The Anti-Christian Theology of the Residential School System

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I taught a bible study on the historic Siksika Nation and as happens at bible studies, one of the attendees opened up.

A middle-aged woman spoke and recalled her experience with the residential school system. She admitted that the attention to detail, the structure and order that she was taught had benefitted her. She worked as an administrator in the offices of the Nation and was known for her ability to get things done.

Still her eyes started to mist as she asked a question that had haunted her since her childhood days in the residential school:

“Is it okay for me to pray in Blackfoot?”, she said.

It was a question I had never been asked before.

She went on to explain that at the residential school, they were not allowed to pray in Blackfoot, because it was associated with the ritual worship of native spirituality.

So she had been praying in fear and guilt in her second language of English, never feeling the liberty of speaking to the true and living God as one of the multitude from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).

I encouraged her to pray in Blackfoot, the language of her heart, and she grew in joy and love for Christ praying freely as she had never done before.

This was my first experience seeing the effects of the anti-Christian theology of the residential school system. Although the residential school system may have had elements that were practically beneficial to some students (as noted above), the absence of the gospel from a church-based program is the worst kind of false teaching and unbiblical distortion of the truth.

The Gospel-less Work of Archdeacon Tims

As was often the case, the residential schools functioned less like schools and more like child prisons. The day schools permitted children to go home to their parents at night, but the residential schools kept the children onsite and discouraged contact with their families.

In the late 19th century, the man in charge of the residential school at Siksika was Archdeacon Tims.[1]  His reputation for a tyrannical oversight was recognized by his Anglican peers and other non-native observers.

Tims actions and philosophy represent the anti-Christian ethic of the residential schools. He was not a missionary. He was a pacifier. His interest was in replacing Blackfoot cultural patterns with British ones. Yet from my own research there is no indication that Tims shared the gospel of Jesus Christ, encouraged prayer to Christ, or taught the Christian scriptures to the Siksika Nation or its children. There were a ‘Christianization’ and baptisms, but I don’t think there was an attempt to persuade by the claims of Christ or an encouragement to trust the promises of the gospel by faith.

It was not as though there were no models for Tims to follow. If he desired to be a true missionary with the message of the gospel, the evangelistic work of the McDougalls with the great Cree chief Maskepetoon would have inspired any true Christian believer.

Sadly, Tims ran the residential school like the warden of a jail. He would not permit children to escape to their families. His demand was for British acculturation without any consideration of the way that the message of salvation is only embraced, not by coercion, but by faith.

Tims versus Christian Parental Rights

A repeated event which illustrated this anti-Christian philosophy was the way that Tims refused to release children from the residential school. Many of the children were exposed to serious diseases like tuberculosis in the unhygienic conditions of 19th-century boarding rooms. What is remarkable is that Tims did not seek to use the power of persuasion, compassion, and truth to win the children and their families away from an aboriginal worldview to a Christian one. If he did this, he would have surely been sympathetic to the rights of the Siksika parents. Tims approach was nothing like the work of the McDougalls and the Cree chief Maskepetoon who requested that the missionaries teach his children before he became a Christian himself!

Tims kept an iron-fisted control which betrayed his fundamental absence of living trust in God and his recognition of the parental rights. At the height of the crisis with Tims at the Siksika residential school, a meeting of chiefs, government officials and representatives of the Anglican Church was held.  The leading chief White Pup spoke eloquently about the ungodliness of Tims, and the threat of divine judgement, even through human means. White Pup, a Christian, said:

“Of the two grievances that my people and I had prayed to be removed, God in his wisdom and kindness of heart for his children had saw [sic] fit to remove one of them [referring to Frank Skynner]. The other still remains [referring to Reverend Mr. Tims]. I hope that God will not see fit to remove this man in the same manner.”

God was merciful to the Siksika Nation by removing Tims, though he was merciful to Tims in not permitting him to be murdered like the harsh government agent, Frank Skynner.

Soon after this meeting, Tims bent in his utter recalcitrance and fled the reserve, leaving the residential school behind. Yet in another example of poor ecclesiology, he was quickly elevated to the position of oversight for all of the Anglican residential schools in Southern Alberta!

Tims had no credibility and could not meet the biblical qualifications for a minister which require being “above reproach” (Titus 1:6; 1 Timothy 3:2). This is why Christians like chief White Pup opposed certain ‘missionaries’ like Tims. They had in essence lost the gospel and replaced it with some other kind of ‘mission’.

Lamenting an Absence of the Gospel

One of the things that we see when we look at the conflation of church and state in the residential school system along with its modernist theology and colonial arrogance is a nearly complete absence of the gospel.

We can lament these distortions along with First Nations brothers and sisters, as well as those among the First Nations who do not believe in the gospel of Christ. Sadly many people in First Nations communities have rejected the gospel, not because they have heard it, but because it was falsely presented in the guise of the residential school program.

The Gospel among the First Nations

I am thankful to God that the power of the gospel still saves from every tribe, tongue and nation. When the woman at my bible study found out that it was good and right to pray to God in Blackfoot, she did so, along with other members of the bible study for the very first time.

It is a privilege to see ways in which the Holy Spirit converts sinners by faith in Christ’s atoning blood. It is also a testimony to the power of the gospel that in spite of the false gospel of men like Tims, a great heritage of Christian witness could emerge from the First Nations in Canada.

 


[1] The following summary is based on historian Hugh A. Dempsey’s account in his chapter titled, “Scraping High and Mr. Tims” in The Amazing Death of Calf Shirt and Other Blackfoot Stories, pp. 186-209.

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