigan in 2002. Both cities, unusually late for Quebec, were founded at the turn of the 20th century; they were both situated to take advantage of waterfalls on the river to produce hydro-electricity. In addition to pulp and paper mills producing newsprint, the greater Shawinigan area was the first place in Canada to produce aluminum. Because it was anglophone Canadian and American interests that financed the industrialization, it was actually known as Shawinigan Falls until 1958 despite being 90% French speaking. The Prime Minister of Canada from 1993-2004, Jean Chretien OM (1934 – ), comes from Shawinigan.

[7] The term was extended in the late 18th century to include the land between the Great Lakes of Huron, Erie, and Ontario, and after 1867 it included everything within the new Dominion. The toponymn ultimately covered everything to the Arctic and Pacific Oceans.

[8] Commission de Toponymie de Québec, “Shawinigan” from accessed June 5, 2017.

[9] Commission de Toponymie de Québec, “Grand-Mère” from accessed June 5, 2017.

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Method in Theology: Simple, Complex, Contested

The following is a continuation of the first draft of my dissertation Unsettling Theology. It probably needs more footnotes and a lot of rewriting.


Contemporary theological method is relatively straight forward. Determine the topic or problem to be discussed. See what others have said about it. Determine the most important voices, and describe their positions, arguments, and evidence. Critique those positions, arguments, and evidence from a variety of well chosen perspectives, using well established criteria for evaluation. Summarise, describing the significance of what has been discussed. Suggest further avenues of study and discussion.

Canadian Catholic theologian Paul Allen describes contemporary theology in another way:

If I were to sum up in a single sentence what theological method is, I would say that it is a set of comparisons, contrasts and correlations – involving plenty of analogous language at certain stages of judgment – regarding four sources of theological content. Those sources of content are: scripture, reason, tradition and experience.[1]

That said, theological method is varied, and contested ground.

Throughout history theologians have used various genres to put forth their thoughts. Justin Martyr (2nd century) adopted the form of Platonic dialogues. Origen used commentaries on scripture to put forth his speculations, and this carried down to Martin Luther and Karl Barth, who both wrote theologies in the form of commentaries on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Augustine wrote commentaries, an autobiography, polemical treatises, letters, and sermons. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa adopted the disputational model then used in universities in which a topic is named in the form of a question, arguments against a position are named, the position is argued for (starting with a quotation from scripture) in a series of brief arguments, and then the objections are answered. Aquinas also wrote hymns, which are another way of doing theology. Perhaps the most detailed modern exposition on method in theology is that of Method in Theology by Bernard Lonergan.[2]

One might think that the discipline of theology, which arguably has been around for at least two-thousand years (and as much as three thousand if one if one starts with Judaism), would have a clear methodology. It does not. Like philosophy, because it is concerned with basic human principles and “the meaning of life” it is constantly going back to first things. Dogma, doctrines, and schools of thought get established, only to be critiqued in the next generation; those bringing the critique are then likewise challenged by those holding to the older modes of thought. These schools reinvent themselves, and argue amongst themselves. Ancient texts are read anew, and old readings are found to be less than satisfactory. Every consensus is provisional, and scholars and theologians regularly transgress doctrinal norms, sometimes to ecclesiastical punishment, but as often as not with significant regard.

Unlike philosophy theology is not a “pure” discipline. Arguably it is divided into several interacting disciplines that overlap and influence each other. In the Divinity School in which I first studied there were four broad areas: Biblical Studies, History, Theology, and Pastoral Theology. These all bleed over into each other. A study of a New Testament text is necessarily an historical study of First Century Christian authors and communities interacting with Jewish and Gentiles. That same text has an explicit and implicit theology which a theologian may use as a central part of a systematic approach, as Luther made use of Romans. New Testament scholars write theology, as Rudolf Bultmann did. Liturgical studies are both historical and practical (if not experimental), and they have explicit and implicit theologies around the reading of scripture in the church, preaching, the meaning and purpose of prayer, the significance of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and expectations around what happens to the people of God when they are dismissed. Theology becomes anthropology becomes ecclesiology becomes historiography becomes tactics and strategy in the community.

Furthermore, theology draws on other disciplines. It is deeply influenced by philosophy, and for almost every major philosophical movement there is a corresponding theological trend. In the Middle Ages theology was philosophy, and vice versa. Plato and Plotinus was read through the lens of the Cappadocians, Augustine, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and Aristotle through Aquinas and the Scholastics (and later on they were read through the filter of Neo-Scholasticism). Platonism, Aristotelian categories, Neo-Platonism, Aristotelian metaphysics, skepticism, Kantian morality and religion, Hegelianism, Marxism, Phenomenology, Existentialism, Feminism, Post-Modernism and a plethora of other systems have all had their effect.

But it is more than just philosophy. As is apparent to any sociologist, American fundamentalism took science as the model for doing theology, and then took a literal interpretation of the Bible as the primary evidence. As much as Marxists predicting the inexorable progress of humanity to harmonious anarchy, some Fundamentalists worked out a theory of dispensations that structured history and predicted events such as the Rapture and the Tribulation. This in turn has affected politics (especially in the United States) and politics has reciprocated by co-opting previously marginalized evangelicals into becoming advocates for low taxes, less government, opposition to climate change, and a strong military. In some ways this parallels earlier exchanges between politics and theology, such as the encounters of Christian thought with liberalism and socialism.

Events also influence the various disciplines of theology. The Holocaust challenged Christians to reassess how they read their scriptures, how they did their theology, how they worshipped, and how they did evangelism. In the post-war era the various denominations, largely anti-Jewish, became supportive of Judaism and suspended efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. The granting of full electoral and legal equality to women in many countries has led to their economic emancipation and a corresponding growth of women in leadership in many denominations; this has also been paralleled by a growth of LGBTQ2 explicitly present in various churches and their leadership. Not surprisingly, this means that two current hot areas of theological study are Queer Theology and Feminist Theology. The departure of colonial powers from colonies around the world has led to the rise of post-colonial theology, and in nations in Latin America where economic policies historically meant the impoverishment of the majority Liberation Theology has emerged. Black Theology and Womanist Theology grew in the United States out of the experience of African-American men and women, respectively. All of this new theology emerges out of lived experience of oppression and marginalization, and challenges the male dominated Divinity Schools in Europe and North America which project a supposedly objective approach to the various theological disciplines, and which resist politicization.

