Near the conclusion of his remarks about the final recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission yesterday, Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde offered the following challenge to non-indigenous people: Make room.
Make room in minds and hearts for new ways of understanding and relating to indigenous people. Make room for conceptions that go beyond “drunk” or “lazy” or “entitled” or “pagan” or any of the countless other stereotypes about indigenous people that not only still exist in the broader culture, but flourish.
This is surely true. This is surely the beginning—the bare minimum!—of anything resembling true reconciliation. There have to be decisions made by ordinary non-indigenous people to refuse to resort to cheap and easy answers like, “that’s just how Indians are”—answers that are, of course, not answers at all but a refusal to think or to consider that the real world and real human beings and cultures are just a bit more complex than that.
But for me, “making room” is a less abstract, much more personal thing. As I’ve written about here before, my “making room” has been quite literal by virtue of the makeup of our family. My wife and I are the parents of Ojibway/Metis twins. This is something that I quite literally could never have imagined growing up in an area where racism and anti-indigenous sentiment was and remains rampant. But life has a funny way of surprising you, I’ve learned. Something (or, more particularly, two very special someones) I could never have imagined, that was not even on the remotest reaches of my radar as a younger person, has more than anything else squeezed its way into my life, my thinking, my mind, and, most importantly, my heart. This, more than anything else, has made room where previously none existed.
I’ve been asked a number of times this week how it feels for me, a father of indigenous kids, to be at an event like this, where I and those in analogous situations, are sometimes described as part of the problem. Where I am one of those “white people” that is responsible for depriving indigenous kids of their language, culture, and spirituality, and for foisting upon them foreign versions of the above.
The truth is, it’s not always easy. Every time I see a picture taken in a residential school, every time I see a collection of beautiful brown faces in those pictures, every time I hear about children wrenched away from families and communities and the familiar identity-forming traditions and institutions that so many of us take for granted, I see my own beautiful brown kids. And I am not naïve. I know that there is a link between Canada’s history and the present-day realities that lead to indigenous kids being put up for adoption and entering child protective services at a wildly disproportionate rate to the rest of the population. And I know that I am “assimilating” our kids into non-indigenous ways of being in the world. So this making room, it comes with a cost. It’s a tricky thing to do well, whether in big ways or small ways, abstract ways or intensely personal ones.
But maybe it’s not as tricky as I am making it out to be. One thing I have learned over the years is that best way to “make room” for people, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their religion, whatever their politics, whatever their worldview, whatever their relationship to you—is to quite simply follow the teaching and example of Christ: To love as you would like to be loved.
Among other things, this would seem to involve:
- Deciding that the person across from you is a creature of wonder, and that they stand before you “the way they are” because of a complex set of causes and a unique story that is more precious than all of the generalizations that we so easily resort to.
- Respecting and honouring the “other” not as a means to an end, not as a part of some broader agenda, but simply because they are a fellow creation of God.
- Asking questions, exhibiting curiosity, demonstrating an interest in what the world looks like through another’s set of eyes and experiences.
- Being open to having your own views expanded and nuanced.
- Deciding not to make assumptions about why others think the way that they do that you would not appreciate being applied to you and to your views.
- Being resolutely determined to never making sweeping generalizations about a group of people that you feel would be unfair if applied to the group (or groups) of people that you happen to belong to.
Each of these things would represent a good start toward “making room.” Each of these, if adopted broadly, would represent wonderful first steps toward improving relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada. Each of these would be building blocks toward reconciliation. Each represents a small part of how room is made.
When we do this, I think we gradually discover that the big picture isn’t necessarily about learning how to bring together indigenous and non-indigenous people, but about simply learning to be good human beings who are kind and open toward each other. This is the best of what I have experienced from so many people I have talked to at gatherings like the TRC. The most rewarding and life-giving conversations I have had have never been a white guy talking to a native guy or a Christian man talking to an indigenous woman, but about two human beings making room for each other. This has been a true gift whenever I have experienced it.
And this is what I am most grateful for when it comes to my own family, too. So often, when our kids were younger, people would tell us, “Oh, they’re so lucky to have you two as parents.” And my wife and I would always bristle at this because we never looked at our kids as objects of charity or as some kind of exercise in cross-cultural relationships, but as two, precious human treasures that were to be received as a gift from God. We made room for them once upon a time, yes, but the story ever since has been at least as much about them making room for us, and about the love that can grow in room that is shared.