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Milestones- Knit Together in Relationship

Editor's note: This post is the first in a series from the Milestones project. People who have been participated in or been affected by the CRC's work for reconciliation during the past six years, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has travelled the country, have contributed stories of moments (or "milestones" on the journey of reconciliation) when they were touched by the movement of Spirit and came one step closer to reconciled relationships across the Indigenous/non-Indigenous divide in Canada. Many other stories and the accompanying images can be found here. Let's celebrate the progress that has been made, through the reconciling work of the Holy Spirit!

I grew up in Brantford which had a large Native population living nearby on the Six Nations reserve. In my final high school year, I attended Pauline Johnson Public High School. Once I became a teacher in Sarnia I again was aware of the First Nations peoples living around me but I personally did not know anyone who was of Aboriginal descent.

In the grade 5 class I taught at Sarnia Christian School in the 1970’s, I had a student, Jeanet Sybenga, who was fascinated by anything First Nations and the sole book that was in the classroom library, a craft book about Aboriginal items such as teepees, clothing, etc. was taken out by Jeanet more times than I could count. Later Jeanet was appointed as the director of ministry at the Indian Family Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church working with Aboriginal people in the inner city. One of my daughters moved to Winnipeg and became friends with Jeanet so I had many opportunities to continue to visit with Jeanet over the years until her untimely death several years ago. One of my grandsons had the privilege of being baptized by Jeanet in the Winnipeg Indian Family Centre. Also, after Jeanet’s death it was felt that a service of remembrance should be held in her home town of Sarnia and I and another long-time family friend organized the service and invited drummers from Aamjiwnaang First Nation to drum her farewell. I’ll never forget it.

In the intervening years, I moved from teaching in elementary Christian schools into community adult literacy and high school upgrading programs. Eventually, one of my main teaching sites became Aamjiwnaang First Nation which is an Anishinaabe reserve (Chippewa) within the Sarnia city limits. I offered the literacy and upgrading program there for about seven years. My main co-worker was an Aboriginal person who had grown up in Aamjiwnaang and my students were all Aboriginal from that First Nation and from other reserves in Ontario. Now I did personally know people of Aboriginal descent and became friends with a number of them.

A transition was taking place during the years I taught there. People been born in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s had found easy work in Sarnia’s lucrative and famous Chemical Valley in which Aamjiwnaang was situated. They found work right out of grade 12 and the companies sent them for further training and education on the company’s dime. Although Aamjiwnaang’s water and air became very polluted during those years, those who had good employment and promises of good pensions did not speak up about the degradation of their environment. They did not monitor or investigate what was actually in the creek that ran through the reserve in which their children played nor the water in the St. Clair River that ran in front of their homes. The federal government did not put an air monitoring station on the First Nation even though there was one in Sarnia itself.

The generation that ended up in the programs I was offering, were not so lucky to access good jobs and good incomes. They needed to be fully educated before being considered for work in ‘the plants’. Also, the environmental costs of these ‘plants’ was becoming more and more obvious and even those who worked in the industry began to speak up. When Shell Canada wanted to build another plant on Aamjiwnaang’s doorstep, there were demonstrations and eventually the building plans were cancelled. Also, corrupt bookkeeping and financial transactions were discovered in the band’s administration—three people were charged and eventually jailed and fined. People on Aamjiwnaang were waking up to their rights as band citizens and as individuals who were affected negatively by their environment. Several people started to take regular air samples and report them, as well as holding a door-to-door survey of the number of boys born on Aamjiwnaang in relation to the number of girls born. An Aboriginal family who had lived at Aamjiwnaang for several generation was tested for the chemicals in their bodies and the results were appalling. More cancer deaths occurred.

By the time the reForming Relationships tour came to stop in Sarnia I knew a lot more about Aboriginal people and had formed relationships with some of them. Working on a First Nation felt a lot, to me, like being part of an immigrant community. I was 8 when my parents immigrated to Canada in 1957. I knew what it felt like to be a stranger but I also knew what it felt like to be part of a strong community. At Aamjiwnaang I met people who were part of the Canadian culture but were often treated as strangers and who at the same time, belonged to a small tight-knit community in which everyone knew your nickname. One evening, one of the students asked me to please step outside with her. It was to stand in awe of the moon that night – awesome. No one, in all the other settings in which I had taught had ever invited me to stand in awe of an aspect of creation. We stood together in silence overcome by the beauty above us. Then the day came that my co-worker shared some of his own history with me. He hadn’t attended residential schools but his parents had. He shared a vivid memory of being a 3-year-old standing in his crib with a soaking wet diaper and nothing to eat. In the telling, I was sure this happened more than once. He then told me that, as a child, he finally decided to walk down the road to his grandparents’ house so that he would be raised by them instead – and he was. I’ll never forget either of these two glimpses into the lives of my Aboriginal neighbours.

It was wonderful to have the reForming Relationship paintings in our church surrounding us for at least 4 worship services. I looked forward to it each time anew and hoped that this would break through the hardness of hearts that I experienced in some of my fellow worshippers when it came to Aboriginal peoples. The tour did do that for some, as did the Blanket Exercise that was offered both to Redeemer CRC’s membership and to Classis Chatham participants. The sessions Redeemer CRC held on the Eighth Fire series warmed a few more hearts through the knowledge gained. It’s a slow process.

I am grateful for how my life has been shaped in very subtle ways by being a Canadian at this time in history when settlers are getting to know the Aboriginal peoples who so generously and willingly shared this great country with those who arrived on their shores (a gift that we’ve used despicably). Although I know quite a bit about the real history of Aboriginal peoples and the ongoing discrimination by many agencies today, I continue to attend and participate in any opportunities to hear more personal stories and get to know and work alongside Aboriginal peoples for common causes. I know that we need each other in order to live together equally and in right relationship with the bounty of Canada, its people, its resources, and its future. I will continue to do all I can to educate, learn, speak out, and form meaningful relationships with those with whom I share this land.

Most recently I heard Susie Jones of Walpole Island tell her story with humour and candor at “It Matters to Us: Transforming the Legacy of Residential Schools” at Western University’s Faculty of Education March 10 – 11. She said that, at age 18, when her now husband asked her to marry him, she said, “Yes”. After all, she did not ever learn to say, “No”—everything had been decided for her since the age of 5 at the residential school she attended.

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