This project represents an intersection between two distinct, but not entirely separate, fields of discussion: the Christian church and the Indigenous community. As such, two sets of specialized terminology will be used in this project. For a guide on the definitions of these terms as well as an explanation of their usage in this project, see below.
An Important Note on Terminology
For this topic, terminology is a particularly sensitive issue. We are telling the story exactly as it was, and not as we would have liked it to have been, and so the language used in this project reflects that. At times, this necessitates the use of language that would be considered offensive today. As such, the guidelines of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. are followed, which advise that offensive terms such as “Indian” should generally never be used, but may be permitted in certain situations such as “use in discussions of history where necessary for clarity and accuracy” (Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., 2021, p. 10). Such terminology is not used to approve of or agree with the attitude, but rather to acknowledge the reality of how Christian missionaries once acted instead of covering up the mistakes that have been made. In such situations, every effort has been made to make it clear that this was the language of the time, not the author’s phrasing or choice of words. Such language will primarily be indicated by the usage of quotation marks.
A theme regarding Indigenous ministry identified in this project. Indigenous ministries can generally be categorized into one of two types: Practical-type, or advocacy-type. Ministries of the advocacy-type primarily recognize the Indigenous people of Canada as being the recipients of harm at the hands of the church through the residential school system, and so their ‘Indigenous ministry’ consists of public reconciliation initiatives. The philosophy is that of advocating for Indigenous people, in such a way that these ministries are justice-focused. This second type of ministry is more political, and although it may have a physical component, such as hosting events, it is also often simply a verbal ministry, consisting of written articles or books and official statements and policies. This is juxtaposed against practical-type ministries which are meant to practically meet the physical and spiritual needs of individuals; advocacy-type ministries instead focus more on changing public perceptions. See “Practical-type Ministries” definition.
In their 2015 report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued 94 “Calls to Action”.¹⁰ These recommendations apply to the Canadian government and the church, as well as other groups and sectors such as journalists and the business sector. In this report, the church was called to specific actions which would foster reconciliation and help to correct the harm done by them.
In general usage, the term church may refer to 1) the building in which Christians gather and worship, 2) a local congregation of Christians, or 3) the universal body of Christian believers. In the secular world, the word is most often used to simply refer to the church building. However, in Christian thought, the term church should technically only refer to the congregation/body of believers (definitions 2 and 3). This is because the Greek word which is translated as “church”, ekklēsia, literally refers to a “Christian community of members” (Strong, 1890, p. 33). Many even argue that there is no such thing as a local church, because all Christians really belong to one, universal body of believers. To differentiate between the two uses of the term, some will refer to the local church as the “small-c” church, and the universal body as the “big-C” Church.
In this project, the term ‘church’ refers to a group of believers anywhere between the local and universal level. For example, we may speak of the Central Edmonton Pentecostal Church (local), the Canadian church (national), or the Indigenous church (according to cultural group). In this context, the word “church” simply means ‘community of believers’, and the specific grouping will be indicated.
There is an important sense in which a church is not just a group, but a body. The term draws from Scripture, wherein the church is the spiritual body of Christ, who is our head. The meaning is that Christians are spiritually together, as a part of a single being or organism, in a sense that transcends simple grouping or familiarity with one another. This has implications in terms of a theological understanding of unity/disunity and the corporate identity of the Church, and adds nuance to discussions regarding specific “church” groupings within the Church. Creating a specialized grouping may help build community and belonging within that specific body, but they must also consider the extent to which the group is in unity with the larger Church.
According to Terry Leblanc, founding Chair and current Director of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS), in the 80’s and 90’s,
increasing numbers of Native North American men and women had been asking the question, “Why shouldn’t we express our faith walk with Jesus in specifically Native North American ways? Why should we have to become like white people to be authentic followers of the Jesus Way?’ (Leblanc & Leblanc, 2011, p. 87)
This attitude, as it has progressed from now until today, has led to what is generally described as the contextualization movement. Such a movement represents a new and marked departure from the traditional model of Indigenous ministry that has been implemented by the Euro-Canadian church for hundreds of years. With the increased cultural recognition of social issues such as institutional racism and discrimination, including those that extend into the church as evidenced by the TRC and their Calls to Action, the contextualization movement has gained prominence in the Church.
