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Posts from the ‘Indigenous Issues’ Category

On Burning and Rotting

One does not need to be an apologist for the Roman Catholic Church or for the Government of Canada or for the wretched legacy of Indian Residential schools to be alarmed at and deeply troubled by the spate of recent church burnings that have taken place across Canada. I probably should not need to begin a post with a sentence like that—i.e., it should be fairly unremarkable that a person could feel grief and anger toward historical injustices perpetrated by the church and simultaneously be convinced that burning houses of worship to the ground is wrong—but such are the times we live in. We are forever sorting one another into moral categories. It can be a risky thing to risk the wrath of the online mob by expressing the wrong moral sentiment. Or the right moral sentiment directed toward the wrong group. Or the right moral sentiment expressed with the wrong degree of certainty or outrage. Or… well, you’ve presumably been online in the last few years. You get the idea.

The Roman Catholic church is not a particularly popular or sympathetic institution, at present, for reasons that are well (and appropriately) documented. And the response to these burnings from politicians and other public officials has predictably been somewhat muted. There are condemnations, certainly, but often with a tinge of, “Well, yes, but you see it’s understandable given the history here…” If these were Canadian mosques or gurdwaras or Buddhist temples being reduced to ash, one suspects the public narrative would be rather different (it would not be difficult to find historical injustices associated with these institutions and symbols either, even if these do not have the same emotional, geographic, or social proximity as those connected to the churches that are burning). But our history in this nation, for good and for ill, has been profoundly influenced and shaped by the church. This is where we live.

The act of burning carries with it a lot of symbolic freight. It can be a symbol for the white-hot rage that many indigenous people (again, appropriately) feel toward all that they have endured at the hands of the church. “Burn it to the ground” could simply be an attempt to destroy and consign to oblivion. There may be the idea of something like self-immolation at work—offering oneself or one’s institutions up as a sacrifice to atone for sin (this article conveys such sentiments). It can also take on purificatory connotations. The idea of fire as a tool of refining and burning away impurities is found throughout Scripture (e.g., Zech 13:9). In this case, the church itself represents an impurity, a stain on our more morally evolved cultural moment. It must be purged and refined according to present sensibilities if it is to remain.

I suspect that some combination of what’s described in the preceding paragraph is at work in how we as a nation are viewing these church burnings. They’re wrong, yes, but… We have little fondness for the church or the ugly parts of its history. We lament the aesthetic loss, perhaps, but the thought of those children… and all that abuse of wealth and power… and all that naked racism and cultural imperialism. Many Canadians wouldn’t say “Burn it to the ground” publicly (unless they work for the BC Civil Liberties Association, perhaps), but privately we’re more or less ok with editing this chapter out of Canada’s past. Good riddance. Etc.

Speaking of editing the past. I read an article this morning where I encountered a term that was new to me: link rot. In a world where so much information is migrating online and where there is so little regulation, apparently plenty gets lost along the way. Or modified. Or “updated” to reflect current moral sensibilities. Or deleted. Link rot describes the phenomenon of hyperlinks no longer working or pointing to the same external content that they once did. A link to an article that you posted in 2017, for example may or may not still work in 2021. One study found that “50 percent of the links embedded in Court opinions since 1996, when the first hyperlink was used, no longer worked. And 75 percent of the links in the Harvard Law Review no longer worked.” That’s some significant slippage.

Even here on my own little blog, I’ve linked to a lot of content over fourteen years. I did a quick check on a few posts that I wrote over a decade ago. Sure enough, over half of the links in those posts no longer work. Who knows, the links in this very article might not work by the time you read it! I could simply remove the rotten links, but a) that would be tedious and cumbersome work; and b) it would make the post that cited them somewhat confusing. A lot of what I write here references specific content and context. If that content and context is lost or inaccessible? Well, then I guess readers just have to trust me.

I remember in the early years of blogging, I realized that along with the obvious power I had to change past posts whenever I wanted, I could also edit other people’s comments. Say they had made a point that was inconvenient for my argument, or they quoted something I had said that was inaccurate or wrong or reflected poorly on me in some way, or I was just generally finding them an irritating conversation partner. Well, I could just change or delete any comment that didn’t flatter me or my story. As it happens, I think that this is deceitful and immoral. I couldn’t live with myself if I was forever editing what other people said or changing old posts that contained things that I wouldn’t say the same way anymore. But I suspect many people could.

It’s a tricky business, this editing of the past according to what we prefer in the present, whether the tools are an outraged conflagration or sneakily changing the narrative online. There is something rotten about our zeal to “burn it down,” whether literally or digitally. If we cannot access the past truthfully, how will we understand the moral trajectory that has led to our present vantage point? How will we cultivate the capacity to cultivate even a bit of self-critical distance from our imagined righteousness and moral purity? And, at the risk of stating what should be obvious, what gives us such confidence that our current vantage point is so free of moral contaminants? How, I wonder, will future generations evaluate our particular cultural and moral moment? My strong suspicion is that it will get rather mixed reviews.

