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Canada, a country of Reconciliation?

Substantial and difficult questions remain in terms of the relationship between Canada and aboriginal peoples, and not only in terms of the legacy of residential schools.

Canada, a country of Reconciliation?

Photo: John Hofstee

What would be an honest answer to the question posed by the title of this column? Some might offer a half-hearted “We are trying?” in reply to that question. Others would say that even such a half-hearted answer gives us too much credit – that the correct answer is closer to a flat-out “No.” For my part, I would venture that we have taken some baby steps in the direction of reconciliation, but that we still have a very long way to go.

Now this is not a resoundingly positive note on which to begin a column marking Canada’s 150th birthday. Couldn’t another question have been asked? Perhaps one that would invite more celebratory reflection on our national identity? Perhaps, yes. But I must confess my uneasiness with the Canadian predilection for national self-congratulation, and so my reflections here will not trend in that direction.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has now come and gone, and much meaningful work was done within the seven years of its mandate. Most important, survivors of the residential schools came with grace and courage to share their stories – reminding the nation and its churches of the violence that was done to them and their communities in the name of Christian faith and of civilization. Stories of abuse. Stories of loneliness. Stories of language lost. Stories of families torn apart.

We know that following the path of reconciliation always entails risk. And it is important to acknowledge that within the TRC process that risk was borne almost entirely by the aboriginal women and men who came to tell their stories. As they came and spoke, there was a risk that they would not be heard; there is a continuing risk that the response to their truth-telling will be inadequate; there is a risk that the nation will hear and then fall back again into collective amnesia. There was and is a risk, in other words, that this process of reconciliation would not finally entail reconciliation.

But we should also acknowledge that there were non-aboriginal witnesses who came and who listened – many who experienced empathetic pain in hearing of the horrors of the residential schools. And there are men and women inside and outside of the churches today who are working to ensure that the risk-filled venture of the survivors does not end in betrayal.

In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is also true that many churches have established programs to deepen respectful relationships with aboriginal peoples – it would be deeply unfair to dismiss those as meaningless. Yet it also remains true to say that there has been very limited risk and cost to the churches throughout this process of reconciliation. There has also been limited risk and cost to the nation itself. But do we believe that any process of reconciliation can be cost-free?

Costly grace
Substantial and difficult questions remain in terms of the relationship between Canada and aboriginal peoples, and not only in terms of the legacy of residential schools. An aboriginal friend and colleague has asked, for example, concerning the many churches that have been built on contested land, including territory known as the Haldimand Tract (located in Southwestern Ontario). While there are historical and legal questions to be explored concerning this land grant to the Six Nations, we should to be prepared for the possibility that this land was simply taken.

Are we prepared to seriously explore these additional questions about our colonial past? Are we prepared to one day even relinquish property through dialogue and conversation with aboriginal communities? Are the churches prepared for costly grace? For a reconciliation that doesn’t come cheaply?

It is by no means inconsequential that Canada aspires, in many respects, to be a country of reconciliation – it signals that we have captured something of the way of Christ, even if the nation itself is not a Christian nation. And while Canadians may wish to pat ourselves on the back for what we have so far accomplished, we have a very long way to go. The grace and reconciliation of God has come at tremendous cost, in Christ, and we should not assume that it will be any different for Canada. 

About the Author
Canada, a country of Reconciliation?

Roland De Vries, COLUMNIST

Roland De Vries is Director of Pastoral Studies at The Presbyterian College, Montreal, and a Lecturer in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University. He teaches in a variety of areas including Missional Theology, Reformed Tradition, and Global Christianity. He also has a keen interest in explorations at the point of intersection between church and culture. Roland and his wife Rebecca live in Montreal with their three children.

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