For an event centred around redress for horrific, sustained, systemic abuse of vulnerable people within a country, the tone was remarkably hopeful.
The officers of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were serious, unafraid of speaking hard words, firmly denouncing the cultural genocide and calmly but insistently calling Canadians to a better future.
This is a Canadian story, not an indigenous one. That was repeated over again. Regardless of whether an individual is complicit in any way with the residential schools (e.g., affiliation with decision-making governments of the past or involved churches), all Canadians bear a responsibility to acknowledge our shameful history and seek a better way forward.
Mayor Brian Bowman, unsurprisingly, spoke of the importance of moving forward, for the health of our communities, city and country, calling Canadians to take action to support positive change. We heard this from him after the Macleans article, and I have no doubt his heart is in it. What remains to be seen is how he takes action through policies and budgets to support his words.
Also unsurprisingly, Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak gave an unvarnished challenge, evoking the plague of missing and murdered indigenous women and the tragically disproportionate number of Aboriginal children in care as signs of continuing colonial mindsets. He urged those present to make change in this lifetime so the next generation isn’t calling for another TRC around First Nations young people apprehended by Child and Family Services in 40 years.
Yet, “We gather in hope,” said the elder who mc’d the local gathering at University of Winnipeg on June 2, 2015. (I thought it was Lavallee, but may have ascribed that name to the wrong person.)
Treaty Commissioner James Wilson also spoke of hope amid the burden of facing the terrible truth of the past. He wanted to point a way forward where native and non-native could “walk gently together to turn our greatest shame into our greatest source of pride.”
Another theme was relationship and family.
With the treaties, we entered a relationship, said Annette Trimbee, president of the University of Winnipeg. It did not go well historically, but in the present, she wishes the U of W to be a place that acknowledges that connection between the land and its history and makes it known through more than formalized learning.
Aboriginal families showed remarkable resilience, observed Commissioner Wilton Littlechild via live feed from Ottawa. In those unspeakably tragic cases where the students died before returning home, the government succeeded in permanently separating children from their families, and the schools did wreak havoc on the survivors who often grew up to parent their children in the model of the heavy-handed and abusive treatment they received at the schools, patterns which are likely connected to the CFS crisis we currently see. But in general, the families returned to each other; the bonds, though damaged, remained. “Family is critical to the journey of reconciliation,” Littlechild said.
The elder mc called for a new attitude. “I’m tired, I’m fed up with people who want to help,” he said. “We don’t need help; we need relatives.” Family love us even when we’re weak and broken or just a bit crazy. He spoke of how the residential schools took away the students’ confidence in their capacity. “To be healthy, we must learn to be together in dignity.”
Here, he slipped into a third theme of the morning – spirituality. Manitoba is based on the Cree meaning Creator’s resting place. The elder’s language was familiar as he spoke of the need for transformation.
Reconciliation is a spiritual journey, emphasized broadcaster and educator Wab Kinew by pre-recorded video.
Littlechild called for a return to spirituality through language, culture and the land. There is a sacred trust, he said.
One call that particularly caused me to take notice was Commissioner Marie Wilson’s demand that denominational schools ensure their comparative religion courses include teaching on Aboriginal spiritualty – facilitated by an accredited First Nations person. This will be a challenge for some, as evidenced by MCC’s brouhaha with Immanuel Pentecostal Church. I don’t think evangelicals like comparative religion, except so far as learning about another religion gives the apologist better tools to convert the (in their mind, inappropriately-attached) believer.
Commissioner and Justice Murray Sinclair, via live feed from Ottawa, said we must apologize and atone and support the healing journey. This is a beginning, not an end.
It was an event for Aboriginal voices, a time for First Nations people to assert their dignity and capability and say what they need to say in their own way. But there were other voices. There were heads of churches – Anglican, United – whose apologies appeared in video montages. There were clips of former prime ministers speaking from the heart about Canada’s need to work toward reconciliation for the horrors of residential schools. Missing was any representative of the current government. Perhaps it was not their place to be speaking at this time, but their absence from any part of the proceedings was noticeable. In the local crowd, the absence of leaders from my own denomination was a marked omission to me, though I didn’t see who sat in the overflow, and perhaps my boss and I would count for some as representatives. I also saw no evidence of the police force, though of course, out of uniform, I would not recognize anyone other than Clunis. Given the disproportionate number of Aboriginal people in prison as well, the lack of visible law enforcement presence was also discouraging.
Sure, it’s just a ceremony, a formality. But if this event isn’t on our radar, have we any hope to get involved in the long, messy and painful work of reconciliation?
And that is where we must start. Walking together, in equal dignity, with gifts to receive and gifts to share.
Littlechild left us with 7 simple words (which are in fact two phrases short of a Jesuit prayer) we need to speak to each other: I’m sorry. I love you. Thank you.