Earlier I referenced the notion of the “refiners fire” found in Scripture. As I said, I suspect many Canadians privately view these church burnings as a kind of purificatory symbol in light of our nation’s sinful past. The main difference, of course, is that in Scripture it is God doing the purifying and refining, not us. A rather important distinction, it seems to me.

Orange is the New Red and White

It’s the early hours of what promises to be a blistering hot Canada Day. I’m sitting at my laptop, drinking my morning coffee, wearing an orange t-shirt. As you likely know, at least if you live in Canada, the orange t-shirt has come to become a symbol of solidarity with our indigenous neighbours, specifically those who endured residential schools. The idea for the orange t-shirt emerges out of the experience of a young indigenous girl who was given an orange shirt by her grandmother to wear on her first day at a Residential School in British Columbia. The shirt was confiscated, and she never saw it again. Read more

On the Occasion of Your Nineteenth Birthday

Hi kids,

Remember how last year I said I was done writing these rambling birthday letters to you now that you are adults? Well, I lied. You can add this latest transgression to the sad list that I’ve accumulated over nearly two decades as your father. Each year on this day I tend to dissolve into a puddle of sentimental nostalgia mixed in with a generous dose of neurotic longing for your futures and, naturally, this garbled mess has to find expression somewhere, right? You’ll thank me for this later, no doubt. Ahem. Read more

Wagging White Fingers

I’ve hesitated to say much in response to the grim spectacle of America ablaze with protests against the racism, police brutality, and appalling murder of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis. My justifications for silence often wander down familiar trails. What can I say that others can’t say or haven’t already said better? I’m not American; what right do I have to say anything about a social reality that is not my own? What good does adding to an amorphous chorus of condemnation/white guilt really do? Isn’t ninety percent of what’s going online today a flailing combination of virtue signalling and emoting out loud? What good is one more wagging white finger against racism? Read more

Death of a Simple Narrative

I am learning that the jail is very often a place where simple narratives go to die.

This morning’s lesson was ostensibly about learning how to stop blaming parents and take responsibility for our own actions but, as is usually the case, the conversation tends to meander off in all kinds of loosely-related or unrelated territory. There was a younger indigenous woman who was sitting quietly while the lesson was read. She had spiky jet black hair streaked with blond, a few tattoos on her face, one that looked like a tear drop of blood. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she sat in stony silence throughout our time together. She didn’t look like she had much to say. Read more

Genesis

I left the jail this morning feeling a heaviness that I have not felt in some time. I don’t go there each Monday with some big agenda—I’m not there to reform or convert or instruct, but to listen, to pray, to encourage. But most days, I get a glimpse of goodness through a conversation, a smile, a new insight into the human heart and the human predicament. Today was not one of those days. Read more

Egypt for Your Ransom

Only two guys showed up for the support group at the jail today. There had been some kind of a disturbance in the unit, apparently, and so it was twenty-five minutes past start time when the pair of them trudged in. One was an older guy who seemed reserved and didn’t say much. The other was a young Cree man who talked a mile a minute and seemed delighted to be anywhere other than his cell. Brandon* introduced himself to me three times, a vigorous handshake accompanying each introduction, before we settled in to the circle. Read more

On Fixing and Forgiving

My daughter and I were sitting at the streetside window of a local café this afternoon when a couple of quite spectacularly drunk guys walked up to the front door. One of them started screaming at the door, middle finger enthusiastically raised in glorious salute. He looked over at us, grinned weirdly and then returned his attentions to the front door. More middle fingers, more yelling, and then the unpleasant culmination of his hostilities: he leaned back and spit on the front door before stumbling away.  Read more

Kinda Like Family

I get defensive when I listen to episodes like the one that aired today on a special edition of The Current. I’m not particularly proud of my instinctive reaction, but there you go. The episode was called “In Care and In Crisis: Canada’s Indigenous Child Welfare Emergency.” It deals with the deeply troubling realities faced by indigenous kids across Canada who are removed from the care of their biological parents and placed into foster care. The word “crisis” is no overstatement for the present situation. If you have any doubt (and care bear the heart-rending sadness), read this piece from yesterday. Read more

Oh, Canada

The last few days have been full of expressions of patriotism and anti-patriotism. Canada’s 150th birthday was on Saturday. Today, obviously, is the big day for our American neighbours. The internet is, predictably, aflame with either nationalistic chest-thumping or withering criticisms thereof. There is, of course, plenty to be critical of. Canada continues to come to terms with and be confronted by its treatment of indigenous people, historically right down to the present. The USA struggles with all things Donald Trump and his “America First” agenda that seems content to kick a whole bunch of people to the curb. I suspect that no matter the insignia on our passport, many of us feel at least a little bit conflicted when it comes to waving the flag. And if we don’t, we should. Especially if we are Christians. As followers of Jesus, our national identities ought always to be worn loosely given our primary convictions and commitments to Christ and to his kingdom. Read more

