Diaconal Connections with Truth and Reconciliation

Diaconal Connections with Truth and Reconciliation

We invited Companion of the Centre Aileen Urquhart to reflect on her insights and experience with Truth and Reconciliation.

All of the ministry positions I have had as a diaconal minister, and my present connections as a retired minister, have helped me to gain insight into the underlying issues behind the need for Truth and Reconciliation. 

As a Diaconal learner and person of white, settler background here are some of the things I have learned and continue to learn about Truth and Reconciliation:

  • Listen, Listen, Listen – with my heart and soul and spirit.
  • We are all teachers and we are all learners.
  • Learn from the people with the experience – they know.
  • If invited to attend a gathering or ceremony – get there and attend with respect.
  • Just turning up meant and means, as a representative of the church, that the church can be seen as being respectful.
  • As a white settler person, it is not my place to initiate traditional customs but if people ask for these to happen, try to ensure their requests are honoured.
  • I know nothing and I understand even less.
  • The Creator is at work – in many ways.
  • Listen, Listen, Listen – with my heart and soul and spirit.

As a lay person, then student, at West Broadway Community Ministry, I was made aware of the inequality of opportunities and services for Indigenous people. Sadly, growing up in Scotland did not give me a realistic grounding in the history of colonization. I was of course aware that Britain was a “great” colonizer. So many parts of the world map were pink. But there was no critique of the effects of colonization (though scratch any Scot and they will proved vivid examples of English and Scottish landlords’ “oppression” of the people thereby “forcing” emigration to Canada, Australia, South Africa, there to become part of the colonization there). 

I did try to learn some Canadian history. But the purchase of “The Penguin Guide to A History of Canada” left me dismayed – it started with the arrival of the white European settlers! It has been an on-going challenge for Indigenous educators to find and create resources that fill the gaps.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s I began to hear about Residential Schools and some of the challenges facing First Nations people in the reserve communities and inner cities. Former Moderator Stan McKay shared valuable information and critique. He managed to share the grim stories in such a way that although I felt horror and shame, I wanted to join in whatever I could do rather than retreat in defensiveness. I learned to listen – with my heart.

Anglican Deacon Maylanne Maybee was working with the Urban Core Support Network at that time (1980’s) and I learned much from her and that organization – in particular, the importance of learning from the people who are affected by oppression, racism, and poverty. While living in Winnipeg I had attended some events at the Dr Jessie Saulteaux Resource Centre and was aware that their theology program gave equal honour to both Christian and Indigenous spirituality and teachings. This was an important learning.

After commissioning I was settled in Fisher River Cree Nation, in the Manitoba Interlake area. There I learned the history of this community. The original members were people from Norway House who were re-settled on the Fisher River on the west side of Lake Winnipeg. Many Norway House men had been employed by the Hudson Bay Company to work on the York Boats that transported goods back and forth on Lake Winnipeg. When steam ships replaced the York Boats, these men were out of work. The Federal Government and the Hudson Bay Company came up with a plan to move a number of families south and prepare them to farm. The original site was the shore around what is known as Hecla Island…. It was a familiar place as the Norway House people travelled around Lake Winnipeg and this was a favoured fishing location. However, although Norway House families agreed to the move, the newly formed Province of Manitoba was negotiating with Iceland after volcanic eruptions had required many Icelanders to seek different lands. The Province agreed to give land to Iceland on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg – the same coveted spot. The Norway House group was offered the next river system to the north – the Fisher River (Ochekwi Sipi, named after the animal the Fisher – Ochek).

I was in ministry in Fisher River for five years (1994-1999) – the most amazing, wonderful, challenging, spiritual years of my life. That was the time when people were beginning to talk about residential school experience – a painful process and experience for so many. 

The 1986 Apology had been made and I took that seriously. I went to Fisher River with the understanding that the church has a lot of work to do to be respectful, to listen, and if possible make changes as a way to make amends. Ministry training in the Western Field-Based Diaconal Program for me had empathized working “with” people and being respectful. I had wonderful mentors in the elders I met in Fisher River, and the highly competent local leadership. They were very patient and forgiving with me but also clear when I needed to learn. I learned to laugh at myself. 

