I was not at a typical women’s retreat.
For one thing, there wasn’t any wifi.
We were nearly two hours outside of Vancouver, in the shadow of Mount Cheam among the trees and the cold waterfalls. We were 100 women, all gathered to learn how to rise up together, we were chasing after the idea of sisterhood, we were yearning to be women of liberation.
In her welcoming remarks, my friend Idelette stood in silence before us. We bowed our heads expecting prayer. Instead, she bellowed the word “FREEDOM!” like a warrior right into the silence of women. Her cry sent shivers down my spine. After dozens of women’s retreats with tender and sweet prayers, a raw primal howl like that will make you sit up straight, I assure you.
She turned to Melaney of the Musqueam Nation. Her wide hand-held drum kept rhythm like a heartbeat. She sang a prayer from Chief Dan George over us, welcoming us to her ancestral land. I don’t speak this language but I knew just what these words meant somehow in my soul and it seemed like eagles were soaring in her voice. I bowed my head.
Her song, this prayer, was a gift of reconciliation and an act of faith. The entire weekend would be this same way.
Near the end of the gathering, Melaney and another indigenous woman named Kallie together wrapped all of the women in a beautiful red, black,and white scarf emblazoned with artwork from the Coast Salish people. The women were commissioned, like Mary at the Tomb of Christ on Easter morning, to go and tell what they had seen, what they heard, what they had experienced through the Holy Spirit, to bear witness to reconciliation together.
At that moment, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the circle like an omen.
Everything I learned about things like the “settling of the west” or about the Riel rebellion or the Indian Act or the residential school systems was through the lens of white settler versions of Canadian textbooks.
So we learned about generations of indigenous children who had been removed from their homes, their parents, their communities, and their families to be placed in government-sponsored religious schools beginning officially in 1880 so the “Indian” could be educated out of them. Children were stolen, forbidden to speak their languages, cut off from their culture and their way of life, separated from their families, malnourished and cold, worked relentlessly, often horribly abused in every way – physically and sexually, spiritually and emotionally. We learned it as if it wasn’t so bad, it was the price of progress, it was something long ago, it was no longer relevant.
As children, we talked about it, studied it, did a little project about this with the same unconcern we used for the British North America Act or the arrival of Samuel de Champlain.
To us, this was a long time ago, it had nothing to do with us: we didn’t notice the indigenous kids in the classroom had become very quiet and withdrawn while we chattered over projects.
No one told us that there were still residential schools open and operating that blessed moment.
I was in my late thirties when I learned of the Sixties Scoop. It was another government-sponsored policy towards indigenous children. Once the residential schools fell out of favour, the governments slowly began to close them and instead opted to take indigenous children from their families to place them to be fostered and adopted by non-indigenous families. Not only were these children taken from their parents and grandparents from their families, they were also stolen from their way of life, their culture, their language, their heritage. Even their names were often lost.
I’ve tried to imagine how it would feel: to be sitting at my kitchen table with my children at suppertime when That Government Knock finally comes to the door. That choke of fear that would rise up in my throat. The men standing outside in suits or collared-shirts, impassive, to take my children from me. That look on my children’s faces when they realize what is happening.
And yet the bitter knowledge that you can do nothing to stop it – you have no rights, no voice they will hear, no legal recourse available, nothing.
And I try to imagine the silence that falls afterwards, a mother in an empty house without her children. Kidnaped with the blessing of Ottawa.
Ever since I learned the truth of the residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, today’s Millenium Scoop, I’ve tried to imagine how this would feel but I always falter because it defies imagination, humanity, decency, goodness.
And yet it was – is – reality.
Most non-indigenous Canadians remain ignorant of and isolated from these stories.
No wonder we are struggling towards reconciliation still. Soong-Chan Rah writes that “true reconciliation, justice, and shalom require a remembering of suffering, an unearthing of a shameful history and a willingness to enter into lament. Lament calls for an authentic encounter with the truth and challenges privilege, because privilege would hide the truth that creates discomfort.”
A friend of mine who was taken from her family by the Scoop testifies about sisters and brothers she’s never met, a mother who fell apart in their absence (who wouldn’t?), grandparents who died without ever knowing where she was or if she had even survived, and the nights of loneliness and devastating grief she endured as a four-year-old, taken from the only life she knew and dropped into a whole new world.
