After the TRC: We must look back before we can move forward in reconciliation

Terry LeBlanc says, " the real question as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission winds down is: 'What and to whom would you wish to be reconciled?'”

Terry LeBlanc says, ” The real question as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission winds down is: ‘What and to whom would you wish to be reconciled?’”

Terry LeBlanc will speak at First Baptist Church as part of Reconciliation Matters in downtown Vancouver this Sunday (May 31, 9 and 11 am).

The day-long event will include an ecumenical service (10:30 am, at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church), a community street fair (from noon, across the street at the Sheraton Wall Centre Courtyard) and a multi-faith prayer service (2:30 pm, at First Baptist).

The purpose of Reconciliation Matters is to recognize the importance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as it brings six years of public hearings across Canada to a close on Victoria Island in Ottawa May 31 – June 3. (TRC Commissioners will release their findings on Indian Residential Schools June 2.)

Among the main questions to be dealt with in Ottawa – and a key reason for gathering at Reconciliation Matters – will be to “show support in creating a new way forward for Aboriginal people and all Canadians.”

Many times I find myself looking at someone who is looking at me and wondering to myself: “I wonder what she or he is thinking?” And – while admittedly I do not look overly Indigenous to many people – the same is nonetheless true for those of us who do.

There is a suspicion of Native peoples born out of an ignorance of our common history, framed in stereotypes.

So when it comes to conversations around reconciliation, and just what that might mean, one must inevitably begin with the need for a fuller education concerning how we got to this place in our common history. Yes, I know that sounds trite and is probably something you have heard before, but it is what is necessary – and it is, in significant measure, what the TRC has been all about.

With respect to knowing and understanding Indigenous people, most Canadians – otherwise well informed people who when they hear their local MP, when they read Christie Blatchford or Andrew Coyne of the National Post, or Margaret Wente of the Globe, when they listen to Rex Murphy or sound-bytes on their favourite radio or TV station – nonetheless assume the worst and adopt the stereotypes.

It is not simply a lack of knowledge of Canadian history, however, that is the roadblock for all of us to be reconciled; it is the lack of any real and intentional personal context into which to insert one’s ideas, values and opinions about that history. It would not be remotely exaggerating to suggest that this historical ignorance, this interpersonal apathy, captures the vast majority of Canadians.

What’s more, newcomers to Canada are no longer of largely European descent; the Canadian colonial experience is, therefore, not something with which they can easily find a personal, albeit distant, ancestral connection.

Whether they come from earlier immigrant stock or are more recent immigrants, however, many, if not most Canadians, continue to labour under the myth that “this is Canada” and it is therefore different from India, Africa or other parts of the world with respect to the colonial experience of its original inhabitants.

John Ibbitson in his January 14, 2013 Globe and Mail column, offered a back-handed slam of Aboriginal people and IdleNoMore with this observation: “While recent [immigrants] may empathize with native Canadians, most . . . are willing, even eager, to integrate into Canadian society. “It would hardly be surprising in that case,” he goes on to say, “If they had only limited empathy for Native claims to land and sovereignty, and little sense of collective responsibility for the poverty on many reserves.”

What Ibbitson’s article points out is the significant inability – dare I say unwillingness – of Canadians, and Canadian governments, to embrace, understand and learn from our collective history. I’m not suggesting they don’t read about history, nor study it to some extent in school.

What I am saying is that Canadians are largely unable and unwilling to acknowledge that the compounded effects of hundreds of years of colonial racism and injustice, created the current reality and its ongoing manifestations, which they now bemoan.

It appears that, in this respect, Indigenous peoples might echo the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:

You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place. . . . But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being (Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail).

If we are to be reconciled – and that is what the second half of the TRC mandate is all about – it cannot be on the basis of “that was then, this is now, get over it.” Nor can it be yet another expression of “just become like us and fit in.”

We are all treaty people, whether Euro-Canadian, Ghanaian, Sri Lankan or First Nations. The treaties we, or our forbears, signed together describe the way we would live together in this land we now call Canada – and it was not assimilation.

We must come to grips not just with how we got here, but why we are staying in this awkward and tense situation in which we find ourselves.

So that you might understand just a little better what I am talking about, allow me to use several quotes – there are thousands we might muster – to recreate the trajectory Canada took that shaped our joint history – a track which it is largely continuing upon today.

