Reconciled to What? Personal and Public Reconciliation in Canadian Aboriginal Context
by Brad Jersak with thanks to the Honourable Iona Campagnola
Recently, I was honoured to attend a gathering hosted by the Lytton First Nation, entitled ‘Bright New Day’ Workshop. The facilitators of the event were John McCandless and Chief Robert Joseph. Approximately sixty registrants attended, half of whom came from a variety of Aboriginal communities and organizations, while the other half represented a wide range of governments and businesses that have a stake in building relationships with the First Nations communities. It seemed symbolic that the modern facilities selected for the event were unfinished but that could enjoy meeting in one large circle within a tent with a grass field as the floor. Significant too was the fact that we were situated on the grounds of what had once been St. George's Residential School, with all the loaded history that its memory carries. To have a conference on reconciliation among such people in such a place was a profound experience that I will not forget. Before I go on, I want to thank the Lytton First Nation for welcoming me to the traditional territories of the N’Laka’Pamux Peoples. You treated me with great hospitality and respect.
As someone who has formally studied, written and been a practitioner on the themes of atonement and reconciliation in Christian contexts for over twenty years, I was in for a rather humbling lesson; one that I am working through assimilating with a commitment to sharing as best I can. What follows are my reflections as I ponder the sacred experience to which I was treated.
The Diverse Breadth of Reconciliation Issues in Aboriginal Contexts
One of the active ingredients that contributed to the richness of the workshop was when John McCandless passed the microphone around the circle and allowed every attendee to share what reconciliation meant to them. As Chief Robert Joseph (Bobby-Joe) said, "Reconciliation comes from addressing a point of pain or silence or frustration between our communities, and addressing it together. Bringing people face-to-face to work through these issues is the best way to create lasting change and a future that will be better for all Canadians." While many non-Aboriginals shared basic definitions of reconciliation that came to them spontaneously, the First Nations members would often use the moment to share personal stories of heart-ache. To them, reconciliation involves real life struggles, dealing with a host of very painful personal and public issues that must have taken great courage to recount. Many of them had been residents of St. George's, where they endured isolation from family and culture, all manner of abuse and discrimination, hunger and illness. Others spoke of tragedies involving domestic violence, substance abuse and broken families. On the public level, some reminisced about the days of the roadblocks, tensions around forestry and fishing, and the unresolved matter of rights and title. At times, tears flowed which were always acknowledged and honoured with a hug from one of the chiefs or elders. One high point for many of us was when the local RCMP officer wept as he spoke from the heart and was embraced warmly by the local Lytton band leadership. The moment was at once surreal and spiritual.
The exercise of personalizing our understanding of and commitment to reconciliation was instructive, cathartic, and included the occasional 'cringe-factor' and 'ouch-moments'. The facilitators did an amazing job of creating safe-space for vulnerability where people could express their hurts and quiet anger without being shut down or tuned out. As a result, some who were unable to even say the words 'reconciliation' or 'forgiveness' on the first day were able to speak up on the second. To me, this was a sign that beyond merely rehashing old wounds, a measure of genuine healing was happening. Nevertheless, I confess to a series of waves of despair [theirs or my own?] when I realized how deep and old and raw some of the grievances were, especially when it came to personal injury. On the one hand, several of the First Nations people described how they were only able to truly heal and be reconciled once they had made choices to forgive and to 'leave that old shit behind'. Yet at the same time, one precious elderly woman identified reconciliation with finally entering the litigation process with a vow never to forgive and a wish that her offender be 'mangled'. For her, it is offensive and ludicrous for someone to tell her just forgive and move on. I was witnessing someone whose entire life had been reduced to ruins from a young age. As the Honourable Iona Camagnola said during both the reconciliation circle and in her key-note address, some things are unforgivable. I wondered to myself, "Can reconciliation really span the polarities of vengeance and forgiveness, or retribution and restoration? Can there be reconciliation without forgiveness? At what point does the word become so broad as to be meaningless?" As former chief Ruby Dunstan challenged me personally, the question at hand is "Reconciliation to what?" An arresting question for all of us. More on that later.
Speaking of our former Lieutenant Governor, she also clearly defined one of the primary areas where public reconciliation remains unresolved:
"In my opinion, the failure of Canada to recognize the essential justice of Rights and Title is the oldest and single most glaring omission in enactment of basic Human Rights in our Country. As defined by former Justice Thomas Berger RIGHTS are ‘simply the RIGHTS to which Native Peoples are entitled as the original Peoples of Canada, while TITLE would recognize that Native Peoples were on the land in organized societies when settlers occupied their lands’."
