One of the events on the calendar at the recent Truth and Reconciliation gathering I attended in Edmonton was an inter-faith panel. Representatives from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and First Nations spiritual communities were present. Each panelist spoke about how their faith teachings lead them to deplore the abuse that so often happened at these residential schools. They also each spoke about how their faith might point toward a path of reconciliation. Without exception, they spoke about the need for forgiveness, that whether it was earned, or even asked for, the victims would not find peace in their hearts until they were able to forgive their oppressors.
Like many of the events at the Edmonton TRC, this gathering was full to capacity, but of all the audiences I was a part of, this was by far the whitest. This must have been the kind of academic exercise that was much more suited to the settler experience than the First Nations experience. The First Nations community leaders that I have talked to couldn’t think of a First Nations person who holds to an atheistic world view. The First Nations people, in one way or another, are a very spiritual people. Still, this didn’t seem to be the kind of spiritual gathering they were interested in attending en masse.
When the panelists had each finished their presentations, the MC invited questions from the floor, and a line formed at the microphone. I left after the second question, when it seemed clear to me that it would be a string of negative comments directed toward the Christian representatives, whether or not their own branch of the church was directly responsible.
But the first question/comment was powerful. One of the few First Nations voices in the room spoke up and said that it was just a little bit too easy for them to speak about forgiveness, but for the people who had been affected, the pain was very real, and forgiveness was a very difficult thing to do.
Of course she was right. None of the panelists would have disputed her. A number of the panelists I’m sure could have spoken of their own tradition’s very recent stories of overcoming victimization and how forgiveness was and is a central part of their healing. I’m sure the Jewish, Sikh and Cree leaders could have told first- or second-hand accounts (even the Mennonite on the panel probably could have done the same). But they didn’t. Nobody said they knew how she felt.
In an event based on an apology, Stephen Harper’s official government apology to victims of abuse at Canadian residential schools, it might have been appropriate for one of the panelists to apologize for the ease with which they had spoken. None of them even made a half-hearted apology for any perceived insensitivity. Nobody was sorry for what they had said.
The pain this woman was feeling was clear in her voice and the way it quivered. The stories of what happened to women like her were still resonating in our ears from what we had heard in other rooms at other times during the assembly. Nobody was going to deny her pain. Nobody was going to force her to forgive or tell her that it would be easy to do so, but the conviction was the same, that anger and bitterness would only delay the healing.
The religious sentiment, almost without exception, toward this woman was empathy. It was visible in the faces of the panelists. Emotion in an academic setting, who would have thought. There was pain in her life and there will continue to be pain, that was obvious. While she is entitled to that pain, and her abusers are not in any way entitled to human forgiveness, that is where her healing will the begin.