My friend is only a few years old than me. We are of the same generation.
It’s estimated that at least 20,000 kids were affected. Imagine the web attached to each child taken – their grandparents, their parents, their siblings, their communities. And we could make the argument that the “scoop” hasn’t ever stopped because aboriginal children are still over-represented in our child welfare system. Indigenous leaders are still sounding the alarm about a “Millennium Scoop” and the ongoing apprehension of indigenous children. More children are in care now than there were at the height of the residential school system.
These are just two instances of our collective history – there is also the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, there are treaty violations, there are pipeline plans, there are deplorable living conditions on reserves who lack even running water in one of the richest nations in the world, there is a lack of equal funding for indigenous children compared to non-indigenous children for schooling, entrenched racism, and on and on we go.
This is not long ago: this is now.
Over the past few years, Canadians have been undergoing a long process of reconciliation with First Nations. It’s not perfect, it’s frustrating. It’s in the courts and in the streets. It’s been riddled with issues. But we’re still going. It’s often one step forward, three steps back sort of work.
There was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modelled on South Africa’s version, to give voice to the survivors of residential schools. (Reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, something every Canadian should do at least once, is transformative.) There was the Superior Court judge in Ontario who ruled that Ottawa had “failed in their duty of care to indigenous peoples” in one case pertaining to the Sixties Scoop which hardly seems sufficient language for the intergenerational pain that was inflicted but I’m glad for it. I hope every Canadian keeps paying attention to the voices of survivors, keeps pestering our government relentlessly to make things right here.
And yet we buried Tina Fontaine and no one was accountable for her death. And yet Colton Boushie was shot and his killer walked free. And yet… and yet… and yet…
Every step towards healing, towards justice, towards reconciliation matters. So does every step away from it, every blind eye against it. I hope that every child, every parent, every person who was harmed by our great sins towards First Nations is able to tell their story, hear an apology, and witness first-hand what repentance and justice looks like in public. Lament is truth because as Soong-Chan Rah writes, it is “the language of suffering.”
We have so far to go. As Austin Channing Brown says “reconciliation is what we practice after we have chosen justice.” Turn your eyes to the stories of truth, justice, and reconciliation happening around our world – in Rwanda, in South Africa, in Bosnia, in Palestine, in Northern Ireland, in the United States, in Canada.
Faltering, imperfect steps. But still we are walking.
Like most white Canadians descended from settlers, I am late to the conversation. I have a long way to go. I’m very much in the beginner’s posture of learning how to reconcile well and so I am unlearning old habits and ideas that have roots in complacency and complicity and ignorance. There is dialogue to engage, public policy to affect, friendships to tend, forgiveness to ask, books to read, awareness to build, stories to hear, solidarity to embody.
I used to have a photo of myself, wrapped up in an iconic Hudson’s Bay blanket, blazoned across this website. I thought it marked me as a Canadian right from the first click. But through relationship, I learned that this was also a symbol of colonization to my friends and so I took down the photo, apologized, not out of guilt but out of honour. When my friends told me their truth, it was a gift to me.
So in these days after Easter, it’s worth asking: could we really experience resurrection without reconciliation?
If we aren’t reconciled to one another, then our resurrection has no teeth, it has no bones, it has no shape.
It is weak and individualized, it has nothing to say to the suffering, and it surrenders authority over death.
Without reconciliation – real reconciliation, not the niceties or warm momentary feelings or platitudes or head-pats of false reconciliation that makes us feel better without ever really changing anyone – we are missing something deeply important about Easter.
It’s impossible to truly incarnate resurrection without without an eye for reconciliation. And “reconciliation is not for the faint of heart,” says Christena Cleveland.
Christ’s death and resurrection is the story of the greatest reconciliation, the end of our separation from God, the extravagant welcome of the Father to the prodigal son. In Colossians 1:19-20, Paul writes, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
This reconciliation is meant to spill over and into our right-now lives because God has given us the ministry of reconciliation through the resurrection.
And could we truly be that ambassador of reconciliation without reconciliation between one another?
We don’t simply share in Christ’s resurrection as individuals but also as a community. And that new life is testifying within our communities as invitation, as a sign of the greatest reconciliation. If Jesus is our reconciler then we are disciples of reconciliation, too. Reconciliation between us is a taste of the divine, incarnate Love reconciling all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, things past or present or future.