In this case, reconciliation is much broader than I had imagined, including a political dimension that requires negotiation, legislative reform, and the appropriate implementation of aboriginal title as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada in Degamuukw v. British Columbia 1997:
". . . aboriginal title encompasses the right to exclusive use and occupation of land; second, aboriginal title encompasses the right to choose to what uses land can be put, subject to the ultimate limit that those uses cannot destroy the ability of the land to sustain future generations of aboriginal peoples; and third, that lands held pursuant to aboriginal title have an inescapable economic component." (para. 166).
Even with the matter of rights and title still pending, reconciliation work at the public level means that government and business must take seriously the need for meaningful consultation and accommodation when First Nations have a claim to interest in the land. Further, reconciliation includes coming to grips with the Aboriginal right to self-government and how that might look in any given community. In July 2000, the Supreme Court of BC (Campbell et al. v. AG BC/AG Cda & Nisga'a Nation et al) commented on reconciliation with regard to section 35(1) of The Constitution Act, 1982,
"That the purpose of s. 35(1) is to provide a framework within which the prior existence of aboriginal peoples may be reconciled with the sovereignty of the Crown can mean nothing other than that there are existing aboriginal rights which have not yet been so reconciled. In much of Canada, these rights were reconciled through the negotiation of treaties. In most of British Columbia they were not."
Add to that the importance of dealing honestly with the historical impact of contact, settlement and development by European immigrants in BC over the last 150 years. If we consider the destruction wrought by previously built dams, or by irresponsible forestry in ancient hunting and fishing grounds, or by government, church and predators on students of the residential schools, what does reconciliation entail then? Does it look like Stephen Harper's apology? Or financial reparations? Or the forthcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission? What type of amends and restitution will be sufficient when no one and nothing can undo or outdo the irreparable damage already inflicted on individuals and their cultures? How much of the past and its ongoing consequences will the First Nations folks simply have to swallow in order to move on?
All that to say, personal and public reconciliation in First Nations context is a much broader and more complicated task than I had previously realized. When sixty people have sixty ideas about what needs to be reconciled, what reconciliation means and what it will require, no wonder the task seems daunting. In good colonial fashion, I find myself wanting to 'help' by imposing a clear definition of reconciliation that could overlay the layers of injustice with some clarity. In corresponding with Iona Campagnola, she offered these wise words of warning (email June 9 / 09):
Government obviously sees reconciliation as being a reconciliation between the formal entity of the state of Canada and the peoples it usurped in order to become established, while as you say, for First Nations there is a totally difference conception of what reconciliation might actually mean. . . . in the final analysis it is the First Nations & Aboriginal Peoples who will define what it is THEY believe reconciliation to be, how to implement it and how to remedy the ongoing impasse existing today. Admittedly, outcomes will be very different in differing locations, regions and among various distinct groups, all of whom seem to perceive their interests as being vested in a successful remediation of reconciliation. In my experience, this is 'the flavor of the times' -- we have been through various iterations of it for as long as I can remember. There is no possibility of universal agreement on anything and even less on potential universal agreement on reconciliation. Each entity will have a differing concept of reconciliation from every other one and each will have to be addressed on its own terms.For some others it will be the inclusion in law of an Aboriginal Rights and Title resolution, but as you can see there are already as many interpretations of what that constitutes as there are peoples 'on the ground' across Canada.The best we can hope for is a sort of Tom Berger Mckenzie Valley Pipeline moratorium outcome, giving voice to the pain and immeasurable time for those not yet ready to move, as well as an opening for those who wish to make permanent change and who are prepared to manifest it in positive terms (that government can live with).
How is it, then, that her honour remains such a visionary activist for social justice? Why has she not succumbed to the paralysis of despair or deadlock so characteristic of our history. With her permission, I share some of her inspiration about B.C.'s destiny from her keynote address. She is a 'seer' in the ancient Jewish sense:
I think that during the past two centuries or so, those who arrived later have gradually come to understand the magnificence of this place. All the regalia, the music, the art forms, the spiritual dimension and the rich tapestry of life that was part of the original peoples of this place grew out of this land and nowhere else on earth. After some 200 years on this remarkable land, those of us from other beginnings are starting to perceive and accept the magnetic pull of the land on our spirits and souls. I see a gradual ‘coming together’ of peoples, including all those from the far corners of the earth gradually learning to appreciate, respect and admire the land we are privileged to call our home. That is a big help in the process in which you are engaged at this Workshop, committing to a forward focus, to building new partnerships and sharing new processes of setting directions and making decisions that you can ALL implement together.
