Broken Along the Way
I had planned to be in Edmonton today for the seventh and final national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, but a combination of an unexpectedly clogged schedule and yet another batch of bad weather in the winter that refuses to die means that I am, instead, watching the events on my laptop on this snowy spring morning. The opening ceremonies are taking place right now—the prayers, the speeches, the parade of dignitaries across the stage. It’s all very good, but the audio’s not great, so my mind is drifting.
I’m thinking back to the TRC event I attended in Montreal last spring. I am thinking of the painful stories, the hopeful stories, the tears, the anger, the kindness, the shared humanity. I am also thinking of a very uncomfortable moment for me—one that has stayed with me since last spring, and one that is always in the back of my mind as I participate in/observe events like the one going on in Edmonton right now.
I don’t remember exactly who was speaking in Montreal, but they were talking about “cultural genocide”—about the systematic erosion of aboriginal culture, language, and traditions that took place in the residential schools (I sombrely nodded), in church-run orphanages (more grave nodding), through insensitive or abusive foster parents (yes, yes, terrible, terrible), and through the process of aboriginal children being adopted out into non aboriginal families…
It was here that my sombre nodding abruptly ceased. As I’ve written about here before, my wife and I are the parents of Ojibway-Metis twins. We adopted them when they were five days old. They are a part of us and we of them.
My first reaction when I heard the language of “cultural genocide” applied to adoptive parents of aboriginal kids, I’m not proud to admit, was anger. How dare they equate the way that our family came together with ugly things like residential schools and heartless orphanages?! How dare they describe us in colonial terms?! How dare they describe us as part of the problem rather than the solution?! I’m here, aren’t I?! I’m trying to learn, trying to understand, trying to help! How dare they put me on the wrong side of this issue?!
Of course upon more sober reflection, it became abundantly clear that my reaction had far more to do with me than with my kids. It was (and is) mostly about the discomfort I sometimes feel that I—a white Christian of European extraction—am raising aboriginal kids in a (mostly) white, Christian context. And it is equally obvious—if painful to acknowledge—that our kids would not be a part of our lives if it were not for a profoundly screwed up and racist system and a profoundly hurtful national history. Our kids would not be part of our lives if their biological parents were not in some way, however indirectly, affected by the Canadian legacy of racism, colonial attitudes, and residential schools.
This is, of course, true for many adoptions. Many adoptions are the result of multiple levels of hurt, abuse, and dysfunction. Few people give a child away when their life situations are stable and “normal.” But perhaps in a unique way—in a way that is profoundly connected to their aboriginal identities—it is undeniable that our kids would not be a part of our lives if something hadn’t been badly broken along the way. This sucks. Part of what it means for my kids to be mine is that they are not, and will never be Ojibway in the way that they might have been. We can take steps to familiarize them with their culture, we can help them learn about their history, we can do all kinds of things to encourage them be proud of their ethnic background. But we can’t undo the past.
And, on top of all this, we are teaching our kids to follow Jesus. Jesus. The same Jesus in whose name so much of this murky, cloudy, hurtful history took place. The same profoundly misapplied religion that many aboriginal people understandably recoil from in horror and anger today. Not only are we failing to pass on their aboriginal culture, we are enculturating our kids into the very worldview that has been the source of so much of their ancestors’ pain.
That ugly term comes crashing back into my skull… Cultural genocide.
Justice Murray Sinclair has just finished his opening remarks in Edmonton. Near the end of his speech, he made a comment to aboriginal youth with an eye to the future: “We have to give them something more than anger, more than frustration.” I wonder if his words could also be applied, if in a different ways to non-aboriginals who struggle with the many and varied ways in which we are implicated in the problems of the present. There is a sense in which these laments of mine do very little good. Anger and frustration can do some useful things, perhaps, but not enough. We all need more than this, even if we struggle to understand the hows, the whens, the wheres and the whos.
I don’t have an inspiring final paragraph for this post. I don’t have a “here’s how I’ve sorted it all out and here’s what we’re doing in our family” kind of closing comment. I’m feeling a heavy sadness, truth be told, for the many survivors of residential schools in Alberta and across our nation, and for my own kids, if in a very different way and for different reasons. I don’t always know what or how to think or feel about these things. But, as I do whenever I am feeling this kind of conflicted heaviness, I cling to Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, the one who I believe picks up the many things that have been badly broken along the way, the one who somehow gathers us up—all of us, every tribe and tongue—into a magnificent story of redemption, reconciliation, and hope.
I am sure, whatever lives “outside your walls”, within your home, you and your family are a great blessing to one another. Loving personal relationships, with God and with one another will sustain us through every political, cultural and religious storm we encounter. I think we can all agree that Jesus stood for that.
As a child of the GTA I have no cultural reference point, for the “cultural genocide” this committee references. My fleeting understanding of history is that these outcomes are persistent throughout human history. Christian faith may have sadly contributed to the harm but I don’t think it to be in any way a first cause. In fact properly applied and understood it clearly offers remedy to man’s inhumanity to man. We don’t discard, dismiss or stand in embarrassment over freedom and democracy, when misapplications of it’s principals inflict harm to humanity. We don’t apologize for the principals of democracy we continue to validate them, as we should. Likewise we should continue to upholds the truths of our Christian faith.
People are intrinsically morally challenged. Otherness, the application of love, is learned behavior, a moral choice, that we must continually re-affirm and re-commit to. Every human institution, of every culture and purview will do harm when the application of love, and responsibility towards others, is neglected. Sadly, even the Christian ones too.
I’m not sure about these types of commissions, myself. Will they do more good or harm? Does holding up any institution, culture or faith forged centuries earlier to the standards of behavior developed centuries later, reveal the truth about the intentions of people from an earlier time? Is a continued sense of victimization the way to salvation and prosperity for a people and their culture. Recent history, I think, would suggest otherwise.
I have to believe that a many Christian people from earlier centuries were motivated by the love of Christ and within a fair view of their cultural and historical context, were doing good for others.
I wonder along similar lines, Paul. You’re right—it’s all too easy (and convenient) to evaluate the past by the standards of the present, often without acknowledging or even being aware of the ways in which the same past contributed to the genesis of the standards we are now using to pass judgment. This is a problem that shows up repeatedly in our culture, and it is very frustrating. We are quite happy to decry the evil and irrelevance of religion (Christianity in particular) without realizing the formative role it has played in so many of the things we assume and cherish in modern life. We hack away at the very trunk that supports the branch we are sitting on in voicing our critiques.
Having said that, I think we do have to be able to look at how things were done in the past and say, “that was simply wrong.” Even after qualifying and contextualizing, it was still wrong. In the case of Indian Residential Schools, I have little doubt that many were motivated by the love of Christ, as they understood it. But I still think they were wrong. The gospel was meant to be a gift that was shared, not a tool of assimilation. My two biggest problems with how aboriginals were treated by the church/government combo are, a) their freedom was abused; and 2) they were not treated as equals to engage in dialogue with but “savages” to “civilize” and/or conquer. The gospel should NEVER be used in these ways, in my view. And I think that this should have been clear at any time and place in history. The church has always had the gospels and the person and character of Christ to look at. That should have been enough.
I don’t know what the TRC will end up accomplishing “on the ground.” If nothing else, it will have been a place where our aboriginal neighbours were deliberately heard and respected—a place where their narrative wasn’t determined and controlled by others. Although, I suppose even this is debatable… 🙂