Stories: Past, Present, Future



Communion Table

It’s Father’s Day… we are marking Aboriginal Sunday… and the news this week has been dominated by the killing of 9 African Americans who had gathered for Bible study. And of course, we have our scripture readings. How to connect the dots on all of those?

In an on-line discussion with a few colleagues across the country, the word ‘story’ appeared… and I realized that it is stories that connect us with our past, inform our present… and create our future. There are stories our fathers and family tell us… stories our culture tells us… stories that that shape us into who we are and who we will become.

While we don’t have the horrific stories of racist hate crimes that the USA does, we have racism and exclusion that are sometimes more insidious and prevalent. And whether we realize it or acknowledge it, we have benefited from practices, policies and laws which favoured those of European ancestry over peoples who were here when the Europeans arrived. It’s a hard realization and one that many of us resist. We may have worked hard for our place in life and think that we have not benefited personally from those laws. Or we may think that it’s time for the ‘Indians’ or Aboriginals, or First Nations, or whatever label we want to put on them, to get over it and get on with living.

I suggest a new label… that of neighbour.

Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, who has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame, says, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.” I am going say that again, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.” She wrote a brilliant piece about race and the shootings in Charleston; her words could have been written about us and our First Nations people. You can find her here.

What brave new ending do we want to write for Canada? What new stories do we want to be a part? First of all a bit of a history lesson: the history pieces are adapted from a UCW presentation that Rev. Russ Daye shared a few years ago.

For well over a century, several generations of Aboriginal children in Canada were taken away, often forcibly, from their homes, families and communities. The cost has been a legacy of widespread trauma with inter-generational impact. The story of residential schools is still relatively unknown and little understood by many. Indian Residential Schools are part of a broader story, where the Canadian Government gained control over Aboriginal land and peoples, disrupted Aboriginal governments and economies, sought to repress Aboriginal cultural and spirituality.

The department of Indian Affairs in 1920 predicted that in a century, thanks to the work of these schools, Aboriginal people would cease to exist as an identifiable cultural group in Canada. The government and churches asserted this could be most effectively accomplished in schools that broke the bonds between parent and child. The United Church of Canada participated in the system.

Did you know that when South Africa was setting up the system of apartheid, that they came to Canada for advice on how to make it happen? A shameful piece of our history. While the United Church didn’t run any schools in Atlantic Canada, the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School operated from 1929 – 1967, run by the Catholic Church. Aboriginal children were taken from all three Maritime Provinces and Eastern Quebec.

Hear one person’s story of being taken from her home: Sally, not her real name, was taken from Indianbrook at age 5. She was out with some friends in the neighbourhood and while she has no memory of what they were doing, she was probably doing what kids did in those days, wandering the neighbourhood, checking out puddles and bugs, climbing trees. She, along with her companions that day were taken to the Residential School in Shubenacadie. Imagine your child at age 5, or your grandchild at 5, taken away from everything that was familiar and put in an institution. She was allowed to go home for the summer and while she only spent 2 years in that school, it has had a profound effect on her life. She came home to strangers… she says she learned hate in the school… she learned distrust… she learned fear… she learned the fear of God… She was bullied at the school because she was blonde… and while this took me by surprise, I was again realized that bullying begets bullying… and when you are a part of a system that bullies people, bullying takes place through all parts of the system.

She still can’t stand the smell of scrambled eggs… they were forced to eat what was put in front of them and if they vomited, they were forced to eat that as well. She remembers being left outside in the middle of winter… she remembers wetting the bed and being made to scrub the sheets in the middle of the night… remember this is a five year we are talking about here. Going without love and affection ruined her spirit and self-esteem, she had no sense of who she was and felt stunted in terms of emotional growth and identity. Parents were discouraged from coming to the school and some ran way. When she came home, she tried to forget it. As a mother she has overcompensated and been overprotective of her daughters… she says she still has no real sense of security. Most people didn’t talk about schools because it was too painful. She said it was like veterans coming home, they didn’t talk about war either. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave a voice to people.

Class action suit has given people a lot of courage to come out and speak about the abuse

Empowered people to talk about it.

I Attended TRC.

Breaks your heart… she can’t listen to the stories because they are too hurtful.

