Church hopes to play part in aboriginal healing

I bore witness last week. I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Regional Hearing at Ermineskin Junior Senior High School.

Rev. Beatrix Schirner

Ponoka United Church

I bore witness last week. I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Regional Hearing at Ermineskin Junior Senior High School. It is crucial to understand I was not just there to observe but to witness as individuals made public statements about their experiences and perspective on residential, or boarding schools. As the commissioner, Marie Wilson, who received these statements with immense compassion explained, I was part of the human blanket of support that was wrapped around each person addressing the commission.

I have a book at home I have never been able to read: A National Crime, The Canadian Government and the Residential School System by John S. Milloy. For all that I have attempted to educate myself, we are all of us at different places when it comes to consciousness about the public issues of our country. Our receptiveness to comprehending big issues fluctuates. Last week was the first time I completely understood the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not a product of our federal government; rather, it is one of five parts of the settlement of Canada’s largest class action court case — when survivors of residential schools took the government to court. In the end it was settled out of court, which meant there was no public record of what happened to the 150,000 children who attended those schools over the course of 150 years — or the 4,000 children who died while attending residential school.

It is the first time in the world victims have caused a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be formed, and the first time in the world one focused on the injury to children. The world is watching. Over the course of the two days, people from across Canada and from the Netherlands, Malaysia, Greece, Australia, Germany and the United States watched over the Internet. The testimonies were all filmed. Everything this commission hears will be archived at the University of Manitoba so the horror endemic in the residential schools can never be denied.

Some people think these hearings are only for and about Canada’s indigenous peoples but the residential schools are part of our shared Canadian history. Churches ran the schools. Every attempt was made to Christianize the children. They were told “you have to become Christian — you’ll never get to heaven if you don’t.” I found it sad and painful to hear more than one person state “it’s hard for me to go to church anymore.”

Yet residential schools are only one small part of the shared history we have. I just finished a book by Candace Savage: A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape. A slim volume, it deals in the most lyrical language with uncovering the reality that preceded the homesteaders — the violence perpetrated on the buffalo and the Indians who depended on them. Somehow I had never comprehended just how intentional was the eradication of the buffalo. It was said back then every dead buffalo meant another dead Indian. The deliberate starving of the Indians, the breaking of treaty promises almost as soon as the ink was dry on the documents, the impossible conditions the government set upon them is simply the same mindset that imagined the residential schools for eradicating the Indian in the child.

Marie Wilson stressed reconciliation is an ongoing individual and collective process — all Canadian citizens have a legal and moral obligation to reconciliation for the good of all. Roger Epp, the honourary witness for the second day, reinforced it is good for national leaders to make public apologies but the work of reconciliation is the work of neighbours. Bill Elliot, Wetaskiwin’s mayor, shared with the commission that Wetaskiwin is on a deliberate course to do just that with the people of Maskwacis (Hobbema.) I would like to learn more about what Ponoka is doing.

Christianity is a religion of reconciliation. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18) And finally, a fourth generation survivor of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, Marilyn Buffalo, was unequivocal in saying to the commission: Churches have a moral and spiritual obligation to help us rebuild the Cree Nation at Maskwacis.

I ask what can the churches in our area do toward this end?