Together. It was not by prescribing a definition and direction of reconciliation that we perceived a "Bright New Day". Rather, as all the workshop participants were given room to pray, sing, speak, listen, weep, reminisce, dream, and even occasionally rant together, I was privileged to witness patterns or categories of understanding of reconciliation emerging from the group, like a collective smoke rising from a communal fire. As each one added their individual stick of understanding and experience to the fire, others partnered to fan the flames so that the light of became brighter for all of us.
Reconciliation: An Emerging Aboriginal Vision
If I could summarize the group's corporate vision of reconciliation after two days, it would include the following (and much more):
In First Nations context, reconciliation includes:
a. Making peace with the Creator: While not a lot was said overtly about this, former chief Byron Spinks began the meetings with a reminder of the essential contribution of s/Spirit to the reconciliation process. Each of the meetings were blessed in prayer by one of the elders and prayerful songs were offered at the beginning and end of the conference. As a person of faith, I do wish we had explored this theme a bit further in that many of us could only infer the meaning and importance of 'Spirit' in that context.
Further, I have questions specifically about reconciliation with the Creator along these lines: Within the realm of Aboriginal spirituality, is there a sense of abandonment by the Creator in instances such as the residential school ordeal? How does one come to peace with the Creator if one is carrying the shame of abuse or the guilt of becoming an abuser? What are the First Nation paths to restoring relationship with the Creator for those who have hidden or run away into spiritual darkness or false-comforts (e.g. addictions). The high suicide rate among Aboriginal youth signals an area where reconciliation with the Creator is a necessity.
In my very limited experience with healing circles, I have seen the healing power of a revelation that God was there in the deepest traumas of the past, present with the victims of abuse, weeping with them and now also willing to wash away shame and restore wholeness and a sense of peace. In the future, I intend to learn more about uniquely Aboriginal ways of healing a relationship with the Creator that has been shattered through injustice.
b. Making peace with one's self and one's past: This element of reconciliation came out loudly and clearly during the sharing circle. It is a huge need because of the disintegration of First Nations identity through the residential schools, or issues of shame and self-worth because of abuse, and the prevalence of addiction and suicide among First Nations youth. When one's language, culture, status or self-hood has been stolen from childhood, the perpetual longing for identity must be sated, whether in healthy or in dysfunctional ways. Reconciliation means being okay--even proud--with being who we are as individuals and as a people.
One's history cannot merely be erased from memory, nor should it be. The issue is whether we relate to the past as the story which brought us to today or instead, we continue to be tormented by the past as if it were today. Ideally, reconciling with the past, whatever healing journey that requires, would set one free from being stuck in past pain in ways that limit one's current capacity to function as a whole person. The parts of one's heart and history that have been fragmented would be integrated into an empowered whole. Never is the importance of story-telling so apparent as in Aboriginal contexts. Having been forced by intimidation, punishment, shaming, or the disbelief of authorities to repress the past in denial, the opportunity to be honest, vocal and emotional about the old secrets is in itself a doorway to healing.
c. Making peace with each other: This is the area with which I have been most familiar, but only at the individual or family level. There may be ways to go beyond that into making peace and restoring trust with institutions, churches, corporations and governments, but this is not a given. Sometimes the best we can do is build firm boundaries (with the help of courts and communities) and having sought restitution, agree to part company.
On the personal or family level, reconciliation with each other means restoring relationships have become broken. Full reconciliation would require genuine repentance (including a change of behaviour, not mere words) by the offending party plus a willingness to forgive by the offended. Without both, we acknowledge that something is lost or diminished in the relationship. At the workshop, we saw a miraculous willingness on the part of one lady to extend forgiveness to her ex-husband and the woman he had left her for, even to the point of inviting them for a meal. On the other hand, when it comes to someone who has been abused in the residential schools, while the abused ones can eventually become unchained from the trauma-bond to their abuser, restoring a relationship that never existed is obviously not expected or required. The best we can hope for in terms of peacemaking is that the victims of abuse could deliver accountability and judgment of their abuser into the hands of the Creator and the courts rather than carrying the burden of it in their own hearts.
