I’m spending the first part of this week in Ottawa for the closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the long journey that began in 2008 with the government of Canada’s official apology for residential schools, and which will culminate tomorrow when the commission releases a summary of its six-volume final report. After that, it’s off to the Chicago area for the NAIITS 12th Annual Theological Symposium. It promises to be a full and stimulating week.
I confess, though, that after one day of the TRC I am feeling mostly just exhausted. It’s probably the two-hour time change or a long travel day yesterday or the lack of sleep last night. But it might also be because this is the fourth TRC experience that I have been a part of, and I’m just weary of the words. So much rhetoric, so many words—guilty words, angry words, meandering words, half-hearted words, ingratiating words, showy words, naïve words, and other words besides. So many words.
And after all the words? Then what? A few weeks ago, I spoke with a young South African woman recently about her impression of her own nation’s trajectory after their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Has it made a difference?” I asked. “Are things better for South Africa now?” She paused before offering a wry smile. “No, not really. Not at all, actually.” I wonder if the same will hold true for Canada… God, I hope not.
I felt restless and uneasy all day today. What am I doing here? What possible difference does my presence make in light of these massive problems and huge questions? I thought about just taking a long walk, seeing the sights. Or something. And then, I thought, no. No matter what you make of all the official speeches and dignitaries, all the breathless declarations and frantic affirmations, you need to go and find the story of a real human being whose experience is nothing like yours. And when you find it, you need to just sit and listen.
So, I did. I went and found a story. I listened. And this is what I heard.
Ronnie Otter is a Cree from northern Quebec. He’s probably sixty years old, maybe more. He was raised an Anglican Christian and he remembers a worship service that he attended when he was six years old. The service was in Cree, and he loved the songs. But today the song wasn’t a happy one. Everyone was crying as they sang a song called, “God be with you ‘til we meet again.” And then, after church, the planes came. And the kids all had to squish in tight while the Indian agent and the RCMP officer stood by. Making sure there was no trouble. And little Ronnie looked out the window as the plane flew away and his mom and dad waved with tears in their eyes.
It was in the Sault Ste. Marie Residential School that Ronnie first saw a little boy get beaten with a broken hockey stick. He had seen whips with rubber strands tied to little nuts before, but this was something different. He remembered looking at the person beating the little boy and thinking, “How can you be doing that to a boy? You shouldn’t even beat a dog with a stick…” Here, Ronnie’s voice cracked and trailed off a little…
[I looked around when Ronnie started to break down. It struck me how most of the indigenous people in the room reacted. Nobody looked at Ronnie. Not when he was talking, not when started to cry, not after he started talking again. They mostly looked down at the ground. It seemed to me that there was the pain of a deep knowing in that looking away…]
Ronnie talked about attending public school later in life, about how they would sometimes go to the movies. There would always be movies about cowboys and Indians, and the Indians were always strange, always the “savages.” “I always felt like hiding when we walked out of the theatre,” Ronnie said. I didn’t want to be a savage… But later we would act out what we saw on the screen when we played outside. You be the cowboy, I’ll be the Indian! But I didn’t want to be the Indian. The Indian always died…”
Ronnie talked about his parents who lived long winters without their kids. They told him about how they would sometimes hear a lone voice crying inside a tent for the kids who weren’t there. Pretty soon, you’d hear a voice from another tent. And then another. And before you knew it, the whole village would be wailing…
What an image, I thought. A whole village crying. Can villages cry? Yes, of course they can. What else would they do?
When Ronnie was done, the facilitator got us to form a circle around those who had shared. We joined hands—friends and strangers, indigenous and non-indigenous—and we listened to a prayer for truth, for reconciliation, for healing, for a more hopeful future for the first peoples of his land. Will it happen? Will the TRC lead to meaningful change? I don’t know. Maybe. Hopefully. But I suspect that if reconciliation is ever to even begin, it has to at least start with more people hearing more stories like Ronnie Otter’s. And with a recognition that more villages need to weep for those that should never have had to.