A particularly challenging issue is that theology no longer seems to be the respected discipline it used to be. Many academic institutions do not have faculties or departments of theology. In older universities where faculties or schools of divinity exist there is a push to suspend theology as a faith-based activity and to transform the places into centres for the study of religion (for example, the University of Chicago Divinity School, but also Harvard Divinity School, and the old McGill Faculty of Divinity which is now the School of Religious Studies). Some mainline divinity schools are closing or merging into more financially stable bodies: Andover Newton is moving from Massachusetts to the Yale campus, Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge MA has suspended operations, and Heythrop College in London is likewise ending its teaching.

Was in reaction to this marginalization of theology that John Milbank developed his Radical Orthodoxy? Radical Orthodoxy calls into question the relevance of Kantian metaphysical critiques and secularism to theology. Rather than being subject to various social theories, Milbank argued that theology, envisioned by him as “a postmodern critical Augustinianism”, was self-sufficient and needed to purge itself of these influences and rightfully and righteously critique those same systems of thought. In an era when governments are cutting back on funding the liberal arts and promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), it is exactly the kind of fighting back one might expect from a brilliant up-and-coming theologian in a provincial university.

In my experience the best theology is always aware of its context in history and its manifold influences and manifestations. Rather than start in the abstract it is better to start in the concrete, and then work towards abstraction, and then work back to the concrete. In this sense it is a complex maneuver, a hermeneutical circle that takes up the whole life of the one doing theology. It is very much an exercise of the incarnation, in that theology can never be divorced from the theologian who lives and dies. Theology is inherently subjective and objective, in that the subject is always present in the statement about God, but the theology is also an object for others to consider, critique, and make their own. Theology is inherently talk by humans about God, and the human quality is inescapable.

If good theology is then incarnated in historical individuals, then it also seems to be the case that good theology is created by concrete crises. Paradigmatically, the Council of Jerusalem was convened by dissension caused by Paul’s evangelism to the Gentiles. The orthodox canon of scripture was a reaction to Marcion’s limited one. Monasticism was a reaction to the lowering of expectations of Christians in 3rd century Egypt. The increasing significance of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the divergences about the nature of Christ within the church led to the calling of the oecumenical councils. Augustine wrote The City of God in defense of Christianity after the sack of Rome and the pagans blaming Christians for it. Aquinas sought to assist in the propagation of the gospel to newly conquered Moors in Spain by writing the Summa Contra Gentiles. Luther posted his 95 theses in reaction to corruption in the church, and developed his hermeneutics of sola fide and sola scriptura to found Christian authority in scripture, and not the institution of the church. Anglicanism emerged out of a conflict around royal succession. Liberal Christianity emerged in the 19th century as a reflection on the application of historico-critical methods to scripture. Bernard Lonergan wrote Method in Theology to orient theologians to the multiple forms of historical sciences that were challenging traditional Catholic theology in the 20th century.

Theology, then, is complex. It resists abstraction because of its carnal nature. It is a discussion, but after two-thousand years there are too many discussion partners. The intertexts are beyond the comprehension of any one individual. It takes decades to have read enough to say something that is well grounded. Rabbit holes that lead to Wonderland are everywhere.

In the next chapter I will state what I understand to be the method being used in this dissertation, as well as the biases underlying the method.

[1] Taede A. Smedes , “Does Theology Have a Method? An Interview with Paul Allen” at accessed June 3, 2017. Paul Allen, a theologian at Corcordia University, Montreal QC Canada, is the author of Theological Method: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T&T Clark International/Continuum Books, 2012).

[2] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972).

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Canada and the Refugee Crisis: Part Two

This is the second part of a talk I gave on Ascension Day 2017 at Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, on Canada and the Refugee Crisis. The first part was where I give an overview of the history and current situation in the world today; this part zooms in on Canada’s response to refugees in the past couple of generations. I was the Refugee Coordinator for the Refugee Program of the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia from February 2015 until April 2017.

Canada’s Refugee Policy Evolves

Vietnamese Refugees

Vietnamese Refugees receiving their visas and plane tickets to Canada, late 1970s.

Up until the mid-1970s the immigration policy of Canada was based on quotas for countries of origin, and many of those quotas were racially and religiously based. In 1975 the Trudeau government introduced legislation that came into force in 1976, the Immigration Act. It abolished the quotas and created four categories of immigrants:

1.Independent immigrants were selected on the basis of the points system;
2.The Family class which included the immediate family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents;
3.Refugees as defined by the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; and
4.Persecuted and displaced persons that did not qualify as refugees under the convention definition but could be admitted on humanitarian grounds.

This was the first formal recognition of refugees as a class of immigrants – before then they had been admitted on an ad hoc basis, and frequently with a calculation as to how well they would integrate into Canadian society and contribute to the economy. Refugees and persecuted & displaced persons would now be admitted on humanitarian grounds. At first the assumption was that these persons would be supported by the government as Government Assisted Refugees (“GARs”). However, in the late ‘seventies large numbers of refugees from South Vietnam were seeking permanent solutions in Western nations. The Canadian government was overwhelmed by the need to rapidly settle so many people, and so allowed for private Canadians in groups and for community organizations (often churches and other religious bodies) to sponsor refugees, providing virtually all the financial resources necessary for a year for an individual or family. Ultimately some 110,000 Vietnamese came to Canada between 1975 and 1985.

A major influence on this decision by the Clark government and carried on by the Trudeau government was the circulation in draft and the publication of the book None is Too Many.

