The original version of this article was written on September 30, 2021, the first federally recognized Truth and Reconciliation Day in the country. My delay was a result of respecting Indigenous voices and leaders on this historic day. In an attempt to keep the conversation at the forefront, I thought it may be helpful to post it now.
Today is a big day for Canada.
On this day, we set aside time to reflect on our tragic past. It's a day where we wear orange t-shirts to recognize the abuse committed towards Indigenous people. This is a day when we choose to work together for a better future with our Indigenous friends and neighbours.
Frankly, it's a day that a few years ago I would not have cared one iota about.
Yet here I am, wearing an orange shirt after walking through a park, praying, contemplating, and asking Jesus what I am supposed to do.
So how did I get here?
I didn't end up here overnight that's for sure.
Growing up, like most Canadian kids, I learned about Louis Riel, the Hudson Bay Company, and the harms of colonialism. But this was something that existed long ago and we had all moved on. So I thought.
I'm not sure where I picked it up, but I had a skepticism towards Indigenous people.
Looking back, I believed in the negative stereotypes of Indigenous people and never thought much more about them. In other (shameful) words, I didn't think much about my prejudice. I didn't know any Indigenous people, so this was about "those" people "over there." When my family moved to Kamloops a few years ago, I had the strong impression that I was to lead my church toward a better relationship and future for Indigenous peoples.
I recognize the thought of a non-Indigenous church leader reaching out to Indigenous people has all the marks of this terrible history - of colonialism, of disrespect, of abuse. Nevertheless, I felt I needed to lead into this scary space.
I knew that with my influence and leadership, I needed to take steps towards positioning myself and my church to love, befriend, acknowledge and learn about Indigenous people.
I arrived in Kamloops and began working. I outlined some vision for our church in June of 2020 about what I felt we were to do - we should acknowledge, love, and educate ourselves about Indigenous/Canadian history.
My friend Norm
It was that Sunday that Norman McCallum and his wife Aurelia attended our church for the first time.
Norman is Indigenous. He is an Elder with the Woodland Cree Nation and is a follower of Jesus. Norman met Jesus in the early '80s. (You can listen to Norm and I's podcast here for more). Norm and I struck up a friendship.
As a result of our friendship, things changed for me. I was able to ask obtuse but common questions like, "Why don't you pay any taxes?" and "What is with all the drumming and chanting?" It was in this safe place with Norm that my assumptions began to be challenged, my misconceptions corrected, and my love for him began to grow.
Norm and I have been friends for over a year. In January 2021 Norm came alongside our staff as a consultant to help position our church to think about Indigenous people. My church hosted six Zoom classes where we discussed tough topics like the Indian Act, the Residential Schools, and the 1960's Scoop. These were fruitful conversations for me and the dozens of people who signed up to learn.
The Findings at Kamloops Residential School
Then May 2021 happened. My hometown made international news for all the wrong reasons.
Using ground-penetrating radar, over 200 bodies were discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. These were kids taken forcibly from their homes and made to assimilate. They were stripped of their culture, spirituality, dignity, and for some, their lives.
Norm and I discussed all of this with each other. He attended Catholic day school in Saskatchewan. He told me stories about being whipped for speaking Cree at school. Listening to him and seeing his eyes filled with pain, I had no words.
His mother and siblings did attend Residential School in Saskatchewan and so for Norm, this brought up so much pain. The legacy and realities of Residential School ruined much of his childhood. I listened, prayed, and grieved alongside him as best I could.
The trip up north
Before the findings came out, Norm and I had planned a visit to his old stomping grounds in Saskatchewan. We were going to fly to Saskatoon and drive 6 hours north to his hometown of Buffalo Narrows. Norm and his colleague Dave Wright have been traveling up to these remote communities for 5 years doing what they can to serve the people there. I hopped along for the roadie to learn and listen.
The trip was shaping for me.
A transformative moment was when I visited the former site of the Beauval Indian Residential School. This residential school was built in 1893 and was in service until 1985. It was demolished in the mid-'90s. In 1927 there was a fire at the school in which 19 Indigenous boys and 1 nun lost their lives.
There is a monument where the school once existed with all of the boys' names who lost their lives in the fire. The devastation wrought by this event is still felt to this day by the affected people and the wider community. I found that most of the people I visited and talked to had an appalling memory or link to this school.
Standing at the monument solidified all that I had felt for the past 3 years: I need to acknowledge the past, listen to those who lived through it and commit to a better future.
So what does this look like?
Honestly, I'm not sure and I am still learning.
But I do know what it doesn't look like.
- It doesn't look like denying what happened. Non-Indigenous people are tempted to deny history, pain, and generational trauma. This will not help.
- It doesn't look like diluting what happened. There is no point in explaining residential schools by citing good intentions, necessity, or any potential good outcome(s) of the people who started them. Although this may be true in a few cases, the overwhelming legacy is one of abuse, trauma, and pain. It is no accident that Canada is in the mess it is.
- It doesn't look like defending what happened. Using our inner lawyers, we will make a case for why we are not at fault. The argument of "I was not there!" or "How can I be held responsible for something that happened years ago?" simply builds a larger wall instead of taking it down. In the same way, that defensiveness ruins my relationship with my wife, defensiveness in this case will stagnate any hope for reconciliation.
What are the next steps forward? I offer the following very humbly:
1. Find a friend
Many of the issues we face in society stem from the absence of relationships between people. Our insight and information come from a screen, and behind the scenes are algorithms that solidify your previously held opinion. We lack the courage to sit down with people who are different from us to ask questions, learn, and form relationships.
