With the acknowledgement that churches in Canada exist within the context of stolen Native lands comes the responsibility to acknowledge, respect, and look towards Indigenous ways to re-construct Western perceptions.
I am not a direct survivor of the residential school system in that I didn’t attend any of the schools; in fact, I was born the year after the last residential school shut its doors in Ontario in 1974 . But as an Anishnabekwe, (Ojibway Woman) I still consider myself to be a survivor of genocide. I do not speak Ojibway, the Indigenous language of my ancestry, and growing up I knew and learned very little of the Indigenous history of Canada. In public school, I learned nothing about the residential school experience. Until I turned 19 years old, one could argue that I was a ‘success story’, proving the litany of forceful assimilationist policies aimed at getting rid of the Indian actually worked. I mean, I knew and celebrated more about Le Bonhomme de Neige than Nanaboozho!
Thankfully, I snapped out of the white washed lens through which I had constructed my identity and instead dedicated much of my life to recovering and making space for Indigenous ways of knowing for my family, the larger community, and for me. After years of learning about the Indigenous histories of Canada and throughout the Americas I grew to despise the church as an institution. I take pride that I was never baptized and while I am considered by some faiths to be a “bastard” and or a sinner, I don’t believe in the devil and I am thankful this fear has no control over me. In fact, there have been many moments where I have wanted to spit and spray paint on church walls in an act of defiance for the harm these institutions have caused and in many instances continue to cause within Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across the globe.
On June 1, 2012 I held my breadth and walked into the packed room at the The Meeting Place truth and reconciliation gathering in Toronto. I was about to enter workshop #11 entitled: How can churches walk the talk of reconciliation? The workshop was led by the four churches who signed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and their workshop mandate was for, “Church community and participants [to] consider what indigenous people and church members can do to move forward to reconcile, build mutual respect and right relationships.” I do not recall that any Indigenous people spoke in the workshop (actually I may have been the only Indigenous person in attendance). The space appeared to be dedicated to sharing initiatives that churches were undertaking to address the impacts of the residential school system. I walked away from the workshop still wishing I had my spray paint and kicking myself for not speaking up or at least spitting something out.
Some of the church-goers shared the strategies undertaken by their congregations to “weave” Indigenous ceremonial customs such as “smudging” into the “tapestry” of the services they run, others spoke about the need to hold the government accountable for the financial restitution of stolen Native land, while others spoke to the need to support language revitalization. All good suggestions, but they only begin to scratch the surface of the hard work that must be done. With my imaginary spray paint I wanted to express: DECONSTRUCT WESTERN CULTURE AND BELIEF SYSTEMS!
In order to walk the talk of reconciliation we must question and understand what is it, exactly, that allows church institutions to view its creation story and reality as the only truth? How and why has it come to separate itself from the natural world in order to dominate and exploit it? For what purpose does it strip women of power and make sexuality a sin? What compels its priests and nuns to sexually abuse and torture children? I do not use these words lightly; today there continues to be a plague of abuse and allegations of abuse on many levels within most Christian denominations. The Catholic Church continues to discriminate and attempts to control the sexualities of millions. The missionary work of supposedly progressive Christian Peacemaker Teams are amongst thousands of missionary groups still at work in Canada and internationally.
For me, reconciliation includes these questions and that the forces behind them be addressed and dismantled. The Christian faith community must de-construct, re-construct, and re-interpret its foundations and its perceptions about its relationship with Indigenous peoples, the natural world, and even the universe. It is not enough to weave a smudge ceremony into Sunday mass, fund a language program, or pressure the government to pay for stolen land.
The Myth of the Savage and the Era of Enlightenment, The Doctrine of Discovery, the concept of Terra Nullius, progress, and Western patriarchy are all examples of the perceptions of reality embraced and perpetuated by the church. None are inevitable, evolutionary, or God sanctioned truth. Rather, they are Western mans’ interpretation of truth and I argue they lead to White Supremacy, Eugenics, stolen land, missing and murdered women, and, in Canada, they lead to the residential school system.
Indigenous cultures and indeed many cultures of the world have been excluded from offering their own perceptions and ways of knowing truth and because if this so too have their belief and organizational systems been left out. To right the relationship, the church must fundamentally change its position through the examination of its own institutions and the dismantling of oppressive hierarchical systems of power and control.
With the acknowledgement that churches in Canada exist within the context of stolen Native lands, also comes the responsibility to acknowledge, respect, and to look towards Indigenous ways of knowing to inform the re-construction of Western based perceptions. I’m talking about Sunday mass in a Midewin Lodge, led by clan mothers on any day but Sunday! That would be an act of reconciliation. It acknowledges that other perceptions of reality hold just as much truth and have much to offer in an effort to construct a sustainable viable future for Canadians, Anishinaabe, humans and the natural world. This is what we need for reconciliation to work, not more missionaries.