Residential Schools: How should Followers of Christ Respond?

Don Klaassen /Wednesday, September 27, 2023

*This article was originally published in June 2021, in response to the discovery of unmarked graves of children at the Kamloops Residential School. We believe this article - including cautions and encouraged responses from Don Klaassen - is still relevant and helpful for Christians today in 2023. 

Did your Elementary have a Graveyard?

My Indigenous friend and co-worker wore an orange T-shirt last week emblazoned with the caption “Did your elementary school have a graveyard?”

The revelation of 215 Indigenous children’s remains found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (IRS) has shocked Canadians and reverberated around the world. A Facebook friend from India posted, “Did this happen in Canada?”

Many Canadians who slept through previous reports of the abuses of Indigenous in Canada at the hands of Christian Churches and the government were suddenly awoken out of their slumber. What made the difference this time?

This time...

This time many identify with children, as young as three years old, being buried far from home and forgotten by those who buried them. We all have children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews who we adore and protect. They are God’s gift to us.

To have proof of children, like ours, forcibly taken from their homes to live in overcrowded, underfunded, disease ridden industrial boarding schools shakes us to the core. To have proof of many dying under the oversight of those who should have protected them is unthinkable.

This time people have run out of patience with institutions like governments or churches who conveniently forget their sins or deliberately hide them. People are outraged, as they should be.

The problem is that these graveyards are no secret. They have been known about for years. Anyone who has journeyed with residential school survivors will hear stories of unmarked graves. You can read more here: “The graves were never a secret: Why so many residential school cemeteries remain unmarked”

This time it is easier to be outraged because this was done by a previous generation. There are culprits to assign blame to and it feels good to rage against them. Let me be clear, those who perpetrated child abuse, neglect, manipulation, and death should bear guilt. They participated in the systemic effort to eradicate Indigenous culture, identity, language, and rights from the Canadian landscape. Not every school was equal and not all staff knew the extent to which their actions were harmful, but they were part of a program that was deeply flawed.

This time our Canadian Indigenous communities are not backing down. They will not be intimidated into silence. They have the resources, expertise, media knowledge, strong leadership, and support of the courts. They are bringing the message home hard. Their time has come. This story will dominate news cycles for some time, as it should.

Cautions & Responses for Christ Followers & Descendants of Newcomers

What comes next?

More revelations of unmarked graves of Indigenous children all over Canada will surely follow. Kamloops IRS was not an isolated incident.

The government and the Christian churches will continue to be held responsible. 

As a Christ follower and descendant of newcomers (last 150 years) to Canada how can I live through this? Let me start with some cautions. 


1.  Deflecting responsibility is not a good option. If you call yourself a Christian do not try to evade responsibility by saying “it was not me” or “it was not my denomination”.

These actions were done in the name of Christ and Christians in Canada bear responsibility for the disrepute that the name of Christ has suffered. Most Indigenous people do not care which denomination you are part of. Trying to deflect responsibility does more harm.

2. Concluding that this is an old grievance that should be forgiven and forgotten does not take into account the legacy of IRS that is with us today.

Many of us in the Settler Community benefit from land that was taken from impoverished and devasted Indigenous communities. Resources that were exploited and degraded because Indigenous communities did not have a voice to protect them are being used up today at an alarming rate.

High levels of Indigenous incarceration and family breakdown can be directly traced to the IRS system. There is much work to be done now to reduce ongoing harm.

3. Do not assume that all Indigenous view Indian Residential Schools in the same way. Some of my Indigenous friends have positive things to say about IRS. Each person and each community have their own story to tell.

It is time for us to listen and not judge. Hearing from IRS survivors who were not grievously harmed does not negate the experience of the majority who were. It is time to grieve with those who grieve. Don’t get caught up in the assertions of some that this is only driven by the “left wing” media.  

Encouragements for Response

Along with the cautions above I will share some encouragements below.

1.Do become an advocate for Indigenous healing and restoration in your own community.

If you are well informed and passionate, it is appropriate to encourage your friends and those in your Christian community to join you on a reconciliation journey. Find out what the issues are around you and offer to be of assistance.

Although funding programs is important, make serious efforts to develop deep trusting relationship over time with Indigenous people. This means practising hospitality and being willing to enter uncomfortable circumstances.

2. Make a long-term commitment to reconciliation.

Many Indigenous are justifiably suspicious of those they call “do gooders” – those who jump on a charitable bandwagon for a short time and then soon go on to other things. Often the initial reactions to offers of assistance are guarded. 

Ask yourself if you are engaging in relationships or activities for your own satisfaction or at the invitation and under the direction of the Indigenous community. The abuses of the last 150 years will not disappear quickly.

3. Educate and inform yourself and others around you through the resources that are available. There are films, books, blogs, and news reports that can be very helpful.  One video resource to check out is “Yummo Comes Home”. (Yummo Comes Home is a 28 minute documentary video telling the story of an Okanogan/ Thompson Aboriginal man who revisits the Kamloops B.C. Residential School building where he was hurt to reclaim and bring back home his boyhood innocence and confidence.)

Avoid the temptation to ask an Indigenous person who you may have a casual relationship with to spoon feed you information. Avoid the temptation to satisfy your curiosity with questions that are inappropriate.

The Indigenous community is grieving. Be sensitive to the grieving process.  

4. Grow in your understanding of the bigger issues that led to these tragedies. Whenever Christian churches have relied on an alliance with the secular state, things have not gone well. I just finished reading “Wisdom from Babylon” by Gordon T. Smith. It has a lot to say about how the church is often tempted to align itself with the interest of the state. It is still happening today.

5. Read Matthew chapters 5-7 & 18 many times. Pay special attention to Matthew 5:23-24. Who is the one offering a gift at the alter and who is the one that has experienced offense?

Looking forward

Become a radical disciple of Jesus. Make sure that in your life and in your sphere of influence this time and this story will lead to lasting change.

There should never again be graveyards at elementary schools.

Don Klassen specializes in helping churches effectively engage their diverse neighbourhoods. You can hear more from Don in the documentary, "Yummo Comes Home".



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