“Truth and Reconcilliation” Part one of homilies by Revs. Brian Kiely and Audrey Brooks
October 4, 2015. Unitarian Church of Edmonton
This is the first of four services considering the theme of “How do I live well in a First Nations Land”
An audio version can be found at http://www.youtube.com/EdmUnitarian
I would like to begin this morning by acknowledging that we are holding our service today on Treaty Six land.
If you have been to a public ceremony in recent years you have probably heard that phrase spoken aloud. It is a staple at many political events at City Hall and among some of the Provincial political parties.
But what does it mean? I have two answers: First Treaty Six was an agreement signed between the Crown and the Plains, Assiniboine, Cree and Blackfoot nations (among others). The first signing took place in August, 1877, but as other nations were added there were 16 more signing ceremonies, the last one being in 1958. Treaty Six covers a vast swath of central and northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. It ceded the land to the Crown (except for certain reserves) in exchange for a number of guarantees and promises around food, health care and other necessities of life. Since then we have had 140 years of debate about the manner of its implementation, interpretation of promises and abuses perpetuated.
The second meaning I have for that simple phrase is one tied to our first Unitarian Universalist Principle, the one that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Acknowledging that we meet on Treaty Six land is a simple, but important reminder first, that Canadian society was not the first one here and second that we still have ongoing treaty obligations to honour and that we have a history of not honouring them very well.
If it is a phrase that irks you in some way, I invite you to consider why that might be.
As we embark on a month long exploration of the question, “How do I live well in a First Nations land,” we have to look at our own attitudes and behaviours, our internal responses to first nations people. Political action and change can follow, but first non-natives have to examine our own sense of privilege. I don’t think any of us here are intentionally racist in our words and deeds. But I do know that I have had a pretty typical white kid’s upbringing in Canada. I have been affected by a culture that routinely stereotyped or dismissed native culture as wild, simple, problematic, sinful, weak, treacherous and so on. Last Spring I offered a sermon that explored Thomas King’s “The Inconvenient Indian” a book that did a good job exploring those stereotypes. That affected my views on Indians – and perhaps yours as well. I commend the book to you if you haven’t read it, and the sermon is on our church website.
My point is that with my upbringing I know how many times I have to catch myself even today. I have to watch what I say and carelessly think when I see a native person in the street, especially if that person seems to fit well into some of those negative stereotypes. I have to remind myself to see a person, not an Indian. I bet I am not the only person here today who has that issue.
Acknowledging that we meet on Treaty Six land is not merely respectful, but for me it’s the old trick of tying a string on your finger so you don’t forget something important like “See a person – not a caricature” and “learn, don’t assume”.
Canada is in a new phase of discernment. From 2008 to 2014 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission toured Canada, heard testimony, compiled the stories of life under the treaties and most significantly of the horrific lives many native children experienced in the Residential Schools. The final public event took place here in Edmonton last year. Audrey Brooks was a chaplain and witness at that event and she will share her persona account in a moment.
You can read the summary of the TRC report here:
We are in a new phase. The truth part- that’s out there. It is published. In your order of service are web coordinates for the Summary of the Final Report of the TRC entitled Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future. It is very readable, though not an easy read emotionally. We have the truth available if we choose to read it. Now Canada enters a phase of reconciliation. It will be a real test of our nation both governmentally and as people. Though the sitting government started the TRC, they have done little beyond saying “I’m sorry,” to aid in reconciliation. It may be up to us, the people.
To complete my introduction I want to read a couple of passages from the Introduction to the report. The first concerns the truth we are asked to accept.
For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”
Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.
Canada asserted control over Aboriginal land. In some locations, Canada negotiated Treaties with First Nations; in others, the land was simply occupied or seized. The negotiation of Treaties, while seemingly honourable and legal, was often marked by fraud and coercion, and Canada was, and remains, slow to implement their provisions and intent.
On occasion, Canada forced First Nations to relocate their reserves from agriculturally valuable or resource-rich land onto remote and economically marginal reserves. Truth and Reconciliation Commission Summary of Final Report Page 1.
The second phase will be reconciliation. The report offers a useful discussion of that word.
To some people, reconciliation is the re-establishment of a conciliatory state. However, this is a state that many Aboriginal people assert never has existed between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. To others, reconciliation, in the context of Indian residential schools, is similar to dealing with a situation of family violence. It’s about coming to terms with events of the past in a manner that overcomes conflict and establishes a respectful and healthy relationship among people, going forward. It is in the latter context that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has approached the question of reconciliation.
To the Commission, reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.
We are not there yet. The relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples is not a mutually respectful one. But, we believe we can get there and we believe we can maintain it…