This Feather Continues to Fly
Off the north east coast of Vancouver Island you will find Cormorant Island. It is a 30-minute ferry trip from Port McNeill to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. Alert Bay is made up of two communities: The Municipality of Alert Bay on one side of the ferry terminal and the ‘Namgis First Nation on the other side. The two communities live well together. Alert Bay had the largest Anglican Residential School in Canada. St. Michael’s ran from 1929 until 1975 during which time 9,000 children went through the school. Residential schools were a joint venture of various churches and the government. On Vancouver Island the Anglican Church was involved. It was a colonial enterprise that existed throughout the British Empire. The goal was assimilation of the Indigenous population. Children were forced to leave their homes by the government. The church helped willingly, along with the police, as an instrument of empire. The children were stripped of their traditional clothing, their hair was cut and they were forced to speak English; their traditional languages were suppressed. They were subject to physical, sexual, psychological, cultural and spiritual abuse. The goal was to make them Christians and good citizens of the empire. The Kwak̓wala word ḵ̓wa̱la’yu (child) literally means ‘my reason for living.’ Thus the horror of the losing children from the community and family caused a generational trauma, a trauma that is still felt today. Healing the wounds of this particular piece of history will be a multi-generational journey.
In 2015 the First Nations communities who had been subject to this abuse arranged for a demolition of the school which still stood on ‘Namgas territory. Chief Bobby Joseph of Reconciliation Canada, himself a survivor of St. Michael’s, brought together leaders from the communities to be part of the event. There were approximately 600 survivors of the school who gathered with their families.
We as a diocese were present with a 10-ft x 30-ft copy of our primate’s, Michael Peers, apology that was given in 1993. This banner was attached to the outside of the school. I was present as the Bishop of the Diocese of British Columbia (our colonial name as we now refer to ourselves as the Diocese of Islands and Inlets). I was asked to speak. I apologized that we were part of a system that failed to recognize the Creator in the land, the sea and the sky. We failed to see the Creator in the First Nations people. We failed to see the Creator in their language, traditions, culture and spirituality. We failed them and we failed the Creator and for that I was truly sorry.
Following my apology, I was given an eagle feather, a symbol of honour within the First Nations tradition and one seen as a connection between the Creator and the people. I carried that feather during my ministry as Bishop until my retirement in 2020. Subsequently the diocese elected and installed its next Bishop. It is a tradition that the outgoing Bishop at the service of installation passes on the diocesan crozier to her/his successor. The crozier is a large 6-ft rod made of silver. It is heavy. It also comes with the heaviness of colonialism and the history of empire. I felt I needed to give to Bishop Anna something that would reflect the work and ongoing ministry in the diocese of reconciliation and de-colonization. An eagle feather would honour this work and the ongoing prominence of the ministry of reconciliation. I contacted the Elder, Alex Nelson*, who had given me the eagle feather at the demolition of St. Michael’s School and asked if it would be appropriate to pass it on. He said that he believed “that this feather practices the freedom to fly, from person to person, from place to place, from this world and that world, from Spirit to Spirit.” He said: “It will, therefore, remain sacred and so is appropriate.” In January of 2021 I passed on the diocesan crozier to Bishop Anna. I then honoured her by passing on the eagle feather with an invitation to carry on the work of healing the wounds of history.
* Alex is from the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw First Nations in Kingcome Inlet. He is a survivor of St. Michael’s; during my time as Bishop and to this day is a confidant, a friend and a wise Elder.
The Right Rev. Logan McMenamie
Vancouver Island BC