A Sacred Circle

Reconciliation begins with truth. Before there can be handshaking or coming together in a moment of forgiveness, truth must be told.

In June 2008, prime minister Stephen Harper acknowledged the truth of a “sad chapter” in Canada’s history with a statement of apology for the government’s role in the operation of Indian residential schools. More than 150,000 First Nations, Metis, and Indian children were taken against their parents’ wishes and placed in the care of the schools—often run by churches—where they were forced to abandon their language and their culture and assimilate to white ways. There were more than 130 residential schools in Canada from the 1870s until the last one closed in 1996 (source: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, www.trc.ca).

The prime minister’s apology offered an opportunity for all Canadians to join in a process of reconciliation with aboriginal neighbors—a process that requires much listening and learning.
Since listening and learning is what Christian education is about, the King’s University College responded by focusing its January 2009 Interdisciplinary Studies conference on the theme “Truth and Reconciliation: Healing the Legacy of Residential Schools.” That event was developed by a committee that included aboriginal leaders, church leaders from the Remembering the Children initiative, and members of King’s staff and faculty. Participants from Blue Quills First Nations College in St. Paul, Alberta, also attended the conference and met at a special dinner with King’s students that featured bannock and stew.

In addition to many conversations and informal meetings, the students and members of the public who attended the conference were honored to listen to the stories of residential schools as shared by the survivors themselves. A culminating event at the Canadian Native Friendship Centre allowed all participants to see reconciliation in action. The ceremony included traditional aboriginal elements such as smudging and drumming, as well as Christian symbols like candles. The evening allowed for heartfelt words offered on the part of both elders and church leaders, including sincere words of apology and forgiveness.

As participants sat in a circle, all were drawn into the power of that moment. As Edmonton writer Cheryl Mahaffy noted, “In a circle, no one can merely observe” (Edmonton Journal, Jan. 24, 2009). And that, perhaps, is exactly where the church must begin any conversation about reconciliation: none of us can merely observe the process; it demands action.

The conference began a friendship between members of the organizing committee that has continued, pushing us to explore ways to continue our learning and engagement in reconciliation. Recently four members of the organizing committee—Maggie Hodgson, Rev. Canon Travis Enright, Roy Berkenbosch, and Rebecca Warren—sat down again for lunch to continue talking about the work of reconciliation.

Continuing the Conversation

Maggie Hodgson began the conversation, saying, “The ownership of reconciliation rests with oneself.” No matter whether the other person is able to acknowledge the wrong done, you can take ownership of your own healing. Still, there is hope that there will be some kind of change in behavior. As Maggie noted, “If your actions don’t follow your words, then that doesn’t mean it’s going to be all right. Reconciliation is sometimes trust that behaviors will change.”

“People can understand reconciliation on an intellectual and theological level,” noted Travis Enright, “but not a day-to-day practical level.” For example, when he’s looking for church communities to participate in a walk commemorating violence against aboriginal women, “they don’t see the walk as an act of reconciliation or education. They may still have a charity model: I’ll give you something, then you’re reconciled.”

Maggie Hodgson spoke about the call for involvement in terms of asking others (including readers of this article) to act as spiritual witnesses. “If I come to your wedding,” she explained, “I don’t just come to see you in a pretty gown. Being a witness means phoning you up when things are hard, saying, ‘What can we do to support and help; how can we be as much part of this as we [were] in your wedding?’ Being a spiritual witness means listening, learning, developing a relationship . . . then taking the next step of reaching out and learning more. Reconciliation is about building understanding.”

In order for understanding to occur, it’s important that everyone’s truth is spoken: in this case, not just survivors of the residential schools, but also staff members and church leaders.
And those who hear these stories have a responsibility to do something with what they have learned. “I don’t think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is being as successful as it could because people are not taking their responsibilities seriously,” observed Maggie. “The ministers, the post-secondary institutions, even those in my community aren’t taking their responsibility seriously. If every Indian there brought a non-native friend, that would really be something because it would include Metis, Inuit, black, brown, pink, and whatever color they bring with them!”
The education of all Canadians is one primary goal of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Roy Berkenbosch suggested, “Maybe we need to think of treaty as covenant. Just as we accept the rights of citizenship, we accept the obligations of citizenship too. No doubt I am as obligated [to participate in reconciliation] as a member of the United Church back in the 1800s.” (The United Church was the primary founder of the residential schools.)

