At the conclusion of the Edmonton National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair spoke these works, “If you thought truth was hard, wait till we get to reconciliation!”
The head of the TRC repeated those words at a recent event sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church Manitoba called “Building bridges: Next steps for the church in the reconciliation journey.” He also said other important things to the audience of several hundred.
Sinclair began by insisting that reconciliation is a process and a journey; it is not a destination. Moreover, the journey is an ongoing one, requiring fresh commitment each and every day.
Within the context of the Indian Residential School System, Sinclair insisted that the objective of reconciliation is respect – the establishment of self-respect for Aboriginal people, and mutual respect between Aboriginal people and all others. Initially, victims need to be healed. What has been lost must be found, what has been damaged must be fixed, what has been taken away must be returned.
But then he spoke directly and forthrightly about what was required of Christians and the churches. “Apologies are not enough,” he said. Apologies are important and necessary, but they must be accompanied by changed behaviour.
A key to changed behaviour, for Sinclair, is that Christians and their churches must demonstrate respect for traditional Aboriginal spirituality. Christians and their churches must acknowledge the validity of traditional Aboriginal spirituality alongside the Christian story. They must no longer insist that Christianity is the only way for all people.
Can you do this, he asked? Can you show genuine respect for our spirituality and the way we worship? Can you engage with us as partners, rather than seeking to proselytize us?
To be clear, Sinclair did not denigrate the Christian faith. Nor did he suggest that indigenous people who identify as Christian should turn away from that faith – he acknowledged his grandmother’s deeply-held Catholicism. He did imply, however, that as long as Christians and their churches do not accept traditional Aboriginal spirituality as equally valid to the Christian faith, there will be no true reconciliation in this land.
For some Mennonites, these questions are not new ones. But for others, they will be.
Judging from the lengthy standing ovation at the conclusion of Sinclair’s speech, I sensed most people at the event wanted to say YES to Sinclair’s invitation. But I also wondered if we really know what he means. He did not elaborate, but I believe he meant more than acknowledging that the Creator is present and at work as much in the ceremonies, smudges and sweats, in the drumming and the dancing, as within a Mennonite worship service. We need to listen and learn much more.
Even before that – even before we can presume to pursue reconciliation – we as Christians in the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ tradition still have much truth-telling to do. We need to name our part in the system of residential and day schools that separated young aboriginal children from their families, language, culture and community.[i] We need to own and take responsibility for our part in the history of colonization that continues in the present. We need to do our part to make things right.
The journey of reconciliation will no doubt be long and likely painful, and it will require renewed commitment each day. We do not know where it will lead. But it promises restoration, healing, life, peace — and authentic partnership — for those who commit to it. How can we not join in?
By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.
[i] The recent “Statement of Reconciliation” offered by Anabaptist leaders in Edmonton did not specifically mention Mennonite involvement in the schools, though certain efforts are being made to address this involvement. See, for example, the work of MCC Ontario.
Addendum: The intent of this blog is to encourage Mennonites — and also MCC — to listen to and learn from Aboriginal people about their spirituality, and to enter into this listening and learning with a spirit of humility and respect. Respectful listening and learning is a prerequisite for any reconciliation.