Contextualization refers to contextualizing the Gospel in Indigenous culture (or any culture) in such a way that, instead of having a religious framework from another culture imposed on them, Indigenous Christians are able to conceive their church practice and express their faith in their own way. Although the practice is a basic staple of missionary work around the world, it has a very particular meaning and controversy within the conversation regarding Christianity and the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
Some argue that the Gospel has erroneously been presented in North America in such a way that equates European culture with righteousness and Indigenous culture with sinfulness, meaning that Indigenous individuals must turn their back on their culture and fit into the Euro-Canadian church in order to be saved. Their conclusion is that Indigenous Christians should be free to reinvent practices and expressions of faith that affirm and arise out of their cultural context, as no one culture is in actuality more righteous or sinful than another, and that Indigenous people have a right to this cultural identity and self-determination.
Other people take issue with this practice of contextualization because they recognize Indigenous culture as having inherently spiritual elements that are opposed to the Gospel, and argue that Christ is supposed to transform culture, not fit into it. These people may or may not fully acknowledge the injustice of Christian imposition over Indigenous self-determination, while emphasizing religious purity and correct theology as being of the utmost concern.
This debate is highly controversial, particularly within evangelical circles where they must balance their passion for scriptural authority and emphasis on correct practice with the concession of cultural authority and acknowledgement of mistakes made. For more discussion on this debate, see Contemporary Issues section. Other terms used to refer to the same or similar concepts include inculturation, mixing and local theology.
A denomination refers to one of “the various Christian religious bodies or denominations that exist as self-governing and doctrinally autonomous units” (McKim, 1996, p. 74). In other words, a denomination is an autonomous branch of the universal Church, with its own distinct theology, culture, and authority structures. Not all denominations believe in a centralized denominational authority structure, instead leaving authority with their individual church congregations, while still being linked together by shared theology and practices. Similarly, some local churches would consider themselves ‘non-denominational’, and are fully self-contained within their local church congregation. In tracking the story of Christian Indigenous ministry, it becomes necessary to in actuality track the multiple stories of each denomination’s Indigenous ministry. Because each denomination is autonomous, they have different histories, goals, and philosophies of Indigenous ministry - if they do Indigenous ministry at all.
An essential part of Christian life and evangelism is discipleship. In Christianity, life and faith is understood to be a journey, during the course of which faith grows, changes, and matures over time. Discipleship is the process in which one “follows and learns from another as a pupil… it is used specifically of those who follow Jesus Christ” (McKim, 1996, p. 78). In order for faith to mature, or even just survive past the initial point of salvation, the believer must be discipled by a more mature believer. In this process the learner inevitably is taught the faith, and the faith culture, of the teacher, which has implications in terms of the debate surrounding the imposition of one culture over another in the name of religion. However, this relationship in some form is necessary, as through it the disciple learns how to navigate the journey of faith, and stays on the right path in following Jesus.
The term Euro-Canadian refers to the society and the individuals of the society descended from the European settlers of what we now call Canada. The term is used to distinguish Indigenous individuals from “the non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada who form the European-descended sociopolitical majority” (Vowel, 2016, p. 14). These individuals are usually Caucasian and can trace their ethnicity to Europe, although it should be noted that people of many ethnicities participate in Euro-Canadian society. Although this society is often simply understood as ‘Canadian’ society, it should be noted that there is a difference between this European-influenced sociopolitical majority and other cultures within Canada. In this project, the term is used to differentiate the Euro-Canadian church from the Indigenous church, as there are important social and cultural differences between the two bodies, even though they are a part of the same universal Church. A synonymous term often used to refer to the same concept is “Settler” (see entry for Settler).
The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines evangelicalism as the Protestant tradition of Christianity that “emphasize[s] evangelism and the need for a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ by faith” (McKim, 1996, p. 98). Theologically, the term
refers to a largely protestant movement that emphasizes (1) the Bible as authoritative and reliable; (2) eternal salvation as only possible through regeneration (being “born again”), involving personal trust in Christ and in his atoning work; and (3) a spiritually transformed life marked by moral conduct, personal devotion such as Bible reading and prayer, and zeal for evangelism and missions. (Marsden, 1987, p. 190)
Although the grouping is largely distinguished by theology, we focus on its cultural distinctiveness. In the Christian world, there is a significant amount of cultural crossover between denominations, usually along the lines of larger faith traditions such as ‘evangelical’ or ‘liberal’ or ‘liturgical’. This project focuses on the evangelical tradition of Protestant Christianity, which forms a consistent cultural unit. This tradition can be characterized by cultural markers such as emphasis on Scriptural authority and correct theology/practice, high value of evangelism, salvation, and spiritual transformation, and an affiliation with right-leaning politics.¹¹ The denominations usually included in this grouping in Canada include, notably, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Salvation Army, the Christian Reformed Church, and the Pentecostal, Baptist, and Mennonite denominations. ¹²
Evangelism as a practice has unfortunately been misunderstood by both the Christian and the secular world. This is an important understanding for the project, as this discussion surrounds the relationship between the church and Indigenous peoples and the church's use of evangelism in colonialism.