None is Too ManyThis book, by Irving Abella and Harold Troper, detailed the problematic history of Canadian governments with regard to the immigration of Jews into Canada. Politicians and immigration officials became aware of the true history and swore that it would not happen again. The welcoming of refugees would be based on humanitarian grounds, not political expediency or economic advantage.

The program for Private Sponsorship of Refugees (“PSRs”) is so far unique to Canada. Most other countries continue mainly along the GAR route. While this is often subcontracted to settlement houses and religious organizations, Canada remains alone in allowing its citizens and residents to sponsor individuals and families. Sponsorship may be done by any group of five citizens or permanent residents, or by any community group, but they must apply and be accepted by the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship of Canada (“IRCC”). While this happens, most PSRs are now admitted through groups that have made permanent arrangements with IRCC to sponsor refugees. These are called Sponsorship Agreement Holders (“SAHs”, pronounced “sawz”), and the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia is one of them. There are over 100 SAHs across the country.

Another aspect of Canadian policy is that we admit people as refugees who have not necessarily been assessed as such by the UNHCR or their host nation (i.e. at best, they are registered asylum seekers). The IRCC and its officials make their own determination. This is the category of persecuted and displaced persons who do not qualify as refugees but
+ are outside their home country, or the country where they normally live, and
+ have been seriously affected by civil war or armed conflict, or
+ have been denied basic human rights on an ongoing basis.
On that basis any person fleeing the war in Syria and makes it to another country qualifies prima facie.

Myanmar Refugees

A Refugee from Myanmar

Originally government  policy observed the Principle of Additionality, which asserted that the Canadian government would determine how many GARs it would support, and that PSRs were to be in addition to this number. Historically this turned out to be roughly 1:1. However, as time went on and successive governments reduced funding to IRCC’s predecessor ministries, a backlog of applications began to build up. The Harper government began including the PSRs in its calculations of total refugees to be admitted, and started putting caps on the numbers of refugees each SAH could sponsor (the only notable exception being that there was no cap on the number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees a SAH could sponsor). In particular, applications that would be processed by certain visa offices in high-risk areas – Cairo, Islamabad, and Nairobi, for example – were also “sub-capped”. SAHs complained about the restrictions, but worked within them.

Suddenly It All Changed

On September 2, 2015 there were over 4,000,000 refugees from the Syrian war. Not a few had relatives overseas, and one family, that of Abdullah Kurdi, submitted an application to the Canadian government for sponsorship by a group organized by Kurdi’s sister in Vancouver. For mainly bureaucratic reasons the application was rejected by IRCC’s predecessor ministry, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (“CIC”). After the rejection Kurdi decided to try to migrate to Europe and paid human smugglers to be taken from Turkey to Greece. However, they never made it – the boat capsized, and Kurd’s wife and two sons both died. The dead body of three-year old Alan Kurdi was photographed on a Turkish beach just before a police officer removed it.

The photograph was widely published in various media that day and went around the world in social media. In particular, because of the Canadian connection and the rejection of the application the then federal government and its minister, the Honourable Chris Alexander, questions were asked as to whether Canada could do better. As Canada was in the midst of a federal election, it became an issue, and indeed, it dominated the news media for a solid week, which is an eternity in politics. New Democrat leader Tom Mulcair said that he would bring an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada if elected. Prime Minister Harper defended the refugee process and the numbers being admitted, grudgingly suggesting that he could also bring 10,000 Syrians if re-elected.  Eventual election winner Justin Trudeau promised 25,000 by Christmas (later revised to the end of February) and, on this issue, effectively ran to the left of the NDP.

Sabine Lehr and Me

Dr. Sabine Lehr of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria answers a question on refugee sponsorship in the Q&A after my presentation, September 8, 2015, St. Matthias Anglican Church, Victoria BC Canada.

Meanwhile rallies were held and people came together to form groups to sponsor refugees. I stood up at one rally in Victoria and announced that if anyone wanted to learn how to sponsor refugees they could come to my parish church on Tuesday, September 8. 350 people showed up at St. Matthias (I will never see that church so full!). I invited Sabine Lehr of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria (the city’s oldest and largest immigration settlement agency), to help out, as they had just become a SAH also. Over 250 people volunteered to come together in groups. ICA and the Refugee Program of the Diocese of BC split the list of volunteers, and each of us then proceeded to form sponsorship groups to raise money, prepare and submit applications, and get trained to welcome refugees.


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes some of the first refugees from Syria being airlifted and expedited by the Canadian government.

Let us fast forward to the end of 2016. As we know, the Canadian government flooded the Middle East with visa officers and arranged charters to bring Syrian refugees to Canada.  After twelve months over 47,000 refugees had come to Canada, at least 25,000 of whom were GARs. There was a spill over effect as many groups agreed to sponsor non-Syrian immigrants. According to the UNHCR, the top five countries of origin in 2016 were:
Syria: 33,266
Eritrea: 3,934
Iraq: 1,650
Congo: 1,644
Afghanistan: 1,354
To put this in context, there were 320,000 total immigrants in 12 months 2015-2016, of which 14.6% were refugees. This was three to four times as many refugees as would normally have come in a twelve month period.


The new Trudeau government did a remarkable thing in bringing in so many refugees so quickly. In particular, it looks far better than the United States, which took in only 10,000 Syrians. However, this needs to be put in perspective. At the same time that Canada took in 47,000 refugees (and processed a further 23,895 inland refugee claimants), Germany welcomed and processed over one million refugees. If Canada had processed a similar proportion it would have taken in 490,000, seven times the number that it actually did. As well, as the chart above shows, the Trudeau government has reverted to older levels of support for GARs. They also placed caps on the number on refugees any SAH could sponsor, arguing that they needed to further reduce the backlog of applications in the visa offices. The financial taps were turned off abruptly after the 25,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada, and the 500 semi-retired visa officers sent out in November 2015 were brought home. They also removed the exception for Syrians and Iraqis, including them under the caps for the first time, something not even Harper had done. Thus, arguably, right now the refugee process in Canada is even more restrictive than it was under Harper.

