Saturday, June 20, 2015

National Aboriginal Day, June 21st

Truth and Reconciliation

Readings: Isaiah 40:20-31; Psalm 19; Philippians 4:4-9; John 1:1-18

Today is the summer solstice, an appropriate day on which to celebrate National Aboriginal Day in Canada. It has been celebrated on this day for many years, but this year with the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there is hopefully a poignancy, an urgency, a sense of renewed commitment to join our First Nations People in the celebration. We in Port Hope live, as many Canadians do, on Treaty land. Port Hope is part of Treaty 20 known as Surrender M. It consists of almost two million acres of land for which the British paid $10 dollars in goods to each person. And so I begin this sermon by acknowledging the First Nations in whose territory we live and express my thanks for this opportunity to meet here today. And I put before you two questions. How will we in this parish share in the ministry of truth and reconciliation? And more importantly what does it even mean?

I have encouraged people to listen to the stories posted daily. That is the ‘truth’ part of the equation. I have received feedback, most of it encouraging, but – and I must say, not from this parish – some of the old clich├ęd, stereotypical responses that people love to trot out about the First Nations People. You know what I mean. Lazy! Welfare bums! Drunks! Dirty! What I hear most of all is that it was a long time ago. “It has nothing to do with me!” they will tell me. “Besides, the Church has already paid out compensation. That should be the end of it.” But here is the difficulty for me. It took generations to make the mess; it will take generations of truly listening to the stories and making amends to undo the problems that were created by our racist attitudes.

In the Old Testament reading Isaiah is speaking to a people in exile. They have spent two generations away from their homeland. Their faith has been eroded. They are tired. Tired of the distance. Tired of the yearning for what was. Tired of feeling powerless, of not knowing if they will ever return to their homeland, to their roots.

As I have listened to the stories of truth I hear that same fatigue. Our First Nations People are tired. They are tired of yearning for what was. They are tired of feeling inadequate. They are above all tired of feeling powerless to bring about change.

I want to share a little of my story, my truth, and of some of the steps that I have taken to reconciliation. My first year of teaching was at St. Philip’s Residential School in Fort George, Quebec, on the Quebec coast of James Bay about two hundred air miles north of Moosonee. It is now called Chisasibi; it is where the James Bay Power Project went in. It was, when I taught there, a rather isolated village. Except for the six weeks or so of freeze up and whatever time it took for the break up, there were three planes a week if the weather cooperated. I was asked by a “veteran” teacher – I was seventeen years old – if I was a “reject” or a “misfit”. Although I do not believe either of those words describes my reason for going north, I certainly had an idealized view of what it meant to be an “Indian”. My concept of our First Nations People came from the pictures of cute little pig-tailed Aboriginal children on the mission boxes that we got at church. I decided it was my mission to go north to teach.

There were seven classes in our school. Not all of the children lived in the residence. Perhaps a third of the children lived in the village. It was made clear to all of us that we were there to teach the children English, in fact to turn them into white children. They were not to speak their language. If we heard them speak we were to correct them. I had one little girl, Dora Ekumiak, an Inuit, who, while she did her work just fine, would not say a word. She finally spoke to me out in the schoolyard towards the end of the year. After that she never stopped. I suspect she was simply waiting until she got it right. The children were quiet and very respectful. There was never any need for discipline.

There was not enough room for all of the teachers to have their own apartment in the Teacherage, so two of us, the youngest, had rooms in the residence. We were directly under the primary girls’ dorm. It is heart breaking to me to remember the sobs that I often heard at night as the children settled down to sleep. I know that I felt lonely and isolated away from family for the first time. And I had chosen to be there. How much more those little ones must have felt in that strange environment without the comfort of parents and siblings! I have learned that brothers and sisters were often split up and sent to different schools. Many would not see a single family member for years.

What I remember most about teaching the children was their creative ability. They were wonderful artists. Supplies were often unavailable, and so I would beg my family to send me paper. They sent rolls of wallpaper, which became wonderful murals on the classroom walls. I also got them to send me bars of ivory soap so that the children could carve them like soapstone. The results were amazing.

I had to laugh hearing one man’s story this past week about how much time was spent in prayer. I put together a little choir that sang on Sundays and sometimes in the chapel in the morning. I never could get them to sing up to speed, but they enjoyed it, especially if I accompanied them on the wheezy old pump organ.

Although it was discouraged, I did get to know a family and spent a week during our Easter break on their trap line. It was a life-changing experience, one that I cherish. But on our return, the Principal called me into his office, and threatened me with being fired if I ever did anything like that again.

That is the ‘truth’ part of the story. I would not trade that teaching experience for anything. Yet I lost it! When information began to emerge about abuse in the schools I was horrified, especially when teachers were blamed for the children’s loss of language and culture. I avoided telling anyone about my experience. Then I went to a conference. I found myself signing up for a workshop on the Healing Circle. It was led by an elder, and was attended by about a dozen or so First Nations women and me. We sat in a circle. The elder explained the process. She would pass a feather around the circle. When it came to us we could hold it as long as we wished. We could speak whatever we wished to say. When we were finished we could pass it on to the next person. As it was passed around the circle, most of the women told stories about the residential schools, and about the abuse they had endured. I planned to just sit there without speaking, but when the feather got to me, I heard myself telling them my story. I told them about the children in my class and how much I had cared for them. I told them how ashamed I felt now, but also how I had lost that precious time that was so pivotal in my teaching career. I expressed my sadness at their pain. I passed the feather on to the next woman. Suddenly there was a loud ‘Whoop!’ They all joined in. The elder thanked me and said that I was their sister. That is reconciliation.

Back to Isaiah! In faith it is the capacity to look at the vast expanse of the world with a sense of awe and wonder that lifts us to new heights. Seeing things with eyes of amazement, seeing ourselves in the context of being part of a majestic creation gives our faith the “wind beneath our wings” to soar, to “mount up with wings like eagles, to run and not be weary”.

That sounds very much to me like the spirituality of our First Nations People. God speaks to them through all of creation. The rocks are grandfathers, rock solid, dependable, ancient. The moon is the grandmother, source of life, controlling the waters of the earth, bringing about life. The feather speaks of gentleness, of the ability to go with the flow. It symbolizes reverence for the Creator and all of life. It is time for us to start listening to our First nations people. It is time to walk with them. It is time to hear their stories and learn from them who God is and how to worship.

My hope is that we will listen to the truth, hear with our hearts, and stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. Let us put our minds together in Thanksgiving. In Ojibway, “Chi-miigwech”! “Thank you very much!”


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