Here is some more history:

1998: United Church of Canada Apology

2008: Federal Government of Canada Apology

Both apologies acknowledge that damage has been done, and trauma persists for the children taken, the parents left behind, and communities devastated.

The United Church states: Apologies need to be followed by concrete acts that demonstrate that the church is committed to living in a new way in its relations with First Nations peoples. As part of its apology, the federal government created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). I attended part of the session that was held in Halifax a few years ago, perhaps some of you did as well. I know that Kathy McKay did. Listening to some of the stories was painful and it was holy. So much courage and vulnerability.

“The report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, delivered in Ottawa earlier this month, documents the depth of the atrocity against human rights in the Indian residential schools. The numbers are staggering.

Over 120 years, about 150,000 children seized from their homes and incarcerated in residential schools, run by churches on behalf of the federal government.

Just under 80,000 have since received some compensation. At least 3,000 didn’t. Because they died — from tuberculosis, fires, accidents, beatings, or malnutrition.

Siblings were separated. Children were given new “Christian” names, forbidden to speak the only language they knew, beaten when they broke rules they didn’t understand.

And that’s saying nothing about the criminal offences — such as sexual abuse — that have been exposed in court cases.” (Jim Taylor – Sharp Edges – June 21,2015)

150,000 children without their fathers… 150,000 children without their mothers… 150,000 children lost to their culture.

The mandate of the TRC is to educate all Canadians about the complete history of the residential schools, and to inspire reconciliation for individuals, families, communities, religious entities, and government. A key part of this is the opportunity for anyone affected by the residential school experience to tell their story, have it witnessed by others and documented.

The United Church has promised to uphold and support the work of the TRC. Truth sharing can help us move toward reconciliation. Our relationship with our Aboriginal neighbors can be enriched through an awareness and understanding of the impact and legacy of the schools. The TRC wrapped up its work less than a month ago.

There is 94 Calls to Action in the final report.

Click here for the full report.

The 94 recommendations include curriculum changes for schools, to calling upon the government to sign on to the UN’s declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, to opening an inquiry into the almost 1200 missing indigenous women.

So, what does that have to do with any of us? And why should we care?

We are all connected.We don’t live in isolation. Remember the story in the gospel of the man who was set upon by robbers and left to die. A priest walked by and ignored him… A Levite walked by and ignored him… A Samaritan… sworn enemy of the Jews, stopped, tended him, sheltered him, healed him.

The parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ was designed to shock Jesus’ Jewish listeners out of their narrow worldview of “us and them’ and into a shared vision of connected humanity. Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. We are all neighbours. In today’s passage from Luke, Jesus is asked by some of the religious authorities, what the greatest commandment in the Law. And he responds with a quote, from Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of his.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” These words are known as The Shema, an essential creedal statement among Jews, even today. Love your neighbour as yourself. Not just when they are just like us. Love your neighbour as yourself. Not just when it is convenient. Love your neighbour as yourself. Our First Nations People are our neighbours. Even if we have never met one. Even if our only experience of them is through the media; and that portrayal is not always positive, nor is always accurate. When one part of our world hurts, we are all wounded. When one group of people are marginalized, we are all diminished. And when one part of our world is healed, we are all healed.

I could probably preach for quite a few weeks on how we might educate ourselves and work towards reconciliation. On how to dispel some of the misconceptions there are about our First Nations neighbours. The first step may be hearing their stories with open hearts and minds. Quoting Brene Brown again: “We will need to sit down with our children and talk about privilege. This means honest conversations about how we were raised and what we need to work on. No blaming or shaming, but truth.It’s not productive to deny how hard we all work for what we have, but it’s not honest to deny that many of us are afforded privileges based on who we are and what we look like.”

Yes, we need to own a million heartbreaking stories of discrimination and prejudice, and make millions of changes, and hold space for a million tough conversations. But, if each one of us owns one story and makes one change and has one honest conversation where we listen more than defend or offer false comfort – we can do this. There is a way to write a brave new ending to one of the most painful stories in our history. What remains to be seen is if we have the will and courage.”

My friends, these are our stories… but we can write a new chapter.

One that is founded on Jesus’ words, “Love God and love neighbour as self.”

Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity. Amen.

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8
Luke 10:25-37
June 21, 2015 – SP


© Rev. Catherine MacDonald 2015

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