Inland Refugee Claimants

There is a distinction between overseas refugees and inland refugee claimants. Overseas refugees are not allowed to board a plane to Canada unless they have a visa. Because we are surrounded by oceans on three sides patrolled by the Coast Guard, and have a stable neighbour to the south, we do not get massive numbers of people migrating by land and water, as European countries do. Nevertheless, we do get a number of people entering Canada on visitor visas or student visas and then claiming refugee status. Under Canadian law the responsibility of the federal government is to hear the claim and to adjudicate it – and these are the Immigration & Refugee Boards that you sometimes hear about. The Board’s decisions can be appealed and they are also reviewable by the courts. As you can see from the numbers above from Statistics Canada, there was a rise in 2016, but nothing out of the ordinary compared to previous years. There will be more in 2017 because of migration by people from the United States over the undefended border as they live in fear of the new US federal government. IRCC will hear their claims and put the claimants through the same security and medical checks as overseas refugees, as well as use the same criteria to determine if they are legitimate refugees; roughly one in three is rejected and deported.

Diocesan Refugee Ministry

Diocese of BC Refugee Program

The Anglican Diocese of British Columbia has over 45 churches and a variety of non-parochial ministries all over Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. We have been a SAH since the late ‘seventies and have helped settle hundreds of people over the decades. We typically work through parishes, building up sponsorship groups to sponsor individuals and families.

Zack & Hind

Selfie of me with Zack and Hind, two newcomers from Iraqi

In early September 2015 we were not actively sponsoring anybody, although we had submitted several applications and were waiting. Since then we have, in total, settled or applied for 350 individuals through 75 sponsorship groups and well over 500 volunteers. We have raised over $2 million dollars. We will work with anybody, not just Anglicans, and so many of our groups are Roman Catholic, some are from other Protestant churches, many are basically groups of secular people who just want to work with us, and we even have a group through the Islamic Centre of Nanaimo. Without intending to, we have become the biggest outreach of the Anglican Diocese of BC.

Two Anglicans and Lama

Lama, who arrived from Syria in February 2015, standing between two Anglicans. On the right is Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich and the Gulf Islands, whose efforts to assist Lama and her family were great!

  • As of March 2017 we had completed the sponsorship of 58 people, representing six families in Victoria, five in Nanaimo, two in Ladysmith, and one in Comox.
  • We are actively settling 75 people, fourteen families in Victoria and five north of the Malahat. This includes 42 Syrians, 9 Colombians, 8 from Myanmar, 4 Liberians, 2 Iraqis, 1 Ethiopian, and 1 Gambian.
  • We have submitted applications for 145 more refugees, and they are being processed by IRCC. This represents 52 families or individuals, of whom 60 are Syrian, 45 Iraqi, 29 Eritrean, and the rest are from the Congo, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and one stateless. 31 of these families will be settled in Victoria, and 21 in the middle part of Vancouver Island.
  • IRCC has allocated 83 spots for individual refugees for us to sponsor. All of these will be used, and we are currently preparing 18 applications for 72 persons, mostly Syrians.
  • We have a waiting list of over 115 people who have asked us for sponsorship. We may get further spots allocated to us later in the year.

When I became the Refugee Coordinator in February 2015 I could never have imagined that the program would grow this large. This was supposed to be my contribution to the Diocese, as part of my work in the parish, perhaps five to eight hours a week, done in addition to my regular work. As the program grew it became apparent that it needed to move from being an amateurish organization (in the best sense of that word) to one with professional support. In October 2015 the Diocese hired Tony Davis to assist with sponsorship groups north of the Malahat and Rebecca Siebert to do the same in Victoria and the Gulf Islands, as well as assist me in the general oversight of the Refugee Program. Although I put in many hours in the Fall of 2015 and the first half of 2016, it gradually became clear to me that it was time to hand over the leadership in refugee program coordination to Rebecca; I resigned my role in April of this year.

I behooves me to state that while I had a role in all of this, I simply was the Refugee Coordinator at a time when tens of thousands of Canadians suddenly wanted the skills, knowledge, and training that the Refugee Program could provide them; we were in the right place at the right time. While I was fairly aggressive in taking advantage of the situation – one that comes only once in a generation – the hard work was really done by Rebecca and Tony, as well as Professor John McLaren as the Chair of the Refugee Committee. The Refugee Committee transformed itself from a listening group for the Refugee Coordinator into a working group where everybody had a responsibility and the whole established policies. Things changed every other week, it seemed, and the work of training and designing the training was massive. Our over-five hundred volunteers were the ones who really worked hard, selflessly giving hundreds of hours of volunteer time to help raise money and then help to settle the newcomers. Sometimes this was far more challenging than anyone had anticipated. Kudos to everyone in the program! As well, we had help from the politicians at the federal, provincial, and municipal level, and people working in various ministries and non-governmental agencies. ICA led the way in best practices for settling refugees as they received hundreds of GARs in addition to some 75 PSRs. The Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (“VIRCS”) complemented the work of ICA and helped many of our sponsees in Victoria, as did the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society in Nanaimo and the Cowichan Valley Intercultural & Immigrant Aid Society. God bless you all!

Being part of the Refugee Program has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I’ve had people – and not just refugees – come up to me and say, “You’ve changed my life!” I believe that as a Christian I and all who follow Jesus are called to work with others in being hospitable and caring, and that being so is indeed life-changing. I am grateful for the two-and-a-half years I had working in this ministry, and I pray that it may continue. When things are not going well I can always tell myself, “Well Bruce, there are over 350 people who will not be washed up dead on a foreign shore, and you had a hand in it.” My hope is that you might be inspired to sponsor refugees, if you are not already doing so, and help change people’s lives.

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Canada and the Refugee Crisis: Part One

I gave a talk on Ascension Day 2017 at Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, on Canada and the Refugee Crisis. Here’s the first part where I give an overview of the history and current situation in the world today; I’ll post Part Two in a bit. I was the Refugee Coordinator for the Refugee Program of the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia from February 2015 until April 2017.