If they are savages, it is to domesticate and civilize them that we have come here; if they are rude, that is no reason that we should be idle (Pierre Biard, Jesuit Relations, 1611, Vol. 1, 47).

So, just as we must proceed with the temporal, as it is convenient to do, so in the same proportion with the spiritual; catechize, instruct, educate and train the Savages properly and with long patience (Pierre Biard, Jesuit Relations, 1616, Vol 3, 37).

As time went on and the course taken by colonial powers and their missionary shock troops had become not only well established, but also eminently visible, various historical retrospectives would define their unambiguous intent. 

The Jesuit attack pedagogy was aimed primarily at undermining the lifeworld foundations of Indian ways of life . . . to undermine the Amerindian cultural foundations (Michael Welton, in The Christian Delusion, John W. Loftus, 2005, 103).

Now, lest we think this was simply a Jesuit issue locked in a particular era, as we move forward in time we can see the same attitudes reflected in those who would follow – Jesuit or not, missionary or political leader. Canada’s first prime minister, for example, when confronted with the First Nations and Métis disagreement with the collusion of his government would rant:

 [Indians] are simply living on the benevolence and charity of the Canadian parliament, and . . . beggars should not be choosers (Sir John A. Macdonald, Prime Minister of Canada, 1885 as quoted in Broken Treaties, Jill St, Germain, 2004, 209).

And then as we enter the 20th century, the architect of much of the federal government’s attempts at assimilation would proclaim:

It is the opinion of the writer that . . . the Government will in time reach the end of its responsibility as the Indians progress into civilization and finally disappear as a separate and distinct people (Dr. Duncan Campbell Scott, Administration of Indian Affairs, 1920, 27).

Nor has it changed dramatically today. Our current prime minister makes this quite clear in his inability to assess the true nature of Canada’s history:

Canada remains in a very special place in the world. . . . We are the one major developed country that no one thinks has any responsibility for this crisis; In fact, on the contrary, they look at our policies as a solution to the crisis. We’re the one country in the room everybody would like to be; we’re so self-effacing as Canadians that we sometimes forget the assets we do have that other people see; we are one of the most stable regimes in history. . . . We are unique in that regard. We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them (Stephen Harper, G20 Summit, as quoted in Reuters, September 25, 2009).

This is a micro-sketch of the Canada you did not study in school history and which, therefore, has ill-prepared you for the reconciliation we so desperately need today and for which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was, at least in part, formed.

This is how Canada became what it is with respect to its Indigenous peoples. It is still what motivates much of its drive toward an unrealistic prosperity. Even as it continues to ignore the demands for real and authentic consultation required in its own Constitution Act of 1982, Canada and its citizens benefit from the wealth obtained at the expense of Indigenous people – in abrogation, yet again, of the treaties we are all party to.

For those of us who are followers of the Jesus Way we need to be quite clear that, as often as not, king and country act in conflict with the very real expectations of the King of Kings. By way of example, take note of Alan Ray’s reflections on the Doctrine of Discovery, one of the principle tools of the state in the colonial era. He observes:

The Doctrine of Discovery was deployed in the service of property rights, but its continuing power and legitimacy following the end of Christian monarchies depended on assumptions of race that, as we have seen, influenced [people like] the great John Marshall and continue to influence the highest Court.[1]

To ignore history is to ignore the colonial period of rape and pillage in the guise of civilization and Christianization; it is to overlook the continued human drive for bigger, better, more, faster – an engine which powered the colonial enterprise from the very beginning, requiring the use of slaves in its plantations, fields and orchards.

To deny our need to know the whole story of our Christian colonial past is to suggest that the settler definition of Christian faith – the one that was central to the drive of the colonial enterprise – is the one we still lean into for all those who refuse her embrace:

If you do not do it . . . then with the help of God I will undertake powerful action against you.  I will make war on you everywhere and in every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience of the church and of Their Highnesses. I will take you personally and your wives and children, and make slaves of you, and as such sell you off . . . and I will take away your property and cause you all the evil and harm I can.[2]

Or, perhaps even more dramatically, we might be guilty of identifying with one of the church’s ‘great theologians:

Unbelievers deserve not only to be separated from the Church, but also . . . to be exterminated from the World by death (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1271).