This means that all Canadians bear some responsibility, whether their relatives were directly involved in the residential schools or not. As the Belhar Confession notes, “Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22).” Just how is it made manifest? Through our acceptance of responsibility and our willingness to demonstrate that in our actions and behavior.

“What scares me about the TRC is how easy it is to turn it off, change the channel, don’t think about it,” Travis commented.

“We need to build a shared understanding,” agreed Maggie. “It’s about being willing to have our stereotypes changed. Before I had anything to do with Dutch Reformed people I had my stereotypes, but through your willingness to listen to our recommendations for the conference and implement them, you built trust and respect.”

Maggie told the story of Len Blumenthal, a Dutch immigrant whose family was kept alive by blood Indians when they first came to Canada. “I think his truth about that being spoken about by his grandfather and his father down to him is part of building shared understanding. When Len went to work in addictions, he treated us the whole time like we were the ‘First Peoples,’ the ones who saved his family’s life.”

At the end of the conference, Roy bought a pair of Dutch wooden shoes and a pair of moccasins to present to Maggie Hodgson in appreciation of the key role she played in helping to shape the conference. “We walked in each other’s shoes for a while,” Roy noted with appreciation. “Now we have a shared mission,” said Maggie.

Whatever reconciliation looks like, it also looks like this: four friends sitting around a table over lunch, asking the hard questions, committed to meeting together over the long haul. Because where reconciliation begins, action and changed behavior also begin. As Elder Abe Burnstick says, “It is up to you!”

About the Authors

Rev. Roy Berkenbosch is campus minister and director of interdisciplinary studies at The King’s University College, Edmonton, Alberta.

Rebecca Warren worked on the Truth and Reconciliation conference at King's University College. She is assistant director of the Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life at the University of Alberta.

The Rev. Canon Travis Enright is Canon Missioner for Indigenous Ministry in the Chair of St. John de Brebeuf at All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral in Edmonton.
Maggie Hodgson is founder of the National Day of Healing and Reconciliation and a leader in the aboriginal community.

See comments (3)


Survivors? The proper definition might fit, but the meaning does not. Its evocative to use this term in this way. Images of barbed wire and crematoriums come to mind with using it in this setting. The Canadian government didn't practice the hideous crimes of the Soviets and the Nazis. Conversely, the residential schools were operated by the Canadian government partnered with the church to educate and Christianize the aboriginal peoples. Over the decades government abuse, indifference, and poor hiring practices led to abuse and rape within the schools. This scenario more closely parallels the recent Catholic priest scandals than the systemic polities of South Africa, Communist China or the like. The crimes of the residential perpetrators were by rogue individuals and not part of a systemic attitude. While this was a misguided policy and regrettable outcomes were demonstrated, it certainly doesn't warrant language that equates the injured to surviving the death camps of the Holocaust or the gulags.

Checking out the websites reveals an interesting twist on reconciliation. While the TRC has had the resources to prosecute individuals, it has made feeble attempts at this and is more focused on litigious lawsuits against governments and churches. Civil action takes less effort and rounding up perpetrators would be difficult especially since some are dead. But again, this shows the dangers of the Belhar Confession. This committee's appeal to Belhar's potency should alarm us all.

I wonder about the comments about the United Church. It came into being in 1925, so how could it be the primary founder of residential schools in the 1800's?

Also, I don't believe the churches were the instigators of the residential schools. Isn't it true that the government of the day asked churches to partner with them in their residential school strategy, and thus the government of Canada is the primary founder? If that's right, then it was very important and totally appropriate for the government of Canada to make its apology.

Of course, this doesn't excuse the churches from the actions of their agents, and there still is a lot of truth that needs to be spoken and reconciliation that needs to be found.

Apologies lose much of their value, when they are made for the actions of others such as ancestors or even non-ancestors long dead. For me to apologize for the actions of the english who twice routed the french out of Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island or took over the Plains of Abraham seems rather absurd. Who would make the case for it? Or for the USA to apologize for chasing the Mexican general out of Texas, or making the Louisiana purchase? Or for the confederates and union descendants to apologize for the destruction caused by their ancestors.

Where does it end? The apology in this case has already happened in fact, by governments giving every possible opportunity to aboriginals to have land, be educated, not to be discriminated against, and to have equal access to health care. Words are cheap when you weren't really responsible anyway for the actions you are apologizing for.