Refugees from South Sudan

Refugee Children from South Sudan 2017

Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me to speak to you about Canada and refugees. I’ve been asked to give the general overview, and I hope that it provides a context for speakers and discussions in the weeks ahead.

It’s Nothing New

Let’s begin with the fact that the current refugee crisis is another manifestation of a central fact of human nature, which is that we move. Humans moved out of Africa and migrated into Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. Movement is caused by many things – a search for new resources, the following of animals, the discovery of fertile soil. Movement is also caused by more negative things, namely war, famine, and disease. Those of us who are of British and Irish descent (and we are Anglicans, so I assume many of us qualify) and the descendants and heirs of the stone and bronze age peoples who built stone circles, who then were transformed by the Indo-European Celtic speaking peoples who arrived in the First Millennium. Then came the Romans, then the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, then the Vikings, then the Normans. In the heyday of the British Empire millions of people left to colonize other lands. More recently peoples from the old Empire and the European Union have come to settle in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Movement is not an anomaly, but normal and natural.

Ukranian orphans

Ukranian Orphans

A major part of this movement is refugees. There is nothing new about Canada welcoming refugees. Before the First World War Canada under Clifford Sifton (Minister of Interior under Wilfrid Laurier) welcomed Ukranian settlers to the Prairies. After the Great War Ukranians attempted to establish an independent state, but the Soviet Union invaded and there was civil war. Some 70,000 Ukranians came to Canada seeking refuge and a new life.


The SS St. Louis 1939

With the rise of National Socialism in Germany in 1933 Jewish Germans were persecuted and encouraged to leave the country (provided they paid to do so, and left virtually everything behind). Many sought to emigrate from Europe, but were turned back by antisemitic governments and officials in the United States, Cuba, and Canada. A Canadian immigration official was asked in 1939 how many Jewish refugees Canada would take, and his reply has become legendary: “None is too many.” One of the ships that attempted to land these immigrants was the SS St Louis in 1939, sailing from Hamburg with over 900 passengers, most of whom were German Jews. Ultimately it returned to Europe with its Jewish passengers. The captain sought to find refuge for his passengers, but ultimately many of them were in countries that were conquered by the Nazis.  A quarter of them did not find a safe refuge, and died in the Holocaust.

Post WW II

Refugee Camp, Europe 1946

After the Second World War there were millions of refugees in Europe – the survivors of the Holocaust, ethnic Germans forced from their historic homelands, and millions of others (Poles, Russians, Ukranians) obliged to move because of border changes and displacement during the war. Canada was reluctant to accept Jewish Holocaust survivors (and only changed the policy after the establishment of the State of Israel, when the pressure to take Jewish refugees lessened), but after 1950 it welcomed some 400,000 German refugees. It also welcomed some 150,000 Dutch immigrants, many of whom were fleeing floods.


Palestinian Refugees, 1947

The creation of the state of Israel by the United Nations and its establishment in the Israeli War of Independence resulted in some 700,000 Palestinians fleeing or being expelled from their homes; this represented some 85% of the Palestinian population. As the war involved Arab countries attacking the new state, some 700,000 Jews were expelled from countries throughout the Arabic speaking world, nearly all of who settled in Israel. While the Jewish refugees became citizens of Israel, the Palestinian refugees remained stateless; through population growth they now number 4.2 million in the West Bank and Gaza; the total number of registered and unregistered Palestinian refugees is about 5.5 million.

The Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe resulted in the establishment of Soviet-friendly regimes that repressed the local populations. Hungarians revolted in 1956 and Czechoslovakians in 1968, but both revolutions were put down bloodily. As a result Canada took in 37,000 Hungarians and 11,000 Czechs and Slovaks. The dictator Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda in 1972 and Canada welcomed over 7000 refugees, over 4000 people arriving in specially chartered flights.

What is a Refugee?

UN Convention Refugees 1951

The signing of the UN Convention on Refugees, 1951

In 1951 the United Nations Convention on Refugees was agreed upon; it originally dealt with European refugees from the Second World War, although at the discretion of contracting nations it could be extended to other situations.  In 1967 it was extended by the Protocol, which had no geographic limitations. The Convention and Protocol consolidates and establishes the standard definitions of who qualifies as a refugee and the responsibilities of the contracting nations. The first article defines a refugee as:

A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

One needs distinguish between those who may qualify for refugee status and those who are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”) as such. The latter have been evaluated by UNHCR staff, whereas the former are called asylum seekers and the UNHCR has not yet determined their status.

As one can see from the graph below, there are some 16.6 refugees – including both those registered and seeking registration. The biggest jump is with the Syrians, which has almost tripled from under 2 million refugees to almost 5.5 million in 2016. The next biggest source of refugees is Afghanistan, followed by Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Congo, Central African Republic, Myanmar, Eritrea, and Colombia.

Refugee Sources

By definition refugees are people who have fled their home country and are now in a second country. That second country may give them refuge but they may not be able to or want to give them a permanent solution to their situation. Thus, as can be seen from the map below, millions of refugees from Syria are in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, but they are not immigrants to those countries and do not have the right to stay, work, and become citizens. The “permanent solution” to these refugees dilemma is for them either to return home when peace is declared or the source of their persecution is removed, or they are settled in a third country, such as Canada or the United States.

Where are they now?

As can be seen the war in Afghanistan has resulted in large numbers of refugees coming to Pakistan and Iran. The war in Somalia and persecution in Eritrea has resulted in large numbers of refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya. Venezuela and Ecuador still has large numbers of Colombia refugees despite the peace agreement in that country.

What is not included in these numbers, charts, and maps is the number of internally displaced people  (“IDPs”) – people who would qualify as refugees except for the fact that they are still in their home country. This describes many Syrians, 11 million, or one out of three who have seen their homes destroyed.


