In the fall of 2006, I was appointed as the first Healing and Reconciliation program Animator for The Presbyterian Church in Canada. I was baptized Presbyterian at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Ottawa and am a member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation. I am of mixed Indigenous and European heritage, and have lived off-reserve all of my life.
Early in my new ministry, I travelled to Manitoba to visit a Presbyterian Indigenous outreach ministry, Winnipeg Inner City Missions (WICM). Serving the Indigenous community of Winnipeg, WICM provides several services including transitional housing, advocacy and counselling; youth and children’s ministry through Flora House; and worship through Place of Hope Church.
WICM’s then-executive director, Rev. Margaret Mullin, gave me a tour of the ministry’s facilities. We paused by a large mural. It was covered in water-coloured hand prints, in a variety of colours and sizes – looking something like a piece of art one might find in an elementary school. However, in this space, its meaning was sobering. Margaret explained that the hands represented individuals known to the ministry who had died. Many had died quite young; children’s hands were clearly visible on the mural. The reasons the individuals had died varied, but many of the deaths could be traced to the ongoing impacts of colonialism and racism on Canada’s Indigenous community: Poverty precipitated by barriers to education and employment; substance abuse due to hopelessness over a lack of opportunities or inability to provide for family members; fetal alcohol syndrome; mental health issues resulting from time at residential school; or violence resulting from any of these circumstances or from overt racism on the streets where they lived.
“My people are dying,” Rev. Margaret said.
I have carried her words and the image of the hand prints with me now for 15 years as I work on healing and reconciliation. Her words speak to the urgency of addressing problems facing Indigenous peoples. They speak to the urgency of implementing the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), and the Calls to Justice of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Indigenous people are dying. It’s time to act in order to prevent more deaths.
The time is now
This is a kairos moment for Canada. How many times have I heard that in my 30-plus years of working on Indigenous issues? When I started my career in the late 1980s, there was a great deal of public emphasis on supporting Indigenous self-government, including implementation of the Penner report’s recommendations. (Keith Penner, M.P., chaired a Special Committee of the House of Commons which issued the report, “Indian Self-government in Canada” in 1983.) The member churches of KAIROS Canada, including Presbyterians and the Christian Reformed Church of North America, had just signed “A New Covenant: Towards the Constitutional Recognition and Protection of Aboriginal Self-government in Canada” (1987). The Oka Crisis (a 78-day resistance over contested land slated for development that included a Mohawk burial ground) a few years later led to the publication of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996. It asked for an Inquiry into Indian residential schools among its 440 recommendations. Another 12 years would pass before Canada’s TRC came into being. The TRC’s report is now six years old. And my people, Rev. Margaret’s people, our people, continue to die tragically and at young ages. In other words, theirs are preventable deaths. Fast forward to early summer of 2021, when people are speaking of another kairos moment: the discovery of more than 1,000 bodies (and counting) in unmarked graves at the sites of four former residential schools. Most of these remains are of Indigenous children who went to the schools, buried without ceremony, away from home and the presence of family and community. Maybe this effrontery to decency, maybe this time, will result in real action and change.
Faced with the challenges of implementing Indigenous rights, the incremental pace at which change occurs despite repeated studies and recommendations, and my own experience, I carry Margaret’s words with me because it’s easy to forgot the urgency of the need for progress. It’s easy to forget, as well, how patient Indigenous people have been. In large measure, they have waited peacefully for Canadian society to address the many wrongs that have been well documented, and to implement the many recommendations for how to make things right. The few instances of conflict which have arisen in recent years, be they at Oka or Burnt Church, Ipperwash or Gustafsen Lake, Caledonia or We’suwet’en, should be understandable when contrasted with the incredible patience Indigenous peoples have shown as they wait for change.
I am reminded of the residential school survivors who spoke to the TRC about their experiences. Many gave their statements surrounded by family members. They explained that they had the courage to go on the record because they wanted a better future for their children and grandchildren. They did not have an expectation that the TRC would solve things for them in their own lifetimes. They had heard too many promises, read too many reports, and witnessed too many “kairos moments” to expect otherwise.
I contrast this, with deepest respect, with the enthusiasm and encouraging statement I heard at another TRC event when then-Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, David Onley, a TRC Honorary Witness, challenged the notion that reconciliation could not happen in our lifetime. I am grateful for Onley’s commitment, leadership and drive to make reconciliation a reality. (CC’s Editor spoke with the Honorable David Onley earlier this summer about another one of his passions, disability awareness). Unfortunately, I remain cautious, even skeptical, about the likelihood for success realizing his vision of reconciliation. It seems that focused, unrelenting, committed leadership on these issues remains a dream. That sense of urgency in the public sphere comes and goes, like waves on a beach. I feel it in my own work, waxing and waning depending on the day. If only the same sense of urgency and recognition that lives are at stake which motivated international responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the rapid development of vaccines, could be applied to addressing Indigenous issues in Canada. Then, Onley’s vision of making reconciliation a reality in his life and mine would have a chance.
How we view time
The Indian Act is now widely recognized as a piece of colonial legislation that needs to be replaced. Many Canadians are unaware of the ways in which this is happening, bit by bit. Every negotiated self-government agreement with First Nations leads to a standalone piece of legislation that replaces the Indian Act for the First Nations who sign a self-government agreement with the Government of Canada. This process of replacing the Indian Act through such agreements has been agonizingly slow. In part this is because federal self-government policy, which continues to evolve, has not been seen by all First Nations as adequate. Those negotiations which occur can span decades given the challenges of the policy. My own community of Pikwakanagan, which did not sign or adhere to a treaty, submitted a land claim and began negotiating