Tuesday’s child is full of grace.” For the next four months I am sharing sections from the new book — A Child Laughs — Prayers of Justice and Hope (edited by Maria Mankin and Maren C. Tirabassi) Pilgrim Press, May 1, 2017.)
This week I share some of R. Matthew Stevens and Patti Rodgers work from the chapter on Canadian Residential Schools. I include background and questions and a prayer. More materials are in the book. It is, indeed, not Canada alone that has created residential schools for indigenous and autonomous people. I am from the United States and certainly here the Thanksgiving holiday is not only a time for giving thanks but also for repentance and apology.
There are three words in the English lexicon that are more powerful than any conventional weapon. They have consistently been used by imperialist regimes around the globe in India and Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the United States and Canada. The spell-casting phrase is: “I Know Better”!
Girded with the certitude that “I know better,” Sir John A. Macdonald appointed himself Canadian Minister of Indian Affairs and inaugurated the policy of withholding food from Aboriginal people until they were coerced onto reserves as the Canadian Pacific Railway made its way across the country. Subsequently he boasted that the Aboriginal population was kept on the “verge of actual starvation to deflect criticism that I was squandering public funds.”
MacDonald was even more confident when he launched the residential school system to “take the Indian out of the child.” In the young ambitious Duncan Campbell Scott, the prime minister found a willing acolyte who would outlive him and continue this cultural genocide for decades. The personal certainty “I know better” allowed Scott to maintain a duplicitous attitude. In his official capacity he advocated: “‘The happiest future for the Indian race is absorption into the general population, and this is the object and policy of our government—Assimilation!” Yet, this same man, as an admired poet, dissembled his true intentions in evocative words idolizing Aboriginal people.
Recently churches and governments have offered apologies renouncing past attitudes, carefully embroidered in reconciliation rhetoric. Still, policies remain laden with paternalism, implying that Aboriginal people have not yet earned equality of opportunity, nor are they capable of prop- erly administering their own affairs. Although the notion that “I know better” may have morphed in application, the dominant society appears to remain determinedly subscribed in principle. God grant that one day every Canadian will realize that we are all “Treaty People”!
I am a white woman. Five generations ago my ancestors came from England to this land called Canada. They had never owned land before. The promise of free land was like a dream, and so they came. They came in rickety ships, through ice and storm, by cart and by foot to a rocky, desolate, windswept place. A place where they planted and toiled and lived a life harder then they could have imagined. They were devout and honest people. Hardworking people. They did not know, nor did their children, nor their children’s children know, the horrible price paid for that life and that land.
That knowledge has fallen to me. It is a horrible truth.
Seven generations of human beings—the First Peoples of Canada—were, and continue to be, cheated, robbed, beaten, incarcerated, starved, infected, poisoned, murdered, abused, stolen, misrepresented, unrepresented, ignored, and almost-but-not-quite annihilated for land. For the land I call home and the life I call mine.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has brought public attention to the truths of colonialism and residential schools and their multigenerational impact on Indigenous peoples and Canada as a whole. It also offered real, practical solutions that begin with building relation- ships with each other—getting to know each other.
My ancestors were not bad people. They were ordinary people caught up in an evil system. Gandhi once wrote: “You assist an evil system most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees. An evil system does not de- serve such allegiance.” Breaking allegiance with an evil system begins with lament, followed by repentance. Redemption is promised, and justice flows forth like a healing stream.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION/ACTION
1. What do you know about apologies? Four Anglo settler countries— New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States, and provinces/states within them—have apologized to Indigenous peoples. Religious communities, from missionary denominations in Hawai’i to Pope Francis in Bolivia, have also done so. Some of these have been the result of intentional processes and others legislative votes. Learn something about historical apologies.
2. Consider . . . some people resent or avoid making an apology on behalf of historical injustice . . . some people escape reparations or support through apology . . . some people have their lives trans- formed through apology. How do you feel about it?
3. “We will raise your children.” The Canadian residential schools are one example of a dominant society ripping children from their culture and attempting to fill them with another one. This crime has been repeated many places. An urban elementary teacher in the United States this week told me that her African American students suffered environmental failure because most of the examples on a standardized test were rural. What are contemporary examples of “educating” children away from their cultures?
This is what they say of themselves:
Patti Rodgers is a lay minister serving a two-point pastoral charge just north of Toronto, Canada. Before officially becoming a “minister,” she ministered by providing administrative support to the Aboriginal Ministries Circle of the United Church of Canada, and as one of a team of family law professionals. She is a mother and grandmother.
R. Matthew Stevens,: Being a person of Métis heritage, I consider myself particularly fortunate to be able to occupy a space between cultures, with access to both. I’ve been privileged to learn many of the traditional teachings from some very gifted and patient Elders, and to have availed myself of some excellent formal education as well. From both of these sources I have learned how disabling a pervasive sense of guilt can be to an individual, and how collectively it can incapacitate society from appropriately redressing a prevailing circumstances.