There are now over 34 million IDPs – more than two for every each refugee/asylum seeker. Not included in these numbers are the 5.2 million Palestinian refugees; they are governed by a separate UN agency that dates from 1948, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (“UNRWA”). By the time one adds up all of the refugees and displaced persons one has something like 65 million people – the largest number of refugees since 1945.

In my next post, Part Two, I’ll describe Canada’s response to refugees in the recent past an say a little bit about the efforts of the Refugee Program of the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia. If there are any errors or omissions in the information provided, please note them in the blog below. Thank you for reading!

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Is the Legacy of the Indian Residential Schools an Issue for Theology?

The following is a continuation from my previous post and part of the serialization of the first draft of my dissertation Unsettling Theology.

I was thirsty

Window from the Parish of St. Mary the Virgin, Oak Bay, Anglican Diocese of British Columbia

One might argue that while the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools is an issue for the Church in Canada, it is not really an issue for theology as an academic discipline. The IRS were efforts attempted with the best intentions and largely by good people, even though the outcome was tragic and to be regretted. But this is not due to theology, or should not be assumed to be due to it. Rather, the issue was in the tactics and methodology of the people operating the schools at the behest and support of the federal government. Core doctrine is not affected by condemning what happened in the schools, and what needs to be considered is just a better way of bringing the good news in word and deed.

In any case, no one is asking the churches or theologians to change their theologies. The TRC issued 94 Calls to Action.[1] Most of these calls are to the federal and provincial governments in Canada on issues such as child welfare, education, the preservation of indigenous languages and cultures, health, and justice. The Canadian Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, has committed himself to implementing these recommendations. Some of the Calls to Action were addressed in part and directly to the churches; they are worth reading in full and are collected in Appendix A. The Calls to Action ask the churches to support certain national and indigenous endeavours and, in particular, to respect aboriginal spirituality and customs. They do not presume to call the churches to examine themselves and their theologies, other than to review the history of the churches’ complicity in colonialism, and the necessity for full apologies. To these calls the churches have agreed.

As well, the churches that were involved in the schools have all offered apologies, and these are catalogued in the TRC Final Report. Further, as it is often pointed out, this is not just between settlers and indigenous peoples. The lines between indigenous and settler often get blurry as many people have mixed heritage and may identify primarily as one or the other or both. Within the churches are many mainly indigenous congregations and judicatories, with native clergy at various levels of responsibility. For example, in the Anglican Church of Canada there is a National Indigenous Bishop and many indigenous priests and deacons; the Diocese of the Arctic is largely Inuit and the Bishop and people of a diocese in Northern Ontario, the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, are Cree and Ojibway. On the whole these indigenous Christians and their ordained leadership are conservative in their theology and are not looking for transformation and reflection.

But does theology not influence the way one lives as a Christians? And if one admits that things went wrong with the IRS, should one not also wonder whether the thinking of the people who set them up and enthusiastically supported them come into play? If ideas influence events, is it not incumbent upon us to consider what theological ideas were in play in the century in which the schools were operated?

Indeed, given the grave results of the IRS, it is incumbent upon the church and its theologians to consider what went wrong. This was a terrible lapse in ethical behaviour, described by the former Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Most Reverend Michael Peers, as a kind of idolatry: “we tried to remake you in our image”. Perhaps the time has come for theologians and the church to reorient theology to ethics and concern for the oppressed and disadvantaged, and let go of issues of metaphysics and ontology.

But, “when has Christianity ever paid attention to ethics?”

This objection was made to me by Conrad Brunk, retired Professor of Philosophy at University of Victoria, past Director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society there, and himself the son of a Mennonite bishop. And the challenge has a bite that is more than rhetorical. Throughout history, Christians and Christian theology have been complicit in or indifferent to mass murder, slavery, genocide, cultural assimilation, colonialism, imperialism, discrimination of every type, censorship, xenophobia, and the retardation of progress in science. While this is undoubtedly also balanced by good works by saints and leaders in every age (one’s thoughts run to Patrick, Augustine of Canterbury, Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi, and modern saints such as Martin Luther King, George Bell, and the Berringer brothers), it is an undeniable history.

Also, despite the current appearance of certain groups of Christians arguing for certain understandings of moral behavior, morality and ethics always seems to be secondary or derivative of “core” theology.   This remains a current problem. John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology (1966)[2] which was used as a textbook for a generation, leaves an explicit discussion of ethics to his twenty-first and last chapter.   The more recent Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology (2009)[3] presents learned essays by a variety of authors on the topics of Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Providence, Scripture, and Resurrection, but “ethics” is not even an entry in the indices of either of its two volumes.

In many Divinity Schools there is a four-part division in study between theology, biblical studies, history, and pastoral studies (this last one being very much a poor cousin of the other three). Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza comments that “Biblical studies appear to have progressed in a political vacuum, and scholars seem to have understood themselves to be accountable solely – as Robert Funk put it – to the vested interests of the “fraternity of scientifically trained scholars with the soul of a church.””[4] Schüssler Fiorenza quotes a letter of 1926 from Rudolf Bultmann, who dominated much of 20th century theology and biblical study, as characteristic of this lack of concern:

Of course, the impact of the [First World War] has led many people to revise their concepts of human existence; but I must confess that this has not been so in my case . . . So I do not believe that the war has influenced my theology. My view is that if anyone is looking for the genesis of our theology he will find that internal discussion with the theology of our teachers plays an incomparably greater role than the impact of war or reading Dostoyevsky.[5]

In their discussions Christian theologians, biblical scholars, and even Christian historians seem to be impervious to what is going on around them. If they have concerns related to the institutional church or the academy they are too often more about doctrinal purity and institutional growth than problems of conduct and evil. The result is an inability to deal with the horrific legacy that Christianity has gathered over the past two millennia.

So, if Christianity up to now has always made ethics a secondary or derivative matter, then, given its history, should it not be made more central?

