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When I started doing justice communications for the CRC in Canada, I asked my friend Violet, an elderly, spunky, wise Indigenous woman of the Carrier people, what I should tell people in the churches about Indigenous peoples. I’ve never forgotten her answer. 

“Sometimes Native people want to be white. Tell them that they’re made in God’s image.”

Today is the 7th anniversary of the Government of Canada’s Residential Schools Apology. Seven years ago, Stephen Harper stood up in the House of Commons and said:

“Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions, and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, ‘to kill the Indian in the child’. Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country….

The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long. The burden is properly ours as a Government, and as a country. There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian Residential Schools system to ever prevail again. You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey.”

Those are good words. Those are important words. Violet’s profound advice is necessary because of this history—and a present (think MMIW)—in which Indigenous people were told, even by official church proclamations like the Doctrine of Discovery, that the Imago Dei in them wasn’t good enough.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has just presented its final report. The TRC is about repenting as a nation of telling Indigenous people that in order for them to be valuable, they had to act, think, and look like Europeans. It’s about learning to receive the many gifts Creator has given them. It’s about changing the narratives out of which we live so that they match God’s narrative for Indigenous people—people made in God’s image, with a particular part of the Imago Dei to share.

For the last six years, survivors of these schools have bravely told their stories, some to a few commissioners, some to thousands of witnesses, choking back tears decades after the abuse they experienced, often with the soft hand of a family member on their back. They have spoken about unbelievably difficult experiences like rape, starvation, medical experiments, separation from siblings, corporal punishment…and they have often spoken to rooms with many white faces in them. Some of them spoke about forgiveness, astoundingly. Their strength floors me. By telling us their stories, by choosing to expose their vulnerability and risk re-traumatizing themselves, they have reached out to majority Canadian culture in a gesture of relationship.

In the words of Cherokee writer Tom King, “Take [this] story….It’s yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to your friends. Turn it into a television movie. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.” (The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative, p. 29).

We cannot let this report, these stories, fall by the wayside. We cannot listen to these stories and not let ourselves be changed by them. If we truly believe that the Gospel is good news for this time and this place, we have no choice but to respond. This is a sacred moment.

The good news is that we don’t do this work alone. It’s not up to us. The Spirit is at work—hallelujah! If I had to pick one lesson I’ve learned from my scant two years working with CRC churches around justice issues, it would be this one: even when the road to justice and reconciliation is uncertain and long, we work for justice in confidence because the Spirit is at work. This is God’s work.

I’ve seen the Spirit dance in a thousand places recently:

-In the beautiful stories of milestones on the road to reconciliation shared by people across the country for our Milestones project.

-In a chance encounter with a student at a Campus Ministries conference who is excited about bringing the Blanket Exercise to her college.

-In the flurry of social media attention around the CRC’s Action for Reconciliation statement. It was shared more than 30 times by churches and individuals across the country. As someone who pays attention to social media statistics, that’s astounding.

-In the attention given to the TRC proceedings by people I know who have not paid attention to the TRC in the past. Some were quite emotional. Why now, after six years of TRC proceedings? Beautiful. 

-In Chief Justice McLachlin taking the unprecedented step of calling residential schools an attempt at “cultural genocide”.

-In the flight of an eagle, a sacred animal for many First Nations, over the TRC event in Vancouver.

So, in that confidence, dare to be shaped by these stories. Let them into your bones. Let them unsettle your ideas of what it means to be Canadian and even what it means to follow Christ. Let the resilience and courage of survivors and their families show you how much we have to learn from Indigenous peoples. What do these stories mean for our understanding of corporate sin? Should they change the way we do confession? How should these stories shape the way we think about mission, if these schools were run by God-fearing Christians who believed they were helping by taking part in a system that was actively seeking to destroy Indigenous cultures and make little Indigenous kids into little European kids? What do these stories mean as we look forward to celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017? Good people are already trying to answer these questions, thanks again to the work of the Spirit. Good seeds are sprouting, because God has not abandoned His world. We participate in a spiritual movement, a movement bigger than ourselves and all our failings, hang-ups, busy schedules, and polite Canadian racism.

The Spirit is on the move, friends. Let’s keep in step with Her. Live the apology.


Here are some ideas to get you started:

-Participate in this action alert to tell your Member of Parliament to work towards implementing the TRC’s 94 recommendations.  

-Tweet at your MP with the hashtag #LivetheApology. (Find your MP’s Twitter handle here.)

“Reconciliation is not a one-time event”  #LivetheApology and implement @TRC_en recommendations.

#LivetheApology Bear witness for reconciliation in education: Say a loud YES to @TRC_en recs #7-16!

-Participate in a Blanket Exercise.

-Volunteer at an Indigenous centre. Make some friends. Practice on a small scale the kind of mutuality and respect we need on a national scale. Learn from them.

-Run the Living the 8th Fire small group series at your church.

-Consider Indigenous issues when you’re voting (watch for a guide to the election covering various justice issues to come out soon).

-Watch media and read books produced by Indigenous people. (Great places to start are the works of Broken Walls, Thomas King, Wab Kinew, Tanya Tagaq, Richard Wagamese, A Tribe Called Red…and so many more!)

-Pray for the work of the Doctrine of Discovery task force.

-Learn about Indigenous heroes.

[Image by Dena Nicolai]


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