I was privileged to participate in a workshop Monday at First United in which aboriginal and non-aboriginal people came together under the gentle, capable leadership of Kathy Camalerri, to come to further understanding, healing and reconciliation. It is a subject I have kept up-to-date on over the years, especially since the United Church has been active in trying to bring this about for many years now. So I was familiar with the facts and had heard quite a few stories from survivors. But I went because I wanted to be part of the solution, part of the dialogue that is needed.
Mid morning we moved into a non-threatening kind of role-playing in which we created a pre-contact aboriginal village. We did it with objects in the centre representing the various parts of our culture (language, clothing, transportation, food, arts, etc.) and then we placed our bodies around the circle to become the children (in the centre) surrounded by parents, aunties and uncles, elders and finally the hunters, gatherers and protectors. We recited over and over the four key values of the society – Love, Respect, Kindness and Generosity.
After lunch we enacted all the major events brought on by the coming of “the colonizer” – first smallpox which halved the population, then the determined efforts at assimilation – the laws forbidding our ceremonies, songs and dances (as our cultural symbols were removed from the centre). Eventually, our children were all removed from the village. Those of us who tried to hide our children were sent to jail.
Throughout the day, Kathy was careful not to paint anyone as a bad person, to avoid blame especially toward the non-native people present. The colonizers were formed by their own inherited beliefs and value systems.
Finally, there was an opportunity for us to re-form our circle and, in an emotional ceremony, the adult children who had been taken away were welcomed back into the community.
During the first parts of the simulation my involvement was mainly one of curiosity. It wasn’t until the children were removed and a gaping hole was left in the middle of the village that it really hit me emotionally. I continued to be very aware of the hole that it left inside me as well as in the village. The life had gone with the children. And all the values and cultural practices that had sustained us were no longer available. A short while later a bottle representing alcohol was placed in the centre. It was clear how the alcohol occupied the space in that gaping hole in our souls, but in a way that only brought more suffering and heartbreak. And because we were now adult survivors of the residential schools ourselves, we never learned how to parent. Between that and the bottle, the scene was set for the “sixties scoop” that saw thousands more of our children removed because we were deemed unfit parents.
The residential school system was in place for over a hundred years (the last one closed in 1996), and yet so many of us of the dominant culture expect native people to “get over it” and “get on with their lives” in an unreasonably short time.
The workshop ended with a sharing of ideas about what positive things we can do next, followed by an effective way of leaving everyone present with a list of affirmations specific to them.
This brief account in no way does justice to the richness of the process and the highly skilled leadership of Kathy, supported by her friend Meredith, who was also present to be a support to those who might have powerful memories or emotions triggered by the process.
It takes courage even to attend a workshop like this. It can be uncomfortable and it triggers feelings of sadness and hurt. Why is it important that non-aboriginal people come to events like this? I do it for two main reasons. The first comes from a sense of responsibility. Although I personally played no role in the events that have done so much damage, I am an heir and beneficiary of the dominant culture that did this and some of the privilege and affluence that I experience comes from that. It is not healthy or productive to feel guilt about this, but I do have a sense of responsibility to be part of the healing process.
The second reason is, I suppose, an outgrowth of simple compassion. Part of the healing involves aboriginal people telling their stories among themselves and receiving understanding and support. But that’s not enough. If there is to be true reconciliation, if we are to truly be in right relations with each other (which my faith tells me is important) then we need to be part of the healing, too. We need to suspend our cultural bias that we know best what others need and our judgements about how and how fast they should heal. We need to approach with humility to hear and to feel with the pain of our brothers and sisters.
There has been much progress. Many people have told their stories (aided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other paths). There is a new pride in aboriginal communities for their culture and traditions. There is a new empowerment in a new generation of First Nations leaders. The courts are increasingly acknowledging the right of First Nations people to control what happens on their own land.
“This is only the beginning!” said Dan MacQuarrie, the main force behind this workshop happening here. I hope that more and more people will take the risk of being involved, in being part of a solution that involves Love, Respect, Kindness and Generosity.