But this is not so much as a re-centering of modern theology as a return to Christian origins in Judaism. First century Judaism was concerned with issues of justice because Judea, Samaria, and Galilee were all areas of the Jewish peoples under Roman occupation. Jewish leadership in the institution of the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees was in the uncomfortable position of being collaborators with the occupation. The New Testament reflects the perspective of an oppressed people, and there is a growing scholarly consensus that much of the New Testament embody a non-violent subversive opposition to the Roman rule.[6] Following the legalization of Christianity and its patronage by Constantine, this political dimension was submerged, and ceased to be read out of the New Testament. Has Christian theology so removed itself from its Jewish roots that it fails to see the centrality of justice as a major theme in its doctrine. Is this why for the past 500 years, if not longer, that salvation has been individualized and spiritualized?

At the core of the Christian faith is Easter. The resurrection of Jesus, as with all resurrection, is a moment of God’s justice, a fulfillment of God’s promise. That this was a theme in Jewish narrative is evident from the horrific story in 2 Maccabees 7. The story tells of devout Jews who refused to eat pork, as it was against the Torah. The Selucid authorities torture them with scalping and fry them on a large pan. Seven sons and their mother are successively executed in this way. They encourage one another by expressing their hope in the resurrection: “ . . . the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” They say, “”The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song that bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, ‘And he will have compassion on his servants.’ “[7]

The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates the time of justice, the time when God has compassion on all who have suffered, and the responsibility of Jesus’ followers is to live in that way of justice and compassion, and to proclaim it to the world in word and deed. The incarnation and the death of Jesus can be seen, in a Jewish context, as acts of God’s justice in the world.[8]

If the New Testament and the origins of Christianity can be read as being concerned with justice and that it shows how to act now that the re-creation of the world has been inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, then it should be possible to recover this emphasis in Christian theology. The doctrines of atonement, incarnation, providence, and revelation need to be seen in the light of the resurrection as God’s justice, and ethics is not a concern to be left to the last chapter, but where one might begin.

The problem of the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools is thus very much a theological one, and to address it one must begin with God’s justice and the ethical behaviour of the people of God.

In this respect, it is not much different from other theologies of liberation. Liberation theology, feminist theology, Black theology, Womanist theology, and post-colonial theology are start with various concrete examples of injustice. Where a Latin American Liberation theologian begins with economic inequity and an analysis of the exploitation of poor, I am suggesting that theologians reflection on the IRS begin with the genocide of indigenous peoples in Canada. Where a Black theologian begins with the fact of entrenched discrimination against African-Americans in the United States, Unsettling Theology founds itself on an acknowledgement of racism in Canada and the ongoing trans-generational trauma still at work in reserves and with urban indigenous.

[1] TRC Final Report Vol. 1, pp. 319-337.

[2]          John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, 2nd Edition (New York: Charles Scribners & Sons, 1977).

[3]          Michael Rea, Editor, Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology, Volumes 1 & 2 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4]          Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Rhetoric and Ethics: The Politics of Biblical Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), p. 23.

[5]          Ibid.

[6]           This view is endorsed by such diverse New Testament scholars as N. T. Wright, Richard Horsley, Helmut Koester, and Dominic Crossan.

[7]           2 Maccabees 7.9 and 7.6, quoting the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32.36.

[8]           There is a growing literature by Jewish academic historians who are appropriating the New Testament as noncanonical first-century Jewish literature. The leader in this is probably Daniel Boyarin, who reads the Prologue of John as a Jewish midrash of Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 in “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John” in Harvard Theological Review 94:3 (2001 ) 243-84 and in The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2011). See also Pamela Eisenbaum Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2009).

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The Indian Residential Schools: Yes, It Was Genocide

The following is a continuation from my previous post and part of the serialization of the first draft of my dissertation Unsettling Theology.


Two issues arise immediately. First, was the operation of the Indian residential schools really genocide? After all, the term “genocide” is pretty strong, and one wants to use it correctly and only when justified. In common culture it is associated with the Holocaust, and there is a tendency to emphasise the unique nature of that horrific episode in world history. The second issue is whether this is an important issue for theology, in the sense that it calls into question the way we do theology now.

I answer both questions in the affirmative. First, the operation of the IRS is justifiably described as genocide. To understand what genocide is one needs to look at the history of the term and the UN Convention on Genocide (1947). Article 2 states:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.[1]

The statement by Duncan Campbell Scott in chapter one suggests that there was intent on the part of the Canadian federal government to destroy indigenous peoples as such, mainly by absorbing them into the dominant colonial population. The chief means was through the Indian Residential Schools, and, as noted, the Indian Act enabled the legal apprehension of children from their parents for this purpose; this would seem to be a clear fulfillment of 2.e, “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” As well, there appeared to be a callous indifference to mortality among the children apprehended, leading to their deaths; this would seem to satisfy 2.a, “Killing members of the group.” It might be argued that the government and churches did not try deliberately to kill the children, but the impression created is that the project was one of “assimilate or die trying.” It is clear that both physical and mental harm was inflicted on the children by the unchecked use of physical punishment and indifferent control of sexual predators, thus contravening 2.b. It is more debatable whether 2.c or 2.d apply, but the schools were part an overall trajectory of domination by colonists that marginalized the indigenous peoples and did result in considerable physical destruction by the loss of their lands and systemic discrimination.

LemkinThe term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Lemkin was born a Jewish Pole in the Russian Empire and as a young man studied philosophy in Germany and law in Poland, becoming a prosecutor. Fascinated by atrocities, he sought to understand from a legal perspective the mass murders he knew took place against the Armenians in the Great War and afterwards, and the human-created famine in Ukraine in the 1930s. He escaped Poland to Sweden after the beginning of the Second World War, and made his way to the United States in 1941 where he taught and consulted with the US government. While not fully aware of the Holocaust at that time (although he lost 49 members of his family in it), he had read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and was aware of his desire to destroy the Jews and to expand German settlements into Ukraine and Russia. He wrote:

Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the oppressor’s own nationals.[2]

In the wake of the Holocaust it is sometimes assumed that genocide means the complete eradication of a “race”, as Hitler intended towards the Jews, but in fact as originally contemplated by Lemkin and written up in the Convention it involved destruction “in whole or in part”. Lemkin had an expansive understanding of genocide, and gave as an example of religious genocide the persecution of Polish Catholic clergy by Nazi Germany.[3] He wrote:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killing of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.[4]

Lemkin drafted the original convention and sought to include linguistic and cultural groups as protected groups – note that the final text only covers a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group” – but this was negotiated out by the diplomats.[5]

There is now an entire academic field concerned with genocide studies (Yale University, Clark University, and the University of Minnesota, for example, all have programs). Recent literature has considered the relationship of colonialism and genocide and its applicability to the Indian Residential Schools.[6] The conclusion is that it probably does, although it is unlikely that any legal case could ever be successfully brought against any party at this time.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the Indian Residential Schools were cultural genocide. The commissioners wrote:

The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”

 Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.

