“Welcome to Joseph Prairie.” With those words, Ktunaxa elder Herman Alpine welcomed about 40 of us at the College of the Rockies, as we prepared to participate in a Walk for Reconciliation. The local walk was to draw attention to the meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Vancouver last week.
The TRC was established in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The goals of the TRC are well summed up on its website, www.trc.ca, to contribute to truth, healing and reconciliation.
In several events throughout Canada, the TRC has provided a safe space where survivors of the Indian Residential Schools can tell their stories and where others can listen to those stories. We engage in this process of truth–telling so that we can also begin the work of reconciliation and hope.
The TRC uses an approach based on restorative justice. Rather than assigning blame, restorative justice seeks to heal relationships between offenders, victims and the wider community. “The TRC hopes to guide and inspire Aboriginal peoples and Canadians in a process of reconciliation and renewed relationships that are based on mutual understanding and respect.”
The Indian Residential Schools were a shameful part of Canada’s history. The federal government funded some 30 residential schools, boarding schools for aboriginal children in Canada. Primarily active from the late–19th to the mid–20th century, many schools were run by Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and United churches. They did so on behalf of the government’s policy of “aggressive assimilation” in which aboriginal children were uprooted from their families, homes, and communities and sent to live in faraway Residential Schools so that they might learn English, Christianity, and Canadian customs. They were forbidden to speak their own language, follow their own religion and their own customs.
Undoubtedly, there were good people who taught and worked in this system. The problem is that the system itself was deeply flawed, and the ones who bore the enormous cost of that system are the children who were torn from their families. Their stories are gut–wrenching and painful. But as we listen, as we honour and respect the stories and those who tell them, we begin the hard work of reconciling with one another. While words are important, it will be more important for us to move beyond words to acts of healing and reconciliation.
Herman Alpine, in a short speech before we walked from the College to the Ktunaxa Nation government building in downtown Cranbrook, told a small part of his story as a survivor of the residential school. “They tried to show me that we were lucky that they came and discovered us, that we were ‘lost people’. My elders always told me, ‘Never believe that. We were never discovered. We’ve been here thousands of years. We knew where we were.'”
Both Herman Alpine and Melanie Sam, the Director of Traditional Knowledge and Language for the Ktunaxa Nation, reminded us how good it is that survivors are able now to talk about their experience, and that once more the Ktunaxa and other aboriginal peoples are able to reclaim their language and their culture. They do so without fear of reprisal and with pride in their heritage as original peoples in this continent.
I was reminded of the prophetic words of Sitting Bull, a Lakota chief in South Dakota. Much of his life was shaped by struggles against the expanding nation of the U.S. in the mid–19th century.
“Hear me people,” he said. “We now have to deal with another race — small and feeble when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possessions is a disease with them. These people have made many rules which the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.”
Will Campbell, a Baptist theologian in the U.S. who died this past June, made it his life’s work to preach and practice reconciliation. He reminded us that when we are deeply and truly reconciled, all other human categories are eradicated. Reconciliation wipes out all boundaries. It no longer matters if we are PC or NDP or Liberal, whether we are law–abiding or criminal, whether we are Canadian or American or Japanese, whether we are religious or irreligious, whether we are gay or straight, black or white or red. All boundaries are erased. We are human beings, seeking to live together in the world so that all may thrive and live in peace and hope.
This is at the heart of Christian faith. It is at the heart of both truth — and reconciliation.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook