I am a first generation immigrant to this great country. I remember my introduction to Turtle Island/Canada. A young traveler, it did not take long before I became aware that this land had been home to countless generations of First Nations Peoples long before the likes of me arrived on its shores. Over the nearly 40 years that I have made my home here, I learnt much about the strain in relationships with those who had welcomed the first European settlers in good faith and mentored them in wilderness living. It is heartbreaking, really. And it continues.
Despite the initial inkling of trouble, I am ashamed to confess that for my first 25 years of farm living, First Nations neighbours on the reserve bordering our land were unknown to me. I was ignorant of the historical reasons for their broken lives. Faces, stories and persons came closer when I began working in a shelter for abused women and children. Their tears and pain found their way into my prayers; my heart began to break.
Several experiences followed that initial awakening, facilitating deeper learning about our strained past. My participation in Returning to Spirit was a watershed experience. More scales fell of the eyes of my heart. Our common brokenness as fallible human beings became the glue of reconciliation and healing. I watched the 8th Fire CBC Series and felt the resonance with my learning from Returning to Spirit. Finally I attended a day in the hearings of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Heart-wrenching, all of it.
Each of these encounters helped me to begin seeing glimmers of hope. For in the telling, however painful to do and to hear, comes healing; in the telling comes understanding and respect, in the telling comes the hope for reconciliation and the freedom to begin again. I remember Wab Kinew, host of 8th Fire, explaining the meaning of the title 8th Fire. In keeping with that meaning, I see today young aboriginal women and men rise up and reclaim their heritage in healing and reconciling ways. This gives me hope and courage to keep doing my small part in the quest for cultural and historical reconciliation, just as those featured in Reserve107 are doing in a small corner of the Saskatchewan prairies.
On the side of non-aboriginal Canadians, there is a slow yet steady awakening that we are Treaty people together with our Indigenous sisters and brothers. Our ancestors signed those Treaties; we did not keep the conditions of those agreements, agreements considered semi-sacred to the First Nations citizens of Canada. We have much to account for, much to repent for. And we must.
This year 2017 the Christian churches are marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The 16th century events are not something to be proud of, as the Christian West exploded in hostile fragments, with continuing effects today, ironically all in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. The ecumenical dialogues and agreements of the past 50 years have lead to concrete steps towards mutual reconciliation and healing. We are attempting to retell our fragmented history in new and reconciling ways, a journey from conflict to communion.
We can do no less with the Indigenous peoples of the world. Just as it took several generations to destroy aboriginal spirituality and culture, it will take several generations to undo the harm from the past. We have no choice but to have faith in the goodwill of our First Nations sisters and brothers, however often their attempts at healing and reclaiming healthy lives might fail. We have no choice but to keep hoping that we, the descendants of the European settlers, will arrive at understanding, respect and acceptance, however stubborn and reluctant we seem. We have no choice but to pray for contrite hearts that seek forgiveness, reconciliation and courage to build the next 150 years together in this beautiful land called Canada. The alternatives are worse.
I understand the planting of the TeePee on Parliament Hill this week by the Bawaating Water Protectors. I am relieved and grateful for the peaceful encounter between the activists and the Prime Minister, and for the government’s resolve to honour the right of their presence amidst the celebrations.
The following is a reflection I am sharing in an Ecumenical Worship Service in Watrous at the occasion of CanadaDay150, weaving together the legacy with First Nations People and the gift of God in creation:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
As part of marking Canada’s 150th birthday, we acknowledge those who were here before Turtle Island became Canada. We acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional territory of the Cree, Saulteaux, and Assiniboine First Nations, in the area defined as Treaty 6. We acknowledge their stewardship of this land throughout the ages, a stewardship that lifts up creation as the gift that tells the glory of God, the Great Manitou.
The inhabitants of Turtle Island sacrificed much. Foremost among them are not the war heroes, the pioneers, the politicians and the industrialists, but the people who were here before Europeans arrived. For thousands of years Indigenous peoples walked on this land. Their relationship with the land was at the center of their lives. They knew how to honour the gift of creation, they allowed the heavens to tell the glory of God, the Great Manitou.
These First Nations Peoples welcomed our ancestors, they traded with them and taught them how to survive in a hostile environment. They intermarried with the early traders and explorers and created the new nation of the Métis. They negotiated treaties with us so that we might share the land and its resources, and they called us kiciwamanawak — cousins.
Now, after 150 years of Confederation, this beautiful land and its rich resources are crying out for better stewardship and greater reverence. Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that the earth, our common home, is like a sister with whom we share our life and like a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us: “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.”
This sister of ours, God’s lavish creation, so respected by the First Peoples of Turtle Island, now cries out because of the harm we have inflicted on her by irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. Eager to enjoy the earth’s riches, we have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence towards her in our hearts, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. In all this exploitation of creation, we dishonour not only our First Nations sisters and brothers, but also the Creator, the Great Manitou.
Most of us here were born and raised in this beautiful land called Canada – Turtle Island. We love this native land; this is where we belong. We need to join hands to care for creation, each according to our own culture, experience, involvements and talents, so that our children’s children can have a healthy future.
We live here by right of treaty and by the benevolence of the First Nations People who welcomed our ancestors. We also live here because the generosity of this land has fed and clothed and sheltered us. Let us remember that we are all … Treaty People … and the earth is our common home. We pray for healing and reconciliation with our First Nations sisters and brothers and with our Mother Earth, God’s beautiful creation.
* The image gracing the top of this reflection comes from the city of Vancouver
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