I recently had the great privilege serving as a delegate to three days of hearings and dialogue circles organized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and occurring in the traditional territories of the Coast Salish Peoples – a region known to ‘settlers’ (as the First Nations peoples call us) as Vancouver Island. This event was one of a series of similar events being held across the country in response to the court-ordered Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2006. I went thinking this was about Aboriginal healing. I came away understanding that it is about the healing of all Canadians. For all Canadians must reconcile with past atrocities committed on our behalf by our government when it established policies to eradicate the culture of our First Nations peoples, and by our churches when they ran the residential schools that were one of the primary instruments of these policies between 1831 and 1998.
To help you understand the point I want to make, let me briefly offer some historical context for non-Canadians. It may also help my fellow-Canadians who, like me, have often suffered from cultural amnesia about this important chapter in Canadian history. Over 157 years, more than 150,000 First Nations children between the ages of 6 and 15 were forcibly removed from their families and communities all across Canada in order to eradicate any residue of their language, culture or former aboriginal identity. In these days of hearings, I heard stories of children spending 365 days a year, often for more than 10 years, without ever being allowed a single visit from a relative or family member. Many had brothers and sisters in the same institution but were forbidden from ever speaking to them or acknowledging their presence. All were severely punished whenever they were heard speaking their native language – something that school officials called “the devil’s language.” Many had no home to go to when they finally graduated – their families being destroyed by the forced removal of their children and their communities by the rippling effects of the inter-generational consequences of the abuse and trauma.
But perhaps you are wondering why I would describe my participation in this event as a privilege – and a great one at that. There were many gifts in this experience for me, and in the first steps I have been able to take in the months leading up to it of getting to better know our aboriginal neighbors. I have been honored to be invited to sit with them in their traditional dialogue circles, and to join them in their feasts and the rituals of their culture and communities. I have gotten to know a number of their elders and chiefs and have been deeply impressed by their wisdom and spirituality. Theirs is a spirituality built on honour and respect – first for ancestors, elders, children and the earth, but then for all who live with openness of heart and are willing to meet in a place of respect. It is also deeply rooted in gratitude, their many rituals always beginning by raising hands in thanksgiving to their Creator (the Great Spirit), to their ancestors, and to all whose lives have contributed to theirs. I even heard survivors of residential school sexual and physical abuse thanking the school authorities for the many gifts that had come to them as they had struggled to learn to cope with these experiences. These were not cynical comments. Cynicism is a settler sin, not one our First Nations peoples of Canada are prone to.
But beyond this, one enormously valuable gift I received from participating in this Truth and Reconciliation Process was to hear First Nations leaders say over and over again how long they had prayed and hoped for the day when settlers would sit with them and listen to their story. Chief Barney (Joseph) Williams said “we need to be able to tell you why we drink so much, why we have had such a death wish for so long. We need you to know what happened to us so you can know why we are as we are.” He didn’t want us to feel guilty. He wanted us to be able to move forward just as he wanted this for his own people. But he knew something astounding. He knew that for them to move forward they needed us, and he challenged us to believe that for us to move forward, we needed them.
The more I have thought about this the more I realize the wisdom this reflects – at many levels. The level I am thinking about as I write this today is in relation to reconciliation and transcendence. We never really move on until all present and past realities are gathered up and woven together in acceptance. This is the truth part of the process of reconciling with our past. This is equally true for individuals and societies. The good news is that we do not have to be victims of our past. Those of us of European descent do not have to live with a vague sense of guilt, First Nations peoples do not need to live with anger and brokenness, and other immigrants to our country do not need to live in a culture fractured and hobbled by its unwillingness to confront its history.
Those of us at the hearings heard of a vision of one of the elders. She said that she had a dream of the residential school history being just one page of Aboriginal history. But that one page was so huge and so heavy that when she tried to lift the corner of the page she could not budge it. Together, she said, we can lift it and together we can turn that page.
Transcending the past requires reconciling with it. The parts of our story which we refuse to face will forever sabotage our ability to move forward. But some pages of history are too heavy and too big to turn on our own. This is why we must address these questions together within our societies. We will never move beyond our personal or cultural realities until they are engaged. No one is an island. We are bound together in common humanity. Moving on is not just a personal matter. It is also a communal one because, as Nelson Mandela said in the closing words of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, no one is free while anyone is less than fully free.