The time I spent with Norm at Denny's helped me get into this. As we got to know each other, we became friends. As Norm says, "Brother we do this together." It was this posture that kept us in the room when conversations got tense or we missed each other due to cultural differences.
2. Learn a different culture
I have had to commit to being a student of a different culture. Indigenous people are different than non-Indigenous. While this is obvious, this is what makes this whole conversation more complicated.
Here is one example: As a non-Indigenous Westerner I have learned that conversation is a competition. I need to interrupt to get my point across.
The way Norm works is different. I've had to learn with Norm that I speak too quickly and too often. Norm takes his time speaking and if I interrupt too much, I stifle the conversation. It's important for me to ensure that I listen more than I speak, allowing Norm to add to the conversation.
An enormous part of learning another culture is being able to decipher and when appropriate, dismantle your own. We all live with ethnocentrism - the idea that we are at the centre of the universe and everyone and everything should be judged according to our own norms, customs, or thought matrixes. In order for reconciliation to occur, we need to be curious, thoughtful, and inquisitive about a different culture.
This leads me to point three...
Education comes in different ways: through books, relationships, and experiences. So, find a friend, but also find some books to help you.
Reading widely on the topic has helped inform my thinking, challenge my thinking and increase my understanding of Norm and the wider Indigenous community. Here are some of the resources that have been of help:
- 21 Things you may not know about the Indian Act by Bob Joseph - Joseph, in an accessible way, brings clarity to much of the stereotypes of Indigenous people erroneously believe. It's short and incredibly helpful. Joseph is Indigenous and writes with passion and conviction.
- Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Aboriginal Reality by Rupert Ross - Ross, a former Crown Lawyer who worked in remote Indigenous communities for decades, attempts to synthesize his experience working with Indigenous people. As a non-Indigenous person, this book was helpful to connect the dots for me.
- Saving the Gospel from the Cowboys by Richard Twiss - This book was recommended to me by multiple Christian leaders. Twiss is a recognized voice in this conversation, and in this work, he surveys the historical hurts from Christian missionaries and presents some ways of contextualization moving forward. Challenging, but helpful.
- Podcasts - In the Spring of 2021, I sat down with some great people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous who shaped my thinking and approach. You can check out these podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. Just search "Kamloops Alliance Church" or click here.
4. Recognize prejudice (in yourself first)
It is easy to find a friend or read a book. But when the spotlight is shone on the inner motivations, thoughts, and commitments of our hearts, we get a little squirmy. We want to defend our intrinsic sense of goodness. After all, we are enlightened Westerners who prize human rights and dignity rights? The very thought of having some type of discriminatory posture is repulsive to the modern mind and wider society.
Yet if we are honest, along the way we have picked up prejudice against Indigenous people. At the start of my journey, I didn't think I was guilty of it, but as I have ventured into this conversation, I have realized that in fact, I am. I am learning to listen, love, and check myself before coming to conclusions about Indigenous people.
After talking to my friend Mark Buchanan (and well-known author) about this, he simply defined prejudice as to any type of pre-judgment (which in fact is the root of the word!). Do you pre-judge Indigenous people? Do you come to conclusions about their intentions, history, or conduct before you know them or their story?
Norm told me of a time where he was the keynote speaker at a church. Upon walking into the sanctuary a group of women saw him and grabbed their purses from the open seats next to them, fearing that they would be stolen. Needless to say, they were shocked and embarrassed when it turned out that Norm was their preacher that Sunday morning!
Let's dissect this a bit more. Why did these women seize their purses when they saw Norm? It was because of prejudice. Their conclusion was that Norm because he is Indigenous, was going to try to steal them. Why? "Because of course, Indigenous people are poor thieves who are out to take from other people."
This is a classic example of prejudice and it is everywhere. It is in our news media and in casual conversations with friends, colleagues, and families. But it first starts in our hearts. If we want to actually take steps towards truth and reconciliation, this is the hardest and one of the most important steps forward.
(I would add that Christianity does give ample reason and resources for self-examination, confession, ownership, and a commitment to change and do better moving forward. This is perhaps another blog post in the future).
Are there more than these 4? Of course, but as I reflect on my own pilgrimage these have been helpful.
So where to from now?
I'm not certain.
The Indian Act was passed in 1876. Therefore, we have had dysfunctional, painful, and unfair legal relations with Indigenous people for 145 years. The situation has marginalized them. There is generational trauma. Skepticism. Hesitancy. There is the history of residential schools, the 60's scoop, missing and murdered Indigenous people. How can this all be resolved? It has taken us 145 years to reach this point, so it will not be solved overnight.
There is lots of talk about land, reparations, and Indigenous self-governance. All these seem like good ideas. However, they are not things I can control or implement.
Honestly, there are days when progress seems impossible. The weight of our painful past, the explicit and implicit prejudice, the skepticism of Indigenous people towards non-Indigenous and vice versa, are all very good reasons to stay quiet and comfortable. And yet I can't. I have to do something because I believe that a better future is possible.
I have come to the conclusion that as a non-Indigenous church leader I will be misunderstood. I will be misunderstood by non-Indigenous who feel uncomfortable with this conversation and would rather have it go away. Inevitably there will be Indigenous who are suspicious. I recognize that I will make mistakes. And I have already done so.
However, I do have my friend Norm. I also have a group of leaders (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) who I meet with regularly, who are committed to helping my church move towards helpful dialogue, inclusion, and outreach to Indigenous people. This is what I can do, and so I will do that.
What does it look like for you? I welcome you into this journey with me, and our country, to move towards a better future.
Through Jesus, everything is possible.