We are living in unprecendented times on so many levels ... or so it seems if you tune into the media at any given time on any given day. It is easy, even understandable to feel anxious, even confused about what we are hearing. How do you make meaning out of anything that we hear especially as it is delivered in a soundbyte or youtube video or TED talk or any of the myriad of compressed and digital formats that are available to us at a click? Make no mistake about it. It is tough. Then again, who ever said living was easy?
One of the stories that I have been paying particular attention to and trying to inform myself about is the process of reconciliation with the indigenous peoples and nations in this country. Talk about a complex and emotionally loaded conversation. Still, it is a conversation that is long in coming and one that is going to require a great deal of courage on the part of many people to start talking about this and in a way that reflects what Abraham Lincoln referred to as 'the better angels of our nature'. Everyone needs to join the conversation, from the powerful to the powerless. It is only through such an engagement that we will have the opportunity to define a reconcilaition path forward with our aboriginal neighbours. This is no time to be an ostrich. We have been living in denial for far too long. Historical events have brought us here but they don't have to define how we move forward. There are many invitations and opportunities to embrace reconciliation in a 'good way'.
Towards that end, I wanted to share an article I came across that embodies some of the thoughts on the matter from Chief Robert Joseph, a person who is at the forefront of the reconciliation process and someone who, through his wisdom, honesty and generosity offers us a way forward. I hope his words speak to you as loudly as they did for me.
Residential school story becoming over-simplified, says chief
More from Douglas Todd
Published on: April 21, 2017
[B.C. Chief Robert Joseph struggled for year after emerging from the residential school system, but he insists on viewing that part of Canadian history in a nuanced way. He's worried it's being presented in an over-simplified, black-and-white way in modern Canadian society.]
B.C. Chief Robert Joseph regrets Canadians are becoming “too positional” about residential schools.
Though Joseph became an alcoholic after suffering abuse at St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, he worries Canadians are giving into black-and-white thinking about the defunct school system, which was attended by almost 140,000 aboriginals. Joseph, for instance, would appreciate talking with embattled Senator Lynn Beyak. She caused a furor by saying, among other things, it’s unfortunate the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report didn’t include a focus on how some residential-school students had positive experiences and many continue to be Christians.
Since early March, Beyak has been ridiculed for these remarks and others by noted politicians, pundits and aboriginals. Her Conservative party acceded to demands by removing her from the Senate committee on aboriginal affairs. But Joseph doesn’t believe it’s wise to silence someone for just stating her position, whatever he thinks of it. “I think (Beyak) has a voice we need to reach out to. It might give us ideas about developing relationships with people no matter what camps they’re in.”
After recovering 20 years ago from being a “town drunk,” Joseph began in 2012 to head Reconciliation Canada, an organization (funded in part by Vancity credit union) for educating about residential schools. He’s been awarded the Order of B.C. and an honorary degree from UBC.
Joseph emphasizes the federally funded, church-run residential schools were the product of a racist policy of “forced assimilation” that has contributed – however well-intentioned some school staff may have been — to high rates of aboriginal addiction, poverty and suicide. Ottawa has paid out $1.6 billion in the past decade to almost 80,000 living survivors, with large sums going to the minority who were sexually abused and smaller amounts to those who proved they simply attended.
Nearly every one of the more than 120 schools were closed by the early ‘70s. But, judging from the media and polls, it seems the further the reality of the schools fades into the past the more over-simplified the national narrative becomes. Partisanship, positioning and rhetoric seems to be taking precedence over “truth” or even “reconciliation.” The dangers of black-and-white thinking. It’s common now for scholars to talk about the dangers of “binary” thinking, also known as “dualism.” These terms describe people stuck in divisive either-or mindsets. But even though many Canadians are encouraging such black-and-white thinking about residential schools, Joseph continues to care about the complexities, which is where he believes relationships can emerge. “Canadians now see the wreckage of the residential-school past and wonder how are we going to find a new way forward. I wouldn’t want to have a reconciliation that simply balances the ledger and still has hatred afterwards. That would be tragic; that would be same old, same old.”
