Today is National Aboriginal Day here in Canada. It is a day which, since 1996, has been set aside to learn about and honour the diverse cultural heritage of Canada’s First Nations, to recognize their ongoing contribution to Canada, and (hopefully) to remember that there remains much work to do in addressing the many problems that remain from Canada’s mistreatment (past and present) of its first peoples. Southern Alberta has a significant aboriginal population, with the Blood and Peigan tribes to the east and the south and the Siksika to the north, all three of which, along with the South Peigan in Montana, are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy. It is a region of Canada blessed with a rich and diverse aboriginal heritage.
Having said this, I am embarrassed to admit that as a kid growing up in southern Alberta I more or less swallowed the familiar stereotypes and latent racism that was all around me. I heard the comments about the “lazy, drunk Indians” we would see downtown, I saw the substandard living conditions on the reserves in our area where I would go to play hockey, I laughed along with the racist jokes at school. Even though I went to school and played hockey with a few aboriginal kids, and even though I got along fine with them, the Indians were always an easy target to pick on. It was easy for a mostly ignorant white kid to just assume that there was something wrong with “those people” who lived on the reserves—some inherent flaw that accounted for why they lived the way they did, and why they didn’t have the same societal status and privilege as everyone else. Far too easy.
Over time, of course, I learned that there was (surprise!) more to the story. I learned about how the First Nations were conquered and had their land taken from them, I learned about church-run residential schools whose explicit goal was the “civilization” of the Indians, including the eradication of their languages and cultures, and often severe physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. I learned about how, despite our “official” posture of celebrating diversity and honouring our First Nations, and despite prime minister Stephen Harper’s official apology in 2008 (and the subsequent establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada which will be coming to Alberta next year, and is beginning an event in Saskatchewan today), Canada’s aboriginal population still scores the lowest on almost every quality of life indicator, is still vastly over-represented in statistics about incarceration, addiction, mental illness, poverty, and suicide. I learned, in short, that there is a long, complicated, dark story behind what remains a very difficult and complex reality today.
Eleven years ago this week, I became the father of twins who are of Ojibwa and Métis descent. This, more than anything I learned in a book, has changed how I view the issue of how Canada has dealt and continues to deal with its First Nations. From that point on, I began to look at things differently. Increasingly, I would almost instinctively see and hear things through their eyes and ears (or, what I imagined these to be). Every casual comment, every quasi-racist insinuation, every newspaper article, every radio or TV program, anything that had to do with a negative portrayal of aboriginal people in Canada began to put me on high-alert. I found myself feeling angry and defensive a lot, even if only internally. Perhaps it was an implicit attempt to assuage some of the guilt from my own stereotypes in the past. Perhaps I was (and am) bracing myself for the day when my children will have to face the racism that I was such an uncritical participant in during my own childhood.
The text I am wrestling with for this week’s sermon is Genesis 26:12-33. It is the story of Isaac’s dealings with the Philistine King Abimelech after he moves down to Gerar to avoid famine. Isaac is initially allowed to stay but because he is so prosperous and powerful, the Philistines become envious and Abimelech asks him to leave. Isaac tries to settle and dig wells in a number of places, but meets resistance at each step along the way. Eventually, the quarrelling stops, and he and the king sign an agreement whereby Isaac is allowed a place to stay. Isaac names the spot “Rehoboth,” which means “room” or “space.” It is the story of a gradually-arrived-at peace, a slow, somewhat reluctant “making of space.”
I don’t know what the next few years and decades will look like for Canada’s First Nations. I don’t know what the fruit of the Truth and Reconciliation process might be. I don’t know what challenges my own children will face in their lifetimes because of the colour of their skin and the (often tragic) narrative they find themselves a part of. But I am hopeful. I am hopeful that, like Isaac and Abimelech, we Canadians can learn to make space for one another, whether this “space” is the physical land, or spiritual, emotional, and relational space. I am hopeful that, however slowly change comes, however the blame and responsibility are finally apportioned, however attempts at reconciliation are offered and accepted, however reluctantly or fitfully peace is arrived at, that we can—as individuals, as communities, as a nation—arrive at a point where we see that there is, truly, room enough for all.