The lust for more and better, bigger and faster still has humanity in its grip. Just look around you at the massive homes we allow to be built, sheltering three to five people. If that is not sufficient to convince you, give some thought to the human penchant for new and better which drives the individualist marketing techniques of Facebook, Google and every other media merchant who can muster the technical savvy to capture us on our computers, iPads and smartphones and say, “It isn’t so!”

We are units of consumption, the focus of the marketers and promoters of “more” – ultimately the same drive that pushed Columbus and others across the oceans of the world in search or treasure.

This then is the situation in which we find ourselves. The trajectory on which Canada was set from the very earliest days of our discovery of the Europeans on our shores; it is the one which sought at every turn to undermine and overthrow Indigenous peoples even if and when the treaties and agreements that were entered into, by their own words, “ensured native peaceful occupation of their own lands in perpetuity.”

This short set of vignettes I have offered ought to make it more than abundantly clear what we must do to be reconciled here in Canada and within all of creation. To suggest confidently that we have moved beyond this is to ignore the palpable ignorance and racism that has reared its head once more in places such as Johannesburg, Brasilia, Islamabad, New Delhi, Auckland, Canberra, Kun Ming, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Halifax and elsewhere.

To decry the need to study more carefully the history that has pushed us into this present moment is to ignore the fact that Indigenous peoples still hold to a different vision of the world; it is to misjudge their efforts to ring the alarm bell through actions and protests, wakening the world to the consequence of the continued drive for progress and prosperity.

Failure to understand this is means failing to understand the heart and soul of the IdleNoMore movement and the focus of the second half of the TRC’s mandate.

Failure to understand this stands in the way of true reconciliation.

Progress and prosperity too often resemble the progress and prosperity of Western culture and society – and then largely a minority – at the expense of the rest. If we are to have reconciliation it must more closely resemble the desires and inclinations of the heart of the First Nations of old – to live well in the land together!

Having reflected earlier in this piece on the motivations and ideology of colonial advance and consolidation, reflect now on Native life in the early days of our encounter:

And, in this respect, I consider all these poor savages, whom we commiserate, to be very happy; for pale Envy doth not emaciate them, neither do they feel the inhumanity of those who serve God hypocritically, harassing their fellow-creatures under this mask: nor are they subject to the artifices of those who, lacking virtue and goodness wrap themselves up in a mantle of false piety to nourish their ambition. If they do not know God, at least they do not blaspheme him, as the greater number of Christians do. Nor do they understand the art of poisoning, or of corrupting chastity by devilish artifice (Marc Lescarbot, Jesuit Relations, 1610, Vol. 3, 73).

Moreover, if it is a great blessing to be free from a great evil, our Savages are happy; for the two tyrants who provide hell and torture for many of our Europeans, do not reign in their great forests – I mean ambition and avarice. As they have neither political organization, nor offices, nor dignities, nor any authority, for they only obey their Chief through good will toward him, therefore they never kill each other to acquire these honors. Also, as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them gives himself to the Devil to acquire wealth (Pierre Le Jeune, Jesuit Relations, 1634, Vol. 6, 66).

So, the real question as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission winds down is, “What and to whom would you wish to be reconciled?”

[1] Alan Ray, “The Doctrine of Discovery and the Conquest of the Americas,” Address at Wheaton College (IL), October 1, 2012.

[2] Cited in Luis N. Rivera Pagán, A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 34. For the complete text in translation see http://www.doctrineofdiscovery.org/ (Accessed June 3, 2014).

Terry LeBlanc is Mi’kmaq / Acadian, in his 43rd year of marriage to Bev. Together they have three adult children – twin daughters and one son. He has served in ordained ministry with the Indigenous community across the globe for 38 years. Terry holds an interdisciplinary PhD from Asbury Theological Seminary, specializing in theology, anthropology and Indigenous studies.

In addition to his current work as executive director of Indigenous Pathways, Terry is also the founding chair and current director of NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community (which will hold its 12th annual symposium on Theologies of Reconciliation at Wheaton College June 4 – 6).

As part of his contribution to NAIITS’ Indigenous educational partnerships, Terry serves as adjunct faculty at Acadia Divinity College, George Fox Seminary, Providence University College and Seminary, and Tyndale Seminary.

For a description and schedule of the Reconciliation Matters events, see the accompanying story or go here.

1 comment for “After the TRC: We must look back before we can move forward in reconciliation

  1. donald_grayston@sfu.ca
    May 28, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    Fabulous talk by Terry LeBlanc. This should be part of every high school social studies curriculum in Canada.

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