Reconciliation is hard and humbling, this is true, and it’s also startlingly beautiful as if we were hiking through the woods at the base of the mountain and then we suddenly come face-to-face with a powerful waterfall, raining down from the glaciers at the top, ready to quench our thirst.
I’ve learned that reconciliation sort of beauty isn’t soft – it has heft and space, marked by sorrow and suffering.
This sort of hard-won beauty is a drum and a song, it is dignity and honour, it is tears and repentance, it is eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to understand. It is long-silenced or long-ignored voices rising in song. It is strength of shared power. It is harmony between the land and the people. It is community and prayer. It’s protests on a pipeline and it is clean water. It is an equitable justice system and good books, it’s dismantling old ways to make room of the wild vine of the Spirit to grow free and unfettered. It is seeking to understand rather than be understood. It is what Randy S. Woodley calls a “shalom-based theology” which means peace that is communal, holistic, and tangible.
At that gathering in the mountains, I began to think it might even be this – indigenous and non-indigenous women in a room, daring to call each other sisters, hoping to make it true.
Reconciliation is beautiful and holy and hard precisely because it’s a glimpse of resurrection.
I’ve learned now that learning the language, practices, and ways of reconciliation won’t ever be a check-mark on a to-do list. It’s not an arrival gate. It will always be a renewing journey.
Reconciliation isn’t “The End” or the “then they lived happily ever after.”
Reconciliation is the “In the beginning….” and the “hallelujah” and the wedding supper and the road we walk towards home.
A few weeks after that gathering in the mountains, Idelette and I were at an indigenous-owned cafe called lelem’ which means “home” alongside the Fraser River for a catch-up over lattes. At the end of our visit, she pulled out a beautiful red and black Coast Salish wool blanket on behalf of Melaney. I had missed the commissioning at our gathering because at that moment, I was in the hospital, recovering from my car accident – it had happened on that very weekend. So she stood up in the cafe as an emissary and wrapped the blanket around my shoulders, the weight of it a mantle, and spoke Melaney’s words over me like an ancient blessing.
She spoke of the sacred history of blankets in her tradition, how they were used in ceremonies as regalia, as currency, as gifts to honoured guests, as spiritual coverings, as a rite of passage for a new name or a marriage or a new home or a life-changing event, as anointing of leadership, as covering and protection for those who speak for the people or who share wisdom and spiritual teachings. This was the blanket I wanted around me now.
Then she rested her hands on my shoulders and offered prayers for courage as, like Mary, I chose resurrection with all of these women, too. I nearly laid down on the floor of the cafe, overwhelmed, like I was at an old-fashioned healing meeting and the Holy Spirit had just fallen down on me.
As I drove home, the blanket still around my shoulders, I took the back way alongside of that ancient river. I unrolled the windows, letting the wet damp cold of our spring sweep into my hair until everything in me smelled like the water and the land to which I had – inexplicably and graciously, in faith and love – been invited to belong.
If you’d like to join with us for a conversation about Reconciliation, we’ll all be together – me, Melaney, Idelette, Kallie, Nichole, and a lot of other women from that gathering in the mountains – for one night during the Atamiskākēwak Gathering.
We’ll be talking about this very thing – how can indigenous and non-indigenous women come together in reconciliation? It will be an evening of friendship, prayer, stories, and listening.
The National Gathering brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples throughout Saskatchewan and abroad to educate how we all can take intentional action to the Truth and Reconciliation’s 94 Calls to Action in this country. The entire week’s events are worth your time; the SheLoves Reconciliation is on Wednesday April 25. All the info – including registration – is here.
The 94 Calls to Action (People of faith, pay special attention to the calls direct towards us Items 58-61. The Church has been complicit and we have to repent in action.)
The National Gathering in Moose Jaw April 23 – 28, 2018
Wiconi and the work of the late Richard Twiss (two of my favourites: Rescuing the Gospel From the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way and One Church, Many Tribes)
Soong-Chan Rah’s work on decolonizing Christianity is a must-read. Check out Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times or The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity)
And this anthology called Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology edited by Pui-Lan Kwok
I don’t want to overwhelm you so I’ll stop there, but if you have other suggestions, please share in the comment section!