“Our Relationships Have to Be Built on Respect”
I spent part of this afternoon at a local rally for the “Idle No More” movement. It was one of many such rallies taking place across Canada today as Canadian PM Stephen Harper is meeting with First Nations leaders in Ottawa, ostensibly to address concerns about legislation and the honouring of treaties signed long ago.
The affair here in Lethbridge was a relatively small one. At its peak there might have been 100-125 people present on a frigid January afternoon. There was an eclectic collection of signage with everything from pictures of Stephen Harper’s face covered in oil to “Occupy Canada” to “Save Mother Earth” to one young man, who grinned impishly as he walked by me, proudly holding a sign emblazoned with “I Was Told There Would Be Frybread Here!” There were megaphones and speeches and drumming and dancing and even “war cries” which were repeatedly solicited from one of the organizers. There were little kids playing in snowdrifts, teenagers smoking up, and a steady stream of traffic from the street corner to the Tim Hortons in the mall down the street. It was an interesting spectacle in many ways.
I felt a bit strange being there. To say that my personality is not one that is drawn to political activism would be putting it very mildly. I’m a pretty quiet guy. I don’t like making a scene. I can’t imagine waving a sign in the air or chanting political slogans. Plus, I can’t dance or sing and I’m pretty sure that my Mennonite-ness would rule out war cries. I mostly loitered around the fringes, observing, smiling, saying hello, reading some of the publications being passed around, and freezing, like everyone else. Such was the rather meagre extent of my activism today.
One of the things that struck me as I observed at the rally today was the simple reality that these people’s stories are not my own. On one level, this is a patently obvious truism that is barely worth stating. Of course their stories are not my story. I am not aboriginal. I come from that most boring and privileged of categories—white, male, of European extraction. But simply to acknowledge that these are not my stories to tell is nonetheless important, I think. It forces me to pull back the reins on my instinctual tendency to evaluate, to critique, to decide upon the legitimacy of x or y. Is this cause just? Are they pursuing their goals in the right way? Are they speaking for everyone? Will this work? Those are important questions, perhaps, but they are not necessarily mine to ask.
As I looked at gathering today, I was reminded again that I have not walked in these people’s shoes. I don’t know what it’s like to be on the wrong end of racism and ridicule. I don’t know what it’s like to be the subject of societal mistrust and damaging and hurtful assumptions. I don’t know what it’s like to be born into difficult and seemingly intractable social conditions that are not conducive to human thriving. I certainly don’t know what it’s like to be a part of people groups who have suffered in a wide variety of ways due to their historical mistreatment at the hands of state and church. I don’t personally know what it’s like to be marginalized in any way.
So perhaps it was appropriate that my mouth remained mostly closed at this afternoon’s proceedings. Maybe that was my place today—a half-informed white guy, curiously looking on, silent and shivering from the sidelines.
As I was drinking my coffee and trying to warm up this afternoon, I pulled out a book called Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation & Residential School. Garnet Angeconeb, an Anishanaabe, obviously did not have the “Idle No More” movement in view when he wrote these words about the legacy of Residential Schools, but they seemed very appropriate as I reflected on the afternoon:
If the [Truth and Reconciliation] Commission can create a space that allows people to feel that their stories are accepted without fear of repercussion, perhaps it can help to neutralize some of the negativity that has poisoned our relationships with each other…. Hopefully, in some ways, our relationship with Canada can be improved. It’s all been so negative. I see this process as helping to lead that relationship toward the way it was meant to be. For us, treaties were about co-existence. We need to mend those historical misunderstandings and accept the true history of this country before we can move on…
What it all boils down to is respect. Denial is damaging and disrespectful, not healing. Our new relationships have to be built on respect… [The] issue is not about making others feel bad or guilty. This issue is about truth and understanding. Truth and understanding are two key ingredients that will lead to healing and reconciliation… It’s amazing how strong we can be when we act out of love and respect and know that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves.
As I read these words, I thought of a little girl that I saw at the rally. She was probably 10-11, right around my own daughter’s age, and she was holding a sign that said, “I am Canadian. I stand for human rights, environmental responsibility, and democracy.” She had half a shy smile on her face as she peered out from a mountain of winter clothing. In the middle of all the impassioned rhetoric, chanting, drumming, and slogans, her sign struck me for both its simplicity and its profound truthfulness. Care for human beings. Care for creation. Equality. In other words, love and respect. Yes, surely, these are always worth pursuing.