By Jennifer Henry
I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.
Now, almost a month away from the closing ceremonies of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), there are two images I can’t get out of my mind. One is a word picture painted by Commissioner Marie Wilson who asked those pressed into rooms to hear the findings of the TRC to think of “graveyards where there should have been playgrounds.” She was speaking of the 6000 estimated deaths at residential schools (odds of dying almost identical to those of Canadians serving in World War II) and the dehumanization of unmarked graves and families who still do not know what happened to their child. She was speaking of the 150,000 children whose childhood was robbed when they were forcibly removed from their families, subjected to neglect and child labour, denied their language and culture, taught they were inferior, and, in many cases, abused by the people who were charged with their care. It is an image that should have made every Canadian hold their breath. Children not allowed to be children. Children who never made it home.
The second occurred during the ceremonial close of the TRC. The dignitaries were inside the Governor General’s residence; awaiting them outside were 350 Ottawa school children. They gathered with 1000 handmade hearts from across the country, ready to create a heart garden to honour the memory of students of residential schools and plant dreams of a reconciled Canada. A group of about half a dozen little girls were practicing their traditional jingle dress dances to the beat of the drum. When the young Métis fiddler started to play a jig, the girls couldn’t help themselves and spontaneously began dancing to the music. Children being children with joyful abandon, immersed in their culture, open to the gift of another’s.
I have been a witness at six of the seven national events as the Truth and Reconciliation of Canada which heard testimony from close to 7000 survivors and intergenerational survivors of Canada’s Indian residential schools system. The Commissioners have concluded that this national project, pursued for over a century, was one of cultural genocide, the systematic process of stripping peoples of language, culture, identity, wrenching children out of their families and communities in order to purge their “Indianness”. The tentacles of the residential schools—a process embedded in a deeper and longer process of colonization—reach into every aspect of Canadian society, as was appropriately reflected in the comprehensive Calls to Action, 94 in total, issued by the Commissioners. The survivors’ courage has given us the truth. The Commissioners have shown us the way forward towards a transformed Canada. What is left is our persistence towards action.
As a Canadian citizen, I can respond to this challenge to unlearn the false history of my country and to relearn it in truth, in pursuit of reconciliation. I can strive to take up my treaty responsibilities in a context where I am a guest and the framework is a nation-to-nation one. Where I struggle at a much deeper level is with my faith, with my church, which collaborated with government in this dehumanization. Four churches, including my own, the Anglican Church of Canada, ran the schools. How did we who claim to know what is sacred help break the bonds between parent and child? How did we who claim to recognize the dignity of each person made in God’s image replace names with numbers and bury children in unmarked graves without informing their families of their deaths? How could we who are called to bring good news to the oppressed enact such terrible oppression in the name of that good news? How do we, as people who trusted in our own benevolence, know that we will never do anything like this again?
I believe in the sincerity of my church’s apology and that of the other churches. I think we are genuine in our commitment to reconciliation. I see hopeful action. But my greatest fear is that we will “move on” without fully coming to terms with what our collective violation, what some have called our collaboration in systemic evil, means, and how it must change us forever.
In Canada, we have been compelled to explore how Christianity fueled the colonial fire. Of course this is not the only place where that happened and residential schools, while a kind of crucible, are not the only place where Christianity played its colonial part. And it is not over. Across the globe corporations, invested in by churches, still participate in actions that result in the displacement of Indigenous peoples from their lands in a neo-colonial pursuit of resources. In Canada, there are more Indigenous children in care now than at the height of the residential schools crisis—the terrible irony of children being placed in foster care as a result of the intergenerational legacy of residential schools and the failure to provide equitable support for Indigenous children. In our churches, there is still the tendency to define Christianity in euro-centric terms and to view Indigenous people as those aspiring to be “us.” As settler folks we seem to be able to change, but we are susceptible to being easily pulled back into colonial ways of thinking–into a historical amnesia–when the issues and people are not right in front of us. It’s as if we haven’t truly unlearned. .
I am sick at heart for what I have come to know about how we harmed seven generations of children. I am so unsettled I find it difficult to trust in the core theologies we so distorted in our missionary zeal and through concepts of racial superiority. And I am angry that as one of the great Indigenous leaders in our community, Cindy Blackstock says, Indigenous children still grow up in Canada “…having to recover from their childhoods” and “non-Indigenous children still have to say they are sorry.”
While this is all true, it is also true that there has never been more hope. The TRC Commissioners have laid out a vision for a transformed Canada. Young Indigenous activists are determined it will not be another shelved report through campaigns like #ReadTheTRCReport. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are coming together to protect watersheds, to learn and unlearn, to share land and resources as the original, foundational treaties envisaged. Church folks are ringing their bells, bells of alarm and warning, bells of witness to current day crises such as missing and murdered Indigenous women. And Indigenous elders, against all odds, are teaching little girls about their culture, to dance in honour, to dance in respect, to dance in joy, to dance because that’s what kids should be able to do.
Jennifer Henry is a Canadian, a settler, a Christian, an Anglican, a mother, a sister and a dancer.
The Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the 94 Calls to Action can be found at www.trc.ca.
Or to hear Indigenous activists read the report in a you tube play list go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vW4lQfOfl3I&list=PLxPr_RIsvg9JJWoiRx2kl2v24r_pu7JbR