The term “evangelism” is defined by the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms as “the sharing of the gospel of Christ through a variety of means” (McKim, 1996, p. 96). Scripturally, evangelism is a compassionate cause: When a person comes to Christ, they receive hope, joy, healing, freedom, peace, and many other blessings. This leads to a motivation to share what they have found with others so that others may also receive these things. In fact, if one has truly received such gifts, and if they care about their neighbours at all, it would be unthinkable for them not to try to share what they have found. The spreading of faith and blessings in this way is the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. This is the biblical essence of evangelism.
Unfortunately, evangelism has historically been misconstrued into a tool for colonialism. The Western Church has historically incorporated a Christendom model of thinking that equates the establishment of God’s kingdom with the spreading of their own “Christian” culture. In this understanding, evangelism falsely becomes a justification and means to conquer other countries and assert European society in the name of God. Such a concept of evangelism is not compassionate in nature,¹³ but political. This is the concept of evangelism that underlay the colonization of Canada, and it still exists to some extent in modern Euro-Canadian Christianity.
Evangelism is an important reality and concept in the story of the relationship between the Euro-Canadian church and Indigenous peoples in Alberta. When the term is used, it may refer to either of the definitions, or even to a mixture of the two. Historically, evangelism has generally been conducted in the second, colonial sense. However, as the Euro-Canadian church moves away from its colonial past and into more respectful dialogue with the Indigenous community in modern times, we are increasingly seeing the practice return to the first, compassionate definition.
This phrase may have two meanings. First, it refers to a church which, although originally planted by foreign missionaries, now ‘belongs’ to the locals. In this sense, the church would be culturally contextualized and self-sufficient/self-duplicating. Here the word “Indigenous” just means “belonging to the people of the area,” and could be used of the church in any country. The second meaning of the term ‘Indigenous church’ refers specifically to the church of the Indigenous peoples of Canada. The body being referred to is the Christian community that socially and culturally ‘belongs’ to the Indigenous people of what we now call Canada. This is the definition most often intended in this project; in doing so, the first definition is also implied.
A term describing any Christian ministry to, for, with, alongside, or by Indigenous people. For an explanation of what constitutes Christian ministry, see Ministry. The term refers to any form of ministry that is specialized for Indigenous peoples, encompassing everything from missionaries planted in Indigenous communities to Indigenous-run healing ministries. A ministry would qualify as an “Indigenous ministry” only if the ministry is expressly meant to serve Indigenous peoples specifically.¹⁴ There are many Christian ministries which may serve Indigenous people incidentally; for instance, an inner-city drop in centre or camp for disadvantaged youth may serve a disproportionately high percentage of Indigenous people, due to socio-economic realities. However, such ministries are not the focus of the project. This project emphasizes those ministries which are specifically for, by, or with Indigenous peoples.
Some have argued that the term “Indigenous ministry” is problematic because it denotes Christians doing ministry to Indigenous people, rather than Indigenous peoples doing ministry themselves, and thus perpetuates the image of Indigenous people needing to be ‘saved’ by Christians. While this critique is not unfounded, the fact remains that a term is needed to describe the Christian ministry that is specialized for Indigenous peoples, regardless of who is offering it. “Indigenous ministry” is the only functional term to fit this need. Therefore, this term is used very carefully, knowing that it is also often used by Indigenous people themselves, and only with the definitions and considerations previously outlined.
Library and Archives Canada (n.d) defines the term “Indigenous Peoples” as “ethnic groups defined as ‘Indigenous’ according to one of several meanings of the term. Historically it refers to the original inhabitants of a territory” (p. 12). In this project, it is used as a blanket term to refer to the original inhabitants of the land we now call Canada, and includes First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. The term is preferred over the terms Aboriginal, Native American, Native, Amerindian, and Indian.
The phrase “the first peoples of Canada/Alberta” may also be used, as well as “the Indigenous people of Canada/Alberta”. This is done under guidance: Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. (2021) has published a guide on terminology that suggests to “Avoid using possessive phrases like ‘Canada’s Indigenous Peoples’ or ‘our Indigenous Peoples’ as that has connotations of ownership. Perhaps go with ‘Indigenous Peoples of Canada’” (p. 16).