My sense is that when First Nation restorative justice models are applied, they are a significant upgrade from the retributive demands of European punitive models. The latter have been disappointing, unjust and have a history of short-circuiting First Nations reconciliation. I would like to learn more about what it means for Aboriginal Peoples to be reconciled within the tribe, with other Canadians, with the government, the church, and even one's offenders. What are the possibilities and boundaries of reconciliation as it relates to what forgiveness is and what it isn't. When is reconciliation impossible or inappropriate? When is asking for it unfair? What are the sufficient and necessary conditions before it can take place? How far can healing proceed apart from it? These are certainly issues for further consideration and study and my suspicion is that the Aboriginal People may hold the keys to the answers, though largely intuitively. Events like "Bright New Day" have a way of teasing those answers out into the open where they can be accessed and implemented.
d. Making peace with the land: I heard about reconciliation with and of the land in two areas. First, there is the obvious case of the role and importance of the land to Aboriginal history and identity. Historically unresolved rights and title issues and modern infringement cases put First Nations groups across the table (if parties will even agree to meet there) from a host of government and business representatives. The desire to move beyond adversarial encounters and litigation towards reconciliation and partnership was evidenced by the variety of sponsors, some of whom themselves have been adversaries (e.g. environmental groups and forestry companies; pro- and anti- Recognition Legislation lobbies). I was greatly encouraged by the willingness of so many parties to break through old barriers into a new era of cooperation and mutually beneficial relationships. I was also discouraged on a few rare occasions where the venue was co-opted for a condescending lecture from those with anti-reconciliation agendas. Yet even those moments had value in that they stuck out like a sore thumb as a display of obviously inferior mindsets; they motivated us to transcend the old rifts and to make tangible commitments towards reconciliation.
A second form of peacemaking with regard to the land was the renewed and unified commitment to ecological responsibility. I heard about past battles to preserve habitat and the current will to sustain it. It makes ecological and economic sense for everyone, including industry, to agree to honour this beautiful land and its resources. Perhaps a common enemy like the pine beetle or climate change serves as a wake-up call to at least minimal cooperation on conservation while we still have forests, fish and game. I was pleased to see the wide range of those concerned come to this particular table.
Trust-building as a Foundation for Reconciliation
There were some specific keys that made "Bright New Day" a great environment in which to foster reconciliation. Of these, trust-building was paramount. We often think of trust in very subjective ways; almost an elusive feeling that may only grow and be offered as others earn it in our estimation. Thankfully, the truth is better than that. Trust can be built purposely through tangible acts and specific questions.
At the workshop, the following were just a few of the tangible acts of trust-building that I noticed:
1. Sitting in a circle, facing each other with nothing but grass between us.Beyond these actions, I was also able to watch for five specific questions (suggested to me by Nathan Regier of Winnipeg, MB) to help me measure trust as it was being built. These were:2. Beginning and finishing each meeting with a prayer of blessing from an elder.3. Giving everyone the opportunity to share honestly without judging their contribution as wrong.4. Encouraging everyone to share about our families and backgrounds, not just about issues.5. Encouraging conversation and especially eating together.6. Responding to expressions of emotion with immediate affirmation and affection.7. Partnering in smaller groups to identify some shared vision-casting and cooperative action plans.8. Asking every participant to verbalize a specific commitment to how they will advance reconciliation.9. The modeling of mutual respect and deferring to one another by the hosts and facilitators.
1. Am I for you and are you for me?2. Can I be honest with you and will you be honest with me?3. Do you intend to do what you say?4. Are you able to do what you say?5. Are we on the same page?
Nathan suggests that when trust is established to this degree, even conflict can become consistently constructive. And where trust is low, we can learn why and put those questions on the table for discussion. I saw the high-trust relationship so vividly as Iona Campagnola was sharing her key-note address. All of us were highly attentive and the Lytton community showed their obvious affection for her. I got the sense that even where some might not be on the same page as her with regard to a specific issue like the Recognition Legislation or Premier Campbell's "New Relationship" proposals, her character and integrity over the long haul have put her in a position of maximum trust with all involved. It felt to me that real reconciliation becomes so much more attainable when we have people like her to rally around.
The Nature and Role of Forgiveness in Reconciliation
Finally, I would like to return to what one very bright First Nations leader called her "f-word". As I read between the lines between what she could and could not offer by way of forgiveness, I began to think she was helping us understand what forgiveness itself is and what it is not. I can't say to what extent she actually meant what I understood, but it did stand out as a big 'aha!-moment' for me. Here are some thoughts on forgiveness, ranging from the grand scheme of BC First Nations history or at the personal level of residential school experiences (credit to her, blame to me).
1. Forgiveness is NOT saying "It's okay". It is NOT okay what happened. Abuse and oppression are never written off as acceptable. Forgiveness must not minimize the wrong-doing or the damage done by any injustice.
2. Forgiveness is NOT saying "I'm okay". I may need years to go through the healing process. Genuine forgiveness does not ask anyone to skip any stages of the grieving and healing process.
