A Focus on Indigeneity, Part 1: Reconciliation
“Because it’s the right thing to do”
“It is such a Christian word: reconciliation.”
Eileen Markey has that right. This sentence of hers comes from her 12-page-long hard-hitting article about Canada’s efforts at “‘whitewashing’ Indigenous children,” reported in the June 14, 2018, issue of America Magazine, the 110-year-old weekly periodical of the Jesuit order in the United States. A graduate of the Jesuits’ Fordham University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she, based in New York City, is an independent, investigative journalist who specializes in such matters as the role of religion in the public square.
In straight-arrow Christian theology, reconciliation is, according to Wikipedia, “an element of salvation that refers to the results of atonement. It is the end of estrangement, caused by original sin, between God and humanity.” “God reconciles us to himself,” biblestudytools.com adds, quoting Romans 5:1, “through the death of his Son.” But this same entry makes it plain that reconciliation can, and should take place between mere mortals, as well. As the website Patheos puts it, “This is stressed in Matthew 5:21-25, where we are told that, if we have an unresolved disagreement with someone, we should resolve it as soon as possible….”
Yes, but. Reconciliation can be hard to come by because, as Markey writes, “it requires the perpetrator to reckon with evil. For reconciliation to work, members of the perpetrator groups need to acknowledge what happened, put in place protections to ensure it does not happen again, and make amends.”
This notion is that of Robert Schreiter, whom she interviewed for her feet-to-the-fire story; to hear her tell it—and in this she takes pride—her journalism “is distinguished by deep, immersive interviews, and robust research.” “Truth-telling is an essential element” in any attempt at reconciliation, he, a professor of systematic theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, told her, “even if some would rather rush forward toward forgiveness.”
(Further along in her article, Markey introduces the reader to Rebecca Thomas, described as “a Mi’kmaw woman and the student services advisor to First Nations students at Nova Scotia Community College,” who is “one of the people who inherited [from her parents] the damage of Shubenacadie [Residential School].” And because that is so, she is in no hurry to give absolution: “‘I think in order to have a good and meaningful reconciliation, we need to sit with the truth for a while.’”)
Another member of the school’s faculty, and one who is a Canadian, Michel Andraos, reckons that the hardest thing for Christians to accept “might be the idea that their religion was not incidental to the violence [meted out to First Peoples], but was central to it.” This “culpability” must be faced, but, oh, Markey wonders, how do religious communities “embark on a spiritual endeavour with people they have harmed?”
Seeking after “reconciling ways”
It can be seen in both song and prayer that reconciliation is a resolve of the Southminster-Steinhauer United Church community. Consider the lyrics of minister Chris New’s song, “Reconciling Ways”: “Gathering, honouring, remembering where we meet; our deep respect for history and culture, still incomplete. First Peoples’ land from long before, relationships to restore; enriching and reconciling ways, we live and dream for more.”
And here are the closing words written for the June 23 spiritual gathering, which honoured National Indigenous Peoples Day: “We go with gratitude for the great heritage we share with one another. We go strengthened for the good and difficult work of reconciliation. We go with great hope for the good way of relationship and connection to our land and all that lives on it. We go with peace, knowing that the Great Spirit that is alive in all things and all people goes with us.”
Then, in taking up, in emphasizing, the residential school horror, Markey turns back to Schreiter: “The root sin in the case of the residential schools, he says, was the lie that European and Christian culture was superior to First Nations’ cultures. That lie made everything else possible.”
No wonder, then, that columnist Denise Balkissoon, writing on the op-ed page in the June 14 edition of The Globe and Mail, shared her concern about the Canadian public “stubbornly remaining ignorant” of the history and ways of Indigenous peoples.
The previous month, Robert Bertrand, took up this matter in The Globe’s Report on Business pages—he is the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples: reconciliation calls for “profound and transformative change. For many, this pursuit can feel daunting.” Indeed. “Recognizing the unique contributions and worldview that Indigenous people have to offer…is part of this work. …although Indigenous and non-Indigenous people had, and continue to have incredibly different experiences, we are all in this together.
