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.