by Dianne Climenhage
As you may be aware, the government recently passed legislation to make September 30th a federal statutory holiday called the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (TRC Day). For all Canadians, this day provides an opportunity for each person to recognize and commemorate the legacy of Residential Schools.
For Indigenous peoples, this is a long-awaited acknowledgement of the genocidal acts by a government of foreigners in this land. To date, thousands of children’s graves have been revealed on the grounds, or close to the grounds, of Residential Schools and the number will continue to rise as new investigations begin. This is not surprising news to those who followed the TRC findings in 2015, where 3,213 children’s deaths at residential schools were documented.
With any statutory holiday, people will choose to observe it differently. In conversation with Indigenous friends about how they plan to spend the day, I’ve heard from some that they plan on having a quiet day with family and will completely disengage in the daily fight for their rights. Others have decided to gather and bring more awareness around the children who are being recovered and the long-term effects of Residential Schools. For non-Indigenous people, we have the luxury of choosing to observe this day as an act of reconciliation or to view it like any other day. Choice is our privilege.
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus is reading the scroll from Isaiah in the temple. From the First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, it reads like this,
“The Spirit of Creator has come to rest on me. He has chosen me to tell the good story to the ones who are poor. He has sent me to mend broken hearts, to tell prisoners they have been set free, to make the blind see again, and to lift up the ones who have been pushed down – to make it known that Creator’s Year of Setting Free (Jubilee) has come at last!”
Jesus fulfills this scripture. He says so in verse 21. Our job is to love like Jesus and to tell, mend, and lift up those who have been imprisoned, battled physical challenges and the oppressed. Right?
Luke 4 is a “doing” scripture, and because of scriptures and teachings like this, I have often felt a burden to help. My partner and I, for example, moved to Labrador to work with MCC a number of years ago, partly for this reason. At that time, I worked with a bank and had no context for what we were entering into. I was certain that it was a great idea because we were helping!
Landing in a new community, where we were part of a cultural minority and working for a Christian organization, we quickly realized that we weren’t there to “help” at all, and in fact, that was not a welcomed word or concept in many circles. “Helping” has rarely been a good thing when it comes from people like me, from the outside, in an Indigenous community. Instead of helping, we found ourselves on a steep learning curve that continues today. We started asking ourselves, how do we do the work we truly believed Jesus was calling us to in the scripture while honouring distinct cultures and customs of the people around us? This was almost paralyzing. Being afraid to say or do the wrong thing sometimes made me reluctant to enter into relationships at all.
The Residential School conversation is like that for many non-Indigenous people. It’s a huge, painful topic to approach and it’s challenging to know where to begin. Instead of disengaging, we might want to ask ourselves the following questions: What is our place in the conversation? Why should I get involved? What difference will it make if I do take time to learn more and do things differently?
One of the most important learnings I have taken away from my relationships with Indigenous friends and my work with MCC’s domestic programming is the need for me to listen. As a result of listening, I have changed how I approach certain things.
Here are a few things I would encourage you to explore:
- Learn the history of this land known as Canada from a non-dominant perspective.
- Be informed about current events and conversations, choosing to go beyond mainstream media. Find Indigenous-sourced news, blogs, articles, and podcasts to hear perspectives not normally reported on.
- Listen and struggle with what new information means when compared to the narrative we hold true.
- Know that being an advocate is a way to honour Christ. There is a place for everyone in this conversation.
- If you are non-Indigenous and involved in decision-making regarding Indigenous people, know the power that you hold, notice how you show up in the conversation, and make space for Indigenous voices to lead.
Dr. Stephen Cornell from Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona says, “One of the great fantasies of colonialism, still alive in the Indigenous affairs bureaucracies of the world, is the idea that ‘we know what’s best for you’. But we don’t.”
I am grateful to the many people who guided me when they didn’t have to, who showed me grace when I made mistakes, who offered humble correction, and who welcomed me into their families. They taught me how to move forward in a good way. They also showed me what Luke 4 is really about. In Labrador, we slowly understood that we were there to learn and grow in relationship together. That is what Jesus is calling us to in this passage. A reciprocal connection where we learn together, moving forward.
MCC has a long history of working in and with Indigenous communities. While we haven’t always gotten it right, we are committed to listening and moving forward together. Last year, in collaboration with Mennonite Church Canada, MCC published Be It Resolved which chronicles Anabaptist involvement in Indigenous Justice from 1966 up to the time of publication. This history is important in part because it’s an acknowledgment that churches have understood, for at least 55 years, that there is a problem.
However, we also know that churches were complicit in the history of Residential Schools. And because of that history, we have a responsibility to own our actions, apologize, and make reparations. “Lifting up the ones who have been pushed down” includes changing how we do things in the future. And if we’re going to be doers, as followers of the Jesus way, we have an obligation to do better.
While the term “reconciliation” has been used liberally since the release of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, what reconciliation looks like is still unclear to many and continues to raise many questions. Who should define reconciliation and what does that look like when it’s being lived out? Is it possible given that the settler Christian population was responsible for the death of thousands of children? Would I reconcile if my children were taken and never returned? Or, what’s been called today’s residential schools, children in care – would I want to reconcile knowing that 52% of the children in care under the age of 14 are Indigenous yet make up just under 8% of the population?
Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel says, “Reconciliation never truly started. Reconciliation is about reparation and restitution. If we look at what’s happening today, the exact opposite is happening. There have been a lot of flowery words…but the reality is quite contrary. Reconciliation has to be alive before we can call it dead” (Be It Resolved, pg. 395).
Working on ourselves is a good way to begin the “doing” we are called to. On the first National TRC Day, MCC employees across the country are observing in different ways. At MCC Canada, we will be reflecting on what reconciliation means and offer opportunities for staff for listening and conversation. As you think about how you want to spend the day, I encourage you to choose from the resources below or look for resources on your own to guide you through a day of listening and reflecting.
We can begin by laying down power and listening.
Dianne Climenhage is MCC’s Atlantic Canada Regional Representative and works within the Peace & Justice Office. Between 2014 and 2019 Dianne served as Co-Representative for Newfoundland & Labrador and since moving into her current role has been living on the unceded territories of the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), and Peskotomuhkati (Passamaquoddy) peoples, covered by the Treaties of Peace and Friendship in Moncton, NB.
The Survivors Speak: A report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless, and Finding My Way by Jesse Thistle
Age-appropriate suggestions from the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre @ UBC
Lost Souls by Tom Jackson
The Residential School Song by Cheryl Bear
Compilation from 91.3 the Zone FM
We Were Children
Relief, Development & Podcast: Honouring Treaties as Peacebuilding – A conversation with Adrian Jacobs
Undercurrents: Episode 7 – Merle’s Story
The New York Times: State-sponsored Abuse in Canada
The Kapabamayak Achaak Healing Forest
MCC Peace & Justice Notebook: Embracing the Pain of the Past and the Present by Randy Klassen
Mennonite Church Eastern Canada Treaty as Sacred Covenant
Banner image caption: A cedar tree. (MCC photo/Dianne Climenhage)