3. Forgiveness is NOT saying "You're okay". The offender is not simply off the hook. They still need to walk through repentance and all its consequences, often including retribution, rehabilitation, restitution and restoration.
4. Forgiveness is NOT saying "We're okay". Forgiveness may include but does not require the victim of oppression and injustice to enter or re-enter a relationship with the offender. That may not even be wise or safe. One can forgive and be healed without ever being reconciled. They have a choice whether to re-engage or simply walk away.
Then what is forgiveness? Forgiveness literally means "letting go":
1. Forgiveness happens when we release the offenders to God's judgment, rather than dragging them around, continually chained to them in our own hearts. This may be an ongoing process of continually unbinding ourselves from them and sending them to the Creator who we can trust to dispense perfect justice. This does not mean that we bypass human courts and justice systems when necessary, but it does mean that we don't rely on them for our healing. A good principle might be: We become like those we resent but become free from those we forgive. As the saying goes, "Bitterness is a poison that I drink hoping it will kill someone else."
2. Forgiveness happens when we release our burdens of hurt, grief, anger, loss, sorrow to God's care, rather than stuffing them or fashioning them into weapons. We exchange them for the Creator's love, joy, peace, and healing mercy. We look to God, rather than our own indignation, for strength and wisdom to fight ongoing battles against injustice, lest we perpetuate injustice in our own families and communities.
3. Forgiveness happens when we release the debt of the other's offense into God's hands. Even if they repent sincerely and make adequate restitution, they will never be able to pay back the full debt of their offenses to us. We need (and I really mean WE NEED) to let the Creator carry that burden of debt. When we don't, no matter how severely our offenders must pay, whether in billions of dollars or a life sentence in solitary confinement, we will continue to experience them as internalized tormentors and ourselves as victims rather than overcomers and peacemakers.
4. Forgiveness happens when we release responsibility for our healing into God's hands. Neither their punishment nor their repentance will be sufficient to heal us. Only the Creator can truly do that. We must not leave our healing into the hands of the very ones who have hurt us, or we risk never achieving that healing. Through openness to God in the context of a community of reconciliation, healing is possible.
5. Forgiveness happens when we release responsibility for our own guilt into God's hands. Many of the former students of St. George's declared how their experience there had led them to become abusive to their own children, or taught them how to steal, or fostered crippling hatred within them, or led them into severe addictions. But when they first acknowledged and then gave that guilt to God (rather than carrying it perpetually), healing became possible. We heard tell of this through the story of one man whose own pain had led him into years of addiction, homelessness and alienation from family and community. In his pain, he had damaged everyone else in his life and could very easily have ended up dead. Somehow, he was able to move beyond humiliation and receive forgiveness and belonging within his community. They became the welcoming arms of the Creator for him.
The phrase 'bury the hatchet' is not merely an 'Indianism' created in Hollywood Wild West cinema or 'Spaghetti Westerns'. The practice of burying hatchets by Chiefs who come to a piece agreement existed pre-contact and was noted by settlers as early as the 17th century. In Thwaite's Jesuit Relations (1644) we read of Chiefs who "Proclaim that they wish to unite all the nations of the earth and to hurl the hatchet so far into the depths of the earth that it shall never again be seen in the future." The exact phrase occurs for the first time in The History of the Five Indian Nations of Canada (1747). Here, we have a working definition of reconciliation (simply "making peace") and forgiveness (burying the weapons of violence and vengeance) that echo the words of Christ, who said,
Blessed are the meek; they shall inherit the land. Blessed are the mercy; they shall receive mercy. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice; they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called children of God.To some readers, this might sound like too much talk of God--too spiritual--especially in our cultures of liberal tolerance where spiritual conviction is apparently intolerable. Where religious intolerance has flipped into intolerance of religion, Aboriginal spirituality seems the last bastion for prayers and worship songs in the midst of public discourse. While some might rather dispense with spiritual activity and "get on with the meeting," what I saw at the workshop was that forgiveness and reconciliation are inherently spiritual activities that cannot succeed when we cease to acknowledge our dependence on the Creator-God. These are indispensable tools for the creation of the just society that we are working and hoping for. We only need to see the rotten fruit of injustice wherever a secular state or a Christian church has deemed it necessary to expunge and exorcise spirituality from Aboriginal faith and culture. We can also look inward to the impoverishment in our own hearts when we have attempted to do the business of life apart from God. Even religious folks are prone to segment life from faith (as if this were the same as the separation of church and state!). For that reminder, I say thank you once again to the "Bright New Day" facilitators, the community of Lytton First Nations Band, and all those who participated in sharing these lessons on reconciliation with me. I am the richer for it.