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.


A Truth Commission with Reconciliation Pending

Last week I spent a few days in the city of Edmonton to attend the final gathering of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  I had attended a previous gathering in Montreal a year ago and for almost two years I have sat on a committee that has been discussing how to bring the issues that the TRC presents to greater level of prominence within the local Mennonite constituency.

Having attended one gathering already, I sort of knew what to expect. The various kinds of smoke have the capacity to overwhelm the senses; grass, paper, tobacco and animal oils are burned as part of spiritual, ritual and social gatherings.  A variety of music and dance that is unfamiliar to most will quickly become normal, as the drumbeats, the shouts and the harmonies continually emanate from some room, somewhere in the building. The TRC is also a very colourful event. Flags and banners are waved, beaded clothing, jewelry and cultural artifacts are displayed, sold and proudly worn throughout the building.

Another thing that is sadly familiar is the ongoing narrative of residential school abuse, of teachers, priests and nuns, friends, fellow students, who over-stepped the authority given to them. Stories of excessive punishment, systemic degradation, and wanton sexual predatory behaviour can and should never become ordinary, but this is what a person needs to be ready for if they are going to attend a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in Canada.  Naturally I heard some of these stories. People talked about their trauma, of the pain it caused, and the various ways that they tried to mask and otherwise deal with that pain.  I heard these stories, but not as many as other people heard.

The event was set up so that different gathering were happening in different places at the same time. Based on what other people told me, I’m sure I missed the heavier stories. I got to hear stories about how the various systems, governmental, societal, religious, had failed the First Nations people. I got to hear these stories from a position of weakness in Montreal too, but what I was excited to see this time were stories of strength.

I know lots of people that want to hear these stories of strength. I know of people in and out of the First Nations community whose desire to hear stories of strength pushes them away from the weakness that is shared at the TRC.  But all around me I saw and I heard stories of strength.

I heard stories of promises made to newborn children, that they would inherit equality, not the fight to earn it.  I heard of promises people made to themselves that the cycles of violence, addiction and despair would end with them. I heard about the power of rediscovering cultural identity and cultural pride. I saw children hugging their mothers. I learned a new word, “aunties,” that First Nations people use to describe any woman in their community who has participated or continues to participate in their upbringing.

First Nations people often complain that they are only in the news if they are suffering or protesting. At this year’s TRC, I saw evidence of strong communities, strong families and strong national networks.

Moving forward, there will still need to be more reconciliation. It shouldn’t take an event like this for well-intentioned neighbours like myself to hear and see this strength.  We, as dominant settler Canadian culture, need to remove the walls of division in our minds, so that when these stories are told, we will have ears to hear them.