Becoming Sojourners?

A reflection given in worship on June 23 by Barbara Bitzer

Last Friday was National Indigenous Peoples Day and I wanted to reflect on what that means for us as a non- indigenous group of Christians. There is much to celebrate and to learn from their wisdom, their resilience, and their care for creation.

But then I saw a letter in the Record last week. An angry letter from a man upset and angry about the use of the term genocide to describe Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. It may be that some of you also take issue with the use of the word genocide. But I wanted to respond.

I would say

  • Have you read the report of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls?

  • Have you taken the time to understand the history of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples?

Did you know that at one time blankets infested with small pox were distributed to some tribes (you probably heard the news yesterday that a street in Montreal named for the perpetrator of that atrocity was renamed Atateken , meaning fraternity and peace.)

I would say:

  • Did you know that starving families were denied their rations by the Indian Agent unless they sent their children to residential school?

The writer concludes “ I refuse to accept this sweeping condemnation of myself and all other non-indigenous Canadians for alleged actions over which we would have had absolutely no control. We are not guilty of genocide or anything remotely like it.” ( my emphasie)

It reminds me of the time in the late 90’s when we were becoming more aware of the devastating legacy of residential schools. Even in the church people were saying – it’s not my problem; I didn’t cause it; why should I feel guilty? I could even say = I wasn’t born in Canada, I was not living here - why should I care? The church was also concerned about the legal implications of an apology. I was a member of the General Council Executive at that time and there was much debate and concern about how we should act on behalf of the church. The legal advisers did not want us to apologise which could be taken as an admission of liability. But in the end Moderator Bill Phipps did the right and made an apology which stated in part –

“We know that many within our church will still not understand why each of us must bear the scar, the blame for this horrendous period in Canadian history. But the truth is, we are bearers of many blessings from our ancestors, and therefore must also bear their burdens.’

For me, I believe that if I want the benefits of Canadian citizenship, then I also must accept the responsibilities of being a Canadian.

It has been a long process of moving towards a right relationship with Indigenous Peoples. More than 20 years ago there was RCAP, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal peoples – a far reaching report which called for a 20 year strategy of radical change in the relationship between Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal peoples, which would also require a massive redistribution of funds. The result? A few easy recommendations were accepted but the report largely gathered dust on a shelf.

More recently the Truth and Reconciliation Commission looked at Canada’s legacy of the residential schools and issued 94 Calls to Action. Some are slowly being acted upon but others are being resisted. Just this past week a few Conservative senators delayed a vote on a Bill to ratify the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, despite unanimous pressure from the House of Commons to pass it. With the rise of parliament for the summer the Bill dies .

And now the most recent report: the National Inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. with its many Calls for Justice. Many are directed to governments at all levels, and service providers, but the final calls are to Canadian citizens. The report uses powerful language, to call for justice and weave a vision for the future.

“we demand a world within which First Nations, Inuit and Metis families can raise their children with the same safety, security and human rights that non-Indigenous families do.” Do any of us want anything less?

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 7: 1-5,12)Jesus is talking very bluntly about interpersonal relationships – don’t judge others – examine your own behavior and prejudices before attempting to call out other people. treat other people the same way you want to be treated. That sounds to me very like the call of the National Enquiry.

Over the years, too, the language has changed as non-Indigenous Canadians try to acknowledge and name our part in this troubled history. It seemed to begin with naming us ‘colonisers” which was certainly true of the powerful leaders, but a few years ago the term “settler” became more common, and that seemed a little easier to live with and more reflective of the average newcomer. All of us have come from other parts of the world, whether our families have been here for 5 generations or just one. But the language is changing again and at the recent Grand River Interfaith breakfast, the keynote speaker, the rev Rosalyn Elm, of the Oneida Nation, invited us to think of ourselves as sojourners, walking together with our Indigenous neighbours as allies.

So what does being an ally look like? The Inquiry sets out a number of challenges to Canadian citizens, under the heading of calls to action. They include:

  1. Learning the true history of Canada and its damaged relationship with Indigenous peoples. Last Monday there was an excellent opportunity to learn through a participatory history lesson , known as the Kairos Blanket Exercise. This is a powerful and meaningful tool towards understanding how Canada’s policies set out to undermine and eliminate what was called “the Indian problem”. If you have a chance to experience it I really encourage you to do so.

  2. Find ways to hold all levels of government accountable to act on the calls for justice – sending emails, phone calls, personal visits to MPs etc . Some of us are now part of a network with Parkminster United Church and receive regular information about up coming events and calls for action. Incidentally I learnt about this when I attended one of the local cluster meetings (taking the place of presbytery) and joined a small group that evening. I added my name to their mailing list and you could do the same. The more we can support each other the stronger will be our response.

  3. Become a strong ally which is much more than simply being tolerant of and accepting of other people. Rather it means actively working to break down barriers and support others in every relationship and encounter in which you participate. Not an easy thing to do. It means living with respect, with vigilance, making choices in how we relate to other people. But the message from our first reading today, from Jeremiah 31 v33 gives us hope. God says through Jeremiah that God’s laws are written on our hearts – we know what is the right and ethical way to behave – we just need to listen to our hearts and allow ourselves to love deeply. Let us become true sojourners with all Canadians, walking together to a more just and equitable future.