A member of Vancouver Island’s Kwagu’t First Nation, Joseph recognizes some good people worked at the residential schools. “I think about them and wonder where they are and, if I had a chance to talk to them, I would like to thank them for their service and their kindness.” And even though Joseph’s 11 years at Anglican-run St. Michael’s caused him to leave the school with a “sense of hopelessness,” he recognizes some fellow aboriginals credit the schools with teaching them to be leaders.
Nisga’a chief Joe Gosnell and the late MLA Frank Calder, early architects of self-government treaties in B.C., are glad their children didn’t have to go to residential schools, but they’re also clear they learned skills at them and found many teachers to be dedicated. University of Saskatchewan historian emeritus Jim Miller, author of Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada, suggests Gosnell and Calder are typical of ”the silent majority” of Canada’s aboriginals.Despite a misconception among urban Canadians that aboriginals hate churches, Christianity is integral to two of three of the country’s 1.4 million indigenous people.
While Miller indicts the residential-school system, he says a tiny minority of aboriginal people hold completely positive thoughts about residential schools, while a slightly larger minority at the other end despise everything about them. But the vast majority of aboriginals, suggests Miller, are like Gosnell and Calder: They emerged intact from the schools and remain Christian, with many syncretistically mixing their faith in Jesus Christ with native spiritual traditions.
Squamish Nation elder Rennie Nahanee echoes their approach. He believes aboriginals abused at church-run residential schools “have a right to be angry,” but he nevertheless became a Roman Catholic deacon and serves at St. Paul’s Indian Catholic Church in North Vancouver. Nahanee regrets that some good things that happened in the schools are being ignored. “People,” Nahanee said, “are now afraid to say positive things.” Both gut-wrenching and hopeful stories
Unlike many Canadian journalists in these times of tight newsroom budgets, I’ve had the privilege to visit aboriginal B.C. villages like New Aiyansh, Kitimaat and Canim Lake. I’ve been able to talk to scores of residential-school survivors, cover numerous abuse court cases and take part in First Nations healing circles; writing more than 100 articles about residential-school crimes and conditions. Many stories I’ve heard have been gut-wrenching, but some, like those of Gosnell, mix hardship with personal development.
Some aboriginals recognize that by the 1980s, Anglican and United Church leaders (followed later by Catholics) had not only apologized numerous times for their part in operating the schools, but many clergy were at the forefront of fighting for land claims. It’s part of the reason that last Easter weekend many pews across the country, especially in the north, were packed with some of the almost 900,000 aboriginal Canadians who are Christians.
The ongoing strength of Christianity among the country’s 1.4 million aboriginals is counter-intuitive to the way the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the schools a form of “cultural genocide.” It’s a term Angus Reid polls show has also been widely adopted by Canadians, even while it has no clear dictionary or legal definition and, for that reason, has never been adopted by the United Nations.
Some commentators suggest that Canadian aboriginals who consider themselves Christian simply continue to be victims of cultural genocide and European colonialism. But such commentators could be accused of being patronizing. Chief Joseph, for his part, says: “Aboriginals who choose to become Christians should be applauded. They made a choice and it’s a good choice. People need to have a deep love for themselves, and for peace. It doesn’t matter what religion or world view you find that in.”
His own love of peace keeps big-hearted Joseph spearheading Reconciliation Canada, including by working with major resource companies dedicated to aboriginal treaties and ecological sustainability. Instead of opting for over-simplified thinking about the residential schools, Joseph reminds all Canadians that, no matter how much disgust and blame they might feel toward the country’s early settlers: “No one is leaving.”In other words, he’s aware that tens of millions of Canadian-born people and immigrants who have indirectly ‘benefited’ from colonialism are not about to depart the country, to leave it to First Nations people.
“Over time we should realize, as people sharing the land, we all belong here,” says Joseph. “The sooner we discover that the sooner we’ll be working together and cheering each other on.”