This is How We Make Our Way

All across the nation today, there will be ceremonies commemorating National Aboriginal Day (or what will soon be National Indigenous People’s Day, according to Justin Trudeau). There will be dancing and singing and regalia and official speeches by important people in city centers from sea to sea to sea. There will be earnest expressions of regret for Canada’s historical treatment of indigenous people and celebrations of how ancient cultures and languages are being reclaimed. There will be talk of honouring diversity and respecting treaties. There will be solemn pledges to do better going forward.  Read more

You Don’t Know Me

He sits over in the corner of the little restaurant on the #3 highway that a friend and I sometimes meet at to talk about God, life, pastoring. He is wet and dirty, just like the weather outside, a ball cap pulled down over long black hair, a wispy moustache straining and stretching over snarling lips. He’s agitated, clearly. He’s equally clearly very, very drunk. He blurts out incoherent words every now and then. Sometimes he pounds on the table. One time when I look over he’s leaned forward, face down on the table. It looks like he’s passed out or fallen asleep. I so desperately wish that he wasn’t an Indian, that he wasn’t providing greedy ammunition for all the toxic stereotypes that swirl around our area. But he is. And he is. Christ have mercy. Read more

Something Like the Grace of God

Whenever I drive through the reserve, I’m always struck by how little seems to have changed over the last thirty years. I remember coming to play hockey here as a kid, remember how it seemed like a different world to me. And it kind of was—and still is, at least taken at face value. The windswept barren prairies in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, the haphazard housing, the run down buildings that dot the the side of the road as we enter and leave the tiny town, the signs of poverty and chaos, the ominous billboard as you enter warning of the fentanyl crisis, urging indigenous youth to say no to drugs—“The drug dealers don’t care about you, they just want your money!” There was a recent article in the local paper saying that tribal police were considering requiring visitor permits for anyone coming on to the reserve in an effort to curtail the impact of the drug trade. If you’re going to the reserve with a narrative of hopelessness in your head, it won’t be hard to have it confirmed. Read more

The Single Story

In 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered her famous TED talk entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story” which discussed the problematic nature of reducing human beings and cultures to a single narrative. She talked about negotiating her own African identity in cultural contexts that often only countenanced a single narrative of what it meant to be “African.” For so many, Africans were poor and they were victims (of corruption or famine or war or some other combination of circumstances). This was just what it meant to be African. There was no room for anything else in the story. No room for an African who wasn’t poor or a victim or in need of Western aid. No room for her. Read more

Marking Identity

A bit of controversy around the celebrated author Joseph Boyden has been dominating headlines up here in Canada over the last little while. Boyden, whose books include Through Black Spruce, Three Day Road, and the Orenda, has become something of an indigenous celebrity in recent years. His novels draw from indigenous history (The Orenda, for example, was based on the interactions between the Iroquois and the French Jesuits in the seventeenth century). He has also been an enthusiastic advocate for indigenous self-determination, even serving last year as a honourary witness at the closing event of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Read more

An Ordinary Sunday

Midway through last week, someone encouraged me to periodically attempt something like modern “retellings” of Jesus’ parables during my sermons. In other words, rather than drily “explaining” the stories Jesus told, just try to tell the story in a new way. So, I gave it a shot yesterday. These stories are based on Luke 18:9-14, the famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. What follows is, it should be noted, a work of fiction, even if it is obviously informed by various stories and experiences I’ve encountered along the way. Read more

Sky

I spent thirteen or so hours this past week driving under the summer prairie sky. Saskatoon was the location of our Mennonite national church’s biennial gathering which I combined with a visit with my brother and his family. It’s a long drive and very flat. It’s the kind of drive that is easy to dread, particularly in winter months when the roads are bad and the landscape is bleak. It’s a drive I’ve done often enough but it’s not one that I’ve ever particularly relished. This time, however, the sky almost literally took my breath away. Golden yellow canola beside wavy green barley fields stretched out under this vast canopy of pillowy cloud and brilliant blue. Or, when the weather turned, spectacular scenes of dark, brooding masses of cloud. The sky seemed alive. Even when it looked threatening and portended fierce rain, it was a kind of strange comfort. It was the kind of sky that puts you in your place. There was a vast unchangeableness about it. It seemed the kind of sky that nothing could go wrong under. Read more

Kings of Our Own

For the last few days, I’ve been sifting through the mental notes and impressions collected during my time spent last week at the final event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa and the NAIITS (North American Indigenous Institute of Theological Studies) 2015 Symposium near Chicago. In many ways, I have been feeling that there’s not much to say beyond what I’ve said in previous posts about previous trips with similar themes. Or, at any rate, that I’m unable to put newer or better words to the ones I’ve already come up with. The pain and injustice of Canada’s history of Indian residential schools has been well documented, after all. Is there any point in adding to the noise?  Are there new insights to be gleaned or windows through which to see these matters? Read more