Back in 1986 I was a young man who had grown up in an affluent neighbourhood in Toronto. I was unaware of the full story of my ancestry and although I was interested in the world, it was a pretty sheltered upbringing. I had just completed high school and had my eyes set on attending university to get a BA on my way to obtaining a Master of Divinity. I wanted to be a minister in the United Church of Canada.
As a result of my involvement with youth and social justice issues within the United Church, I was chosen to be one of several hundred Commissioners selected to attend the Church’s biannual policy and decision making gathering, the General Council. In 1986 the General Council was held in Sudbury Ont., and that year a significant and historical event took place: the Church made a formal apology to Aboriginal congregations for the role the Church played in the residential school system and in the devastating advance of colonization across the Canadian cultural landscape.
This was the first such apology in Canadian history between a non-native institution and indigenous peoples. It is perhaps not as well remembered that the indigenous representatives who were present deliberated with the Moderator of the Church for a long time before they announced that they were not accepting the apology but instead would release a ststement at a later date. That statement was two years in the making and in 1988 the response came: the Apology was still not accepted, but it was acknowledged and there was hope that it was sincere and at any rate, “We only ask of you to respect our Sacred Fire, the Creation, and to live in peaceful coexistence with us.” It was a call to alliance.
During the days of that General Council, I sat next to a Cree minister from Island Lake, Manitoba named Tom Little. At one point Tom turned to me and asked: “What will you do to make the apology real?” I made him a promise that, as I was going to Trent University a month later, I would supplement my history degree with courses from Trent’s highly acclaimed Native Studies program. Within months of arriving at Trent I knew my path had opened up. I dropped history and became a full Native Studies major. My life, work and spiritual path completely changed. If not for that decision, my great aunt would never have revealed to me my own indigenous ancestry (which is non-obvious in a genetic sense!). From 1989 I began living a real life of reconciliation, as what one of my teachers called “a living treaty.”
Canadians live in a space in between. We live within indigenous territories. We take pride in our connection to land, but suffer a terrible blind spot when it comes to knowing and understanding the deepest history, language and culture of the land. The zeal to recreate our lives – the zeal that all immigrants share – obscures what is already here. It deprives us of a rich world of thought and meaning that can only make us better humans if we open ourselves to it. If reconciliation is to be a real thing, it must be transformative for people and for the relationships that we share.
If you are a Canadian, now is the time to open yourself to what the invitation to reconcile really means. Who could we become as communities and as a country if we allow ourselves to be changed together rather than simply expecting one group of people to change and heal on their own? What can you do to be an ally?
It doesn’t have to be as life transforming for you as it was for me. But it could be.