In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.[7]

There has been some pushback against this kind of language. Payam Akhavan, professor of law at McGill University and a former United Nations war crimes prosecutor pointed out in 2013 that cultural genocide was not included in the UN Convention on Genocide, and so using it outside of that well-established legal usage is not helpful. On the other hand, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Right Honourable Beverley McLaughlin, approvingly used the term in a speech just prior to the publication of the TRC Final Report.[8] Eminent columnist Lysiane Gagnon critiqued the Chief Justice’s terminology on several counts: first, she felt that in using “inflammatory language” that McLaughlin presented a possible bias that would be problematic when cases involving aboriginal issues came before the court; second, that “the colonization was actually less brutal and cruel in Canada than in the United States and Latin America, or many other parts of the world” and so the word “genocide” is inappropriate; and third, that, condemning our colonial forbears is a kind of presentism, “an intellectual bias by which past events are analyzed outside their historical context, in the light of today’s values.” [9] In her defence Ken Coates, Professor at the University of Saskatchewan defended her use of the term, writing:

the Chief Justice is only stating what is clearly in the minds of judges, lawyers and aboriginal people across the country. There is no use sugar-coating Canada’s mistreatment of indigenous peoples and communities. The country did mean, aggressive and destructive things – albeit often after convincing itself that it was moral, just and forward-looking in doing so.[10]

Regardless of whether or not McLaughlin’s comments are prejudicial, Lysiane Gagnon’s other two criticisms do not stand up. First of all pleading that “Canada was nicer to the Indians than the Americans were” suggests an ignorance of recent historiography. Yes, the history is different, and Canadians prided themselves on being a kinder, gentler nation, but this was a self-serving narrative that ignored demonstrable facts. Second, the accusation of “presentism” is only accurate if no one at the time pointed out the injustice. In fact, numerous individuals did challenge the IRS system and the apprehension of children, beginning with: a) the children who ran away, sometimes at the cost of their lives; b) many of the First Nations parents themselves who hid the children from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; c) missionaries who criticized the requirement that children live away from their parents and were also aware of the cultural loss, and physical and sexual abuse; and d) medical officers who were horrified at the high mortality rates. These voices, however, were disregarded and marginalized, as they did not fit the dominant narrative.

This dissertation takes the view that it is appropriate to call the Indian Residential Schools a form of genocide. It is qualitatively different from other recognized genocides. It was not the industrialized mass murder of the Jews in the Second World War with paramilitary death squads and death camps, grounded in Hitler’s belief that Jews were a genetic plague upon humanity. It was not the sudden, intense ethnic conflict of neighbor upon neighbor in Rwanda of 1994, the mass murder by the Hutus against the Tutsis. In some ways it is closest to the Holdomor, the famine in the Ukraine in 1931-32 created by the Soviet Union. It is similar because while one may debate the intentionality of the Soviet leadership, the reality is that it was indifferent to the death of millions as it followed its ideological goals. This was compounded with a tendency to see Ukrainians as the same as Russians – any ethnic, cultural, or linguistic differences were ignored, and those who advocated for them were persecuted and murdered. Likewise the Canadian federal government considered indigenous cultures, languages, and spiritualities to be of no moment, and worked towards complete assimilation regardless of the cost in suffering and death.

[1] accessed on May 22, 2017.

[2] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944), p. 79, quoted in Haifa Rashed & Damien Short “Genocide and settler colonialism: can a Lemkin-inspired genocide perspective aid our understanding of the Palestinian situation?”, The International Journal of Human Rights, 16:8, (2012), pp. 1142-1169; p. 1143.

[3] David B. MacDonald & Graham Hudson, “The Genocide Question and Indian Residential Schools in Canada” in Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique 45:2 (June/juin 2012), pp. 427-449; p. 433.

[4] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, p. 79, quoted in Haifa Rashed & Damien Short, “Genocide and settler colonialism”, p. 1143.

[5] David B. MacDonald & Graham Hudson, “The Genocide Question and Indian Residential Schools in Canada”, p. 434.

[6] See David B. MacDonald & Graham Hudson, “The Genocide Question and Indian Residential Schools in Canada” in Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique 45:2 (June/juin 2012), pp. 427-449; Leslie Thielen-Wilson, “Troubling the Path to Decolonization: Indian Residential School Case law, Genocide, and Settler Illegitimacy” in Canadian Journal of Law and Society/Revue Canadienne Droit et Société Volume 29, no. 2, pp. 181-197; and Andrew Woolford, “The Next Generation: Criminology, Genocide Studies and Settler Colonialism” in Revista Critica Penal y Poder 2013, No. 5 (September) pp. 163-185.

[7] TRC Final Report Vol. 1, p. 1.

[8] Joseph Brean, “Cultural genocide’ of Canada’s indigenous peoples is a ‘mourning label,’ former war crimes prosecutor says”, National Post, January 15, 2016, accessed May 22, 2017.

[9] Lysiane Gagnon, “McLachlin’s comments a disservice to her court, and to aboriginals”, The Globe and Mail, Jun. 10, 2015 accessed May 22, 2017.

[10] Ken Coates, “McLachlin said what many have long known”, The Globe and Mail, May 29, 2015 accessed May 22, 2017.

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