Dakota Swiftwolfe further explains in The Indigenous Ally Toolkit that the phrasing “Indigenous Peoples of Canada” is also not preferred because Indigenous peoples “are not owned by Canada or by any individual, which is the way the language makes it out to sound” (Swiftwolfe, 2019, p. 6). Instead, she recommends, “try to say ‘the Indigenous Peoples of what we now call Canada’ instead” (p. 6). This perspective is understood and respected, however, such a lengthy phrasing would not be wholly functional in a project such as this where the phrase is repeatedly used. Thus, when the phrasing “the Indigenous people of Canada/Alberta” is used, it is used for the sake of succinctness and in a utilitarian fashion, simply to specify the geographical area being referred to. When possible and helpful, the full phrase “the Indigenous people of what we now call Alberta/Canada” is used.
In this project, the term “ministry” refers to any work or activity which is done in the name of Christ and is done altruistically, for the benefit of the person being served. The motivation of ministry is compassion, and is almost always not-for-profit. Ministry usually uses the language of ‘service,’ because the minister postures themselves in a position of servanthood to the people they are ministering to.
Broadly speaking, ministry may take one of two forms: church ministry and para-church ministry. Church ministry would include the work done by a church for its members. This kind of ministry is usually meant to benefit and maintain the health of the church body. Examples include Sunday morning services and church groups.
Para-church ministry, in contrast, is done outside of the church walls, and is meant to benefit non-Christians. Workers function as God’s hands in the world, accomplishing his compassionate will for humanity. Evangelism and the meeting of spiritual needs is almost always the end goal, but it may be achieved through or alongside the meeting of physical needs. Examples include homeless shelters, soup kitchens, ESL groups, etc. This project focuses mainly on para-church ministries, because the majority of “Indigenous ministries” refer to outreach efforts directed to Indigenous peoples outside of the church.
The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines “missions” as “those forms of ministries in which churches engage, either locally or globally, as a sharing of Jesus Christ” (McKim, 1996, pp. 175-176). In vernacular use, missions usually take the form of a “missions trip” to another geographical area, often overseas. Theoretically, missions work could also refer to the ministry that the church does in its own locale, but this is usually referred to as para-church ministry instead.
A mission trip can be short-term, for a week up to a few months, or long-term, for a year or longer. It is a common practice for churches to host annual short-term mission trips where members of the congregation travel to the country in order to engage in practical ministry to the locals such as building houses or teaching English. A missionary, in contrast, is a person who has made it their full-time job to do missions work. Instead of visiting for a few weeks, they may live and minister in the area for many years. The worker may be single or, more often, a part of a missionary couple, and they raise their own salary so that they can engage in compassionate work full-time. The aim of the missionary is to become a part of the local community, and so introduce a Christian presence to the area which may have had little or no exposure to the Gospel. As the missionary shares the Gospel and builds relationships in the community, this makes salvation and discipleship possible for the locals.
In the context of Indigenous ministry, there are a number of organizations which send missionaries into Indigenous communities here in Canada. These men and women engage in mission work to what is understood to be a largely unreached people group, the same way the church would send missionaries to countries on the other side of the world. Their aim is to introduce a Christian presence where there was none before, build relationships in the community, and offer salvation and discipleship to individuals who have never heard of Christ.
A theme regarding Indigenous ministry identified in this project. Indigenous ministries can generally be categorized into one of two types: Practical-type, or advocacy-type. Ministries of the practical-type practically minister to people’s physical or spiritual needs. They are more practical, and usually require a literal, physical ministry centre that ministers to the people who come in contact with workers. See “Advocacy-type Ministries” definition.
In their calls to action, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) called upon the church to pursue and engage in reconciliation with their Indigenous neighbours. This, generally speaking, is understood to be the best path forwards for healing in what has occurred. Thus, the definition of the term “reconciliation” becomes an important understanding in the story of the relationship between the Church and Indigenous peoples. According to the TRC, reconciliation is about
coming to terms with events of the past in a manner that overcomes conflict and establishes a respectful and healthy relationship among people, going forward… [It] is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour. (TRC, 2015a, pp. 6-7)
It should be noted that, although portions of the Canadian church have heeded this call, not all denominations are actively working towards reconciliation. In fact, the Salvation Army, the Mennonite Church of Canada, Canadian Baptist Ministries, and the Christian Reformed Church are the only evangelical denominations currently with an official branch of ministry focused on pursuing reconciliation with their Indigenous neighbours.
