As you’re hopefully aware, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) formally draws to a close with final events in Ottawa May 31 to June 3. Although the TRC is ending and some Canadians are hopeful that we can now put the abuses of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system behind us, the reality is that the work of reconciliation is ongoing.

As a church that was an active part of the IRS system, a significant part of this responsibility falls on our shoulders.

What can and should churches do to move in the direction of reconciliation with First Nations people?

The hope of reconciliation is right relationship, so for many the next step is as simple as seeking out opportunities to relate well. Be a good neighbour to the First Nations people we live near. Visit Wanuskewin, Batoche, Fort Carleton, Ancient Echoes Interpretive Centre. Listen and ask questions. Attend and enjoy the many First Nations cultural events open to the public. No special skills required, just show up with a desire to learn and understand.

In addition to relationship-building, we also need to do our own work as a settler community of faith. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, spoke in 2014 to a group of Mennonites wondering about the next steps towards reconciliation. The whole talk is worth a listen, but in case you don’t have an hour to listen to one of Canada’s greatest leaders… some of the things I picked up from Justice Sinclair:

1) We have our own work to do in undoing racism and understanding settler privilege. In spite of our best intentions, the way we see our world and our neighbours is impacted by our hidden prejudices and self-centeredness.  The way we see ourselves and, in a Mennonite church, our heritage and history, is at best incomplete and one-sided.  Do we dare take an honest look at ourselves and the whole story of how we’ve come to be who we are?

2) Reconciliation demands restoration: of power, of property, of treaty rights. Justice Sinclair tells the story of a kid who steals another’s bike. Later, feeling guilty, he goes back to the bike’s owner and asks for forgiveness. “Well,” comes the reply, “first give me back my bike and then we can talk about forgiveness.”  

You and I weren’t there as the Canadian government meticulously removed First Nations people from their land; we didn’t sanction the IRS or its abuses. We didn’t steal the bike. But—and this is huge—we’re still holding the bike. We benefit from use of the bike, from the income and stability it affords us, from the confidence and opportunities of being bike owners. What does it mean to give back the bike? Is it enough to pay compensation for the abuses of the IRS? Is it enough to share the land with our First Nations neighbours? Do we owe them more than that?

3) There are major theological implications to our relationship with First Nations people. Spiritual abuse was a huge part of the devastating impact of the IRS, by design. Was Christianity twisted by the government, by deviant clergy, for their own destructive ends? Or was the Church’s agenda of mission--converting savages and saving their souls—also to blame? In other words, did the means of forcing Christianity on native children ruin the otherwise good end of spreading the gospel?  Or is was the goal of conversion itself the problem?

These are big questions of great importance for the ongoing relationship of Christians with First Nations people. Do we (still) view First Nations spirituality as inferior, something to lead people away from? Or are we worshiping the same Creator in (very) different ways? Or somewhere in between: can we respect and learn from each other’s spirituality, while holding fast to our own beliefs and practices?

Justice Sinclair suggests that if the goal of Christians is still to convert, though by gentler means, then reconciliation is not possible. I’m not sure what we do with that; the call for evangelism is one of the most strongly held beliefs in the Christian tradition.  And yet, reconciliation demands respect and equality. Does our current theology have the tools and space to work at this balance?  Are our intentions, whatever they are, clear to those neighbours with whom we seek relationship?

We have some work to do.


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Pastor Joe Heikman
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Pastor Eileen Klaassen
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