One year ago the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released its 500-page final report, “Indian Residential Schools: Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.” Most importantly, the TRC issued 94 Calls to Action. Several of these recommendations should directly have an impact on the ways people of faith will live out our covenantal relationship with the indigenous people of this land.
In late June I was able to interview the commission chair, now senator, Murray Sinclair. (A video of our discussion is available on CPJ’s website.) Since reconciliation is not complete, I wanted to discover how the work of the TRC can and should be continued today.
Senator Sinclair feels that the poverty experienced by indigenous people is different than that of other Canadians. He analyzes the policies of the Canadian state, including residential schools, as intentionally designed to create “an imposed poverty” on indigenous people.
“The aim was to impoverish indigenous people to force them to do the government’s bidding,” said Sinclair.
Not only was land taken away, but “a policy of starvation” was developed (killing off the bison of the Great Plains, prohibiting movement off reserves to access jobs, not allowing the “cultural tools” used in ceremonial practices and economic activities of hunting, fishing and trapping to be learned and nurtured in residential schools, etc.).
What is the way forward, then?
“Education is the foundation for reconciliation, in my view,” he said. The education in our dominant society must change, as “it is also a way for us to address the poor knowledge that non-Aboriginal people have about Canada’s relationship with indigenous peoples.” And certainly education and skills development for indigenous peoples must be improved, since “education is also the key to addressing poverty. There is no question of that — it is in every society.”
During the years-long TRC process, Sinclair witnessed many instances of church entities trying hard to reconcile with indigenous people, while also seeing the challenges and failures they have had. What, I asked, should be the next, further steps for faith communities to play in the reconciliation process?
“Historically, the Christian community generally has spent a long time convincing themselves as well as convincing indigenous people that indigenous philosophies, views, ceremonies and spirituality are not only irrelevant, but evil. That teaching has gone on for many, many generations. It has permeated much of our conversation to the extent that we’re not even conscious of what we’re saying and how we’re saying it and what we’re believing by it.
“For example, I’ve had experiences in government buildings where indigenous elders are not allowed to smudge (burn sweetgrass or sage) while Christian ceremonies using incense are not questioned. There’s that inherent bias, a systemic bias, that we all carry and we are often just not aware of it. So faith communities need to do their own internal soul-searching to recognize and to address their own systemic influences and biases, address them and put them into their proper place, getting rid of them to the extent that they can, or put them into a more respectful tone if you can’t.
“It’s understood that everybody will continue to follow their particular faith teachings — and that should be encouraged.”
A decade ago, Sinclair told a CPJ audience in Winnipeg of his grandmother’s deep Catholic faith — and mentioned that he felt she always wanted him to one day become a priest. “My grandmother was raised by nuns in residential school, she was a fervent Catholic who did not believe in any other spiritual belief. If she had been alive when the pope came to Canada, she would have wanted to go to see him, and I would have taken her because I respected her beliefs that much. But at the same time she had a respect for indigenous beliefs and practices. One thing we need to understand is that within that aura of differences, we can still have commonalities — we can still have very important mutually acceptable ways of proceeding to living side by side in this country in a very respectful way.”
“Faith-based groups have not yet learned to give that same respect to indigenous spirituality that that they demanded indigenous spirituality give to them.”
For Senator Sinclair, “reconciliation is a way of moving to mutual respect.”
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.