Generally speaking, it is the denominations that participated in the running of residential schools that have pursued reconciliation, as necessitated by the legal case accompanying the TRC. However, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, with which almost all evangelical denominations in Canada are affiliated, has done extensive work with reconciliation initiatives, which they trace to their involvement in the 1995 Sacred Assembly.¹⁵ This assembly, which brought together representatives and leaders from Christianity, Indigenous spirituality, and other faiths, created a “Reconciliation Proclamation,” that articulated, among other things, a shared understanding of reconciliation:
We have also shared the recognition that:
• that reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians must be rooted in a spiritual understanding of land as a gift from the Creator God;
• the sins of injustice which have historically divided Aboriginal, and non-Aboriginal peoples remain active in our society today;
• concrete actions must be taken by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples alike to overcome these injustices and to bind up the wounds of those who have suffered;
And we have a shared understanding that:
• that [sic] the starting point for healing and reconciliation lies in personal communion with the Creator God;
• while change must take place at all levels of society, it must be rooted most firmly in the communities; and
• relations based on justice will require respect for past treaties, a fair settlement of land rights disputes, the implementation of the inherent right of self-government and the creation of economic development opportunities and other institutions to support them. (Sacred Assembly '95, 1995, p. 2)
In addition, the churches and faith communities who participated in the assembly committed to
• continue the process of healing and reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples, by providing the forums and supports needed, to heal the wounds created in the past;
• become stronger advocates for justice and, reconciliation in current and future public affairs, and to hold our governments accountable-for the implementation of just-policies;
• recommit ourselves to a program of education and action on issues relating to land rights, self-government, economic development and racism.
• take steps to hold government and other public institutions accountable for their policies and for their efforts to promote reconciliation. (Sacred Assembly '95, 1995, 3)
Definitions of “reconciliation” such as this proclamation from the 1995 Sacred Assembly, and the definition as articulated by the TRC, form the foundation for the church’s understanding of what it means to engage in reconciliation. While it is a philosophical understanding of relationship, it also necessarily entails actions to be taken by the parties involved.
The TRC defines Residential Schools as
A variety of institutions that include industrial schools, boarding schools and student residences, initially developed in New France by Catholic missionaries to provide care and schooling. The federal government and churches developed a system of residential schools in Canada stretching from Nova Scotia to the Arctic from the 1830s onward. These government-funded, church-run schools were set up to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children. In 1884 the Indian Act was amended to include compulsory residential school attendance for Status Indians under age 16. By the 1940s it was determined by both the government and most missionary bodies that the schools were ineffective, and Native protests helped to secure a change in policy. In 1969 it was decided to close the residential schools, and the last school, located in Saskatchewan, was closed in 1996. (Library and Archives Canada, n.d., pp. 15-16)
In a literal sense, the word “settler” would refer to the original European settlers who colonized Canada (or other countries). However, the word is also used in popular culture to distinguish Indigenous people from “the non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada who form the European-descended sociopolitical majority” (Vowel, 2016, p. 14). The term “settler” may be used to refer to individuals who are a member of the aforementioned sociopolitical majority (“settler”), to the culture (“settler society”) or a government (“settler state”). The phrase “Indigenous-settler relations” is commonly used to describe the relationship between the two people groups. In this project, when it becomes necessary to differentiate Indigenous people from “the non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada who form the European-descended sociopolitical majority,” the term “Euro-Canadian” will be used (see entry for Euro-Canadian).
Truth and Reconciliation Commission / Report
The mandate for the TRC begins with this introduction:
There is an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future. The truth telling and reconciliation process as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy is a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation. (TRC, n.d., para. 1)
This commission was established as a part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which was a class-action settlement made against the Canadian government and the four denominations involved in running the residential schools by the First Nations and Inuit people of Canada. The goal of this commission was to “facilitate reconciliation among former students, their families, their communities and all Canadians” (Government of Canada, 2020, para. 2). The culmination of this commission was their final report, the Truth and Reconciliation Report, which included a number of definite Calls to Action (see Calls to Action). Through this, the report and commission provide a framework for reconciliation between the church and Indigenous peoples.
A people group who have had little to no exposure to the Gospel. This is of concern to Christians, as individuals cannot be saved without hearing about Christ. Thus, missions work is generally done to reach unreached or underreached people groups with the Gospel, for compassionate reasons.