Many people in Fisher River had been brought up on the teachings that anything indigenous was “evil and pagan”. I heard that the original families who came south to settle at Fisher River had been hand-picked by the Methodist Church as strong Christians. Most of the present United Church members were OK with traditional teachings – they would say – “it is all the same God” – but members of the Pentecostal and Apostolic churches were less comfortable. During that time, many people were beginning to re-learn and re-claim the traditional teachings. I learned that it was important for me, if invited to a ceremony, to attend and take part with respect. I found that meant a great deal. I represented the church – and the church was present. For example, I was invited to attend a naming ceremony to bless a traditional drum that had been given to high school students. I almost didn’t go; it had been a long day, it was after 9 pm, I wasn’t sure exactly where the ceremony was taking place, I was tired. But I went. I was the only non-indigenous person and the only person from a church. The students shared some of their songs, and were thrilled that (because I has learned them at gatherings at the Dr JSRC) I knew some songs and joined in. They were pleased I had come. So was I.

I was incredibly fortunate to have 3 years working at the Dr Jessie Saulteaux Resource Centre (1999-2002). The direction of theological education at that time was clearly that both Christian and traditional teachings would be valued equally. Learning Circles began with prayer and ceremony. There were opportunities for drumming, a sacred fire, a sweat lodge ceremony while the students were present. Elders of both the church and indigenous traditions were present at the learning circles.

The dual curriculum was not always easy, as some students came from communities where the early mission churches had taught that the traditional customs and ceremonies were “evil”. So it was difficult for students, even though they might personally accept the teaching, they knew that if church elders in their communities learned they had taken part in a smudge or attended a sacred fire, that would be held against them. We learned to respect where people were coming from.

A significant part of the learning circles is the understanding that we are all teachers and we are all learners. One of my colleagues, Diaconal Minister Melody McKeller, shared this with me: “I know nothing and I understand even less”. A great mantra to avoid feeling or acting that one knows everything, and thereby missing chances to learn. The students, who came from quite diverse backgrounds and communities, brought a rich wealth of experience and insight into biblical and traditional teachings for which I will be forever grateful.

When I came to Sioux Lookout in 2002, there was a well-established Anti-Racism Committee that included Indigenous and Settler-origin people. They were doing a marvelous job of education about racism and promoting events that brought people together. Luckily St Andrew’s United Church with its long-time support of the Anti-Racism group supported my participation, seeing this as part of the ministry work. 

There were several people in that group who were survivors of residential schools and had done heroic work bringing survivors together for support. I recall a Survivors’ gathering where someone spoke about forgiveness. He said “It’s as if you went away from your house for a week and when you came back you found that thieves had broken in. Not only had they broken in, but they were still there, living in your house, eating your stores of food, using your supplies. When you arrived, the thieves said ‘We’re very sorry’, but they still did not leave and continued to live in your home.” How does the settler legacy change from “occupying” the land and resources and learn to live as a respectful “visitor”?

Notably I owe a great deal to Garnet Angeconeb, a survivor, and strong advocate. When the Truth and Reconciliation process was beginning, Garnet insisted that the work needed to begin locally. We formed a Coalition, held gatherings, listened to survivors, and created a booklet for groups that wanted to do work in this area – “Let’s Talk”.

Garnet managed to invite Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Murray Sinclair to a Sioux Lookout community gathering before the first official Truth and Reconciliation event took place in Winnipeg. I had the amazing opportunity to travel with Garnet to Halifax where our “Let’s Talk” resource was presented. There I listened to a great many personal stories of those who had attended residential schools. It is hard to convey the deep sadness I feel about this part of the history of Canada and the role that the churches have played. Garnet and other leaders here are clear that we need to move beyond shame to commitment to work for change.

As a now-retired minister I realize there are still many opportunities to work on healing, especially following the unearthing of graves at the sites of residential schools. I serve on a Truth and Reconciliation Committee of the Municipality where we try to implement the Calls to Action that relate to municipal governance. I am part of network of organizations that offer support to and advocacy with Indigenous women and girls. This group provides events which offer awareness and education as well as creative and positive ways to gather.

Despite the sad presence – still – of racism and discrimination, there is good work happening. Strength for the journey.