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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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. Read more
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. Read more
At any given moment, I have around half a dozen half-written blog-posts and/or fragmentary ideas lying around collecting dust in my “drafts” folder. Sometimes these turn into full-length pieces. Sometimes they just forlornly sit there for months on end until I either get sick of looking at them OR forcibly wrench them into a “Miscellany” post. Today, it’s the latter. 🙂
Here, then, my latest assemblage of ideas about totally unrelated topics… Read more
Last night, our family went to see a drama performance called “New Blood” that was held at the local university as part of their “Native Awareness Week” celebrations. The show was put together by high school students from Strathmore, AB, a small town near Calgary and bordering the Siksika Nation, a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Through music, drama, drumming, and dance, the students told the life story of Vincent Yellow Old Woman (the current chief of the Siksika Nation), including his time spent in residential school as a boy, and the later recovery of his Blackfoot culture. It was a moving portrayal of the many losses experienced by indigenous people as a result of colonialism, as well as a stirring call to hope, forgiveness, and love. Read more