“In order for reconciliation to begin, there is essential work to be done, beginning with self-reflection and learning about Indigenous experiences.” This “requires openness and a desire to understand that the dominant experiences of Canada have not been shared by all…. Meaningful reconciliation is a reflective, sustained, and evolving process. It is a journey into the unknown that can be intimidating, but also an opportunity.” Bertrand concludes by stating, plainly, while we have the chance now “to find a path” forward together, “this window will be brief….”
What the residential schools were unable to do
“Nobody can tell me that we are not impacted by the residential schools.” Brenda Semantha, who is Dene, is speaking, this in one of the 20 short videos that make up the Alberta School Boards Association’s Indigenous Insights series. “Whether you like it or not, they are a reality, a part of Canada’s history that we can no longer avoid, and no longer say, out of ignorance, ‘Oh, that doesn’t affect me’.”
A worker with The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program, a part of the All Nations Hope Network in Saskatchewan, she recalls, “They had the ability to strip us of our braids, our language, our way of life. But,” she adds, resistively, “they were not able to strip us of our spirit. And I truly believe that that is what pulled the people through the horrific experience of the residential schools.”
If this is so, it might be wise to pay heed to the unnamed blogger, writing for Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. in an August 16, 2018, posting, “What reconciliation is and what it is not”. It tells how Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action “awoke in many individuals…a realization that they had not just a role to play, but a moral responsibility to make amends for the past. …reconciliation is [by now] a familiar term to most of us. But there’s still confusion over what it means, and who is responsible…. The TRC definition of reconciliation [follows]:
“‘…Reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aborigibnal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.’”
“I believe,” the blogger opines, that “Canada has moved to the point at which we no longer ask ‘whether reconciliation is possible,’ but ‘how is reconciliation possible’. And from that position, increasingly non-Indigenous Canadians are asking, ‘What can I do?’”
He or she makes these recommendations, among others: that we accept that reconciliation “is the responsibility of every Canadian”; that relationships be built between Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks, and negative perceptions and stereotypes be forsworn; that “learning about Indigenous history” is essential [and here he or she wants recognized “the intergenerational impacts of colonization, attempts at assimilation, and cultural genocide”]; and that “Indigenous beliefs, cultures, traditions, world views, challenges, and goals” be heralded.
That is what “Library Learnings” will strive for in the remaining months of 2019. And why it will do so.
Coverage continues with the essay that will follow this introduction: to be posted here August 2, it will point up the Canadian Geographic’s new and admirable Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, a four-volume set of books. Read it, and you’ll suppose that it covers all things native. But, really, the atlas makes scant reference to religion and spirituality. “Spirituality is not typically discussed as a matter of practice,” Perry Bellegarde explains in the introduction to the volume about the First Peoples, but then the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations adds, “yet it forms the core of First Nations world views….”
Because this is so, “Library Learnings” then will be given over to an informative four-part series of essays, one a month, specifically about Indigenous religion and spirituality, based in part on several books in the SSUC Library collection. The first installment of this primer or overview will be posted on the Library web page on August 30; succeeding chapters will appear on September 27 (contact, colonization), October 25 (consequences), and November 22 (moving on).
And perhaps this focus on Indigeneity, now begun, will, in some small measure, help to foster reconciliation. One hopes.
In attempting to say, finally, why reconciliation is desirable, is essential, Robert Joseph, in a May 24, 2016, TEDTalk from Vancouver, put it simply: “…Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it aligns with our Canadian values.” Hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk Tribe, he concluded his address with these words: “…really, at the heart of it all [reconciliation] is this idea of love—of loving yourself, loving others—and we all can be driven by that…. [Then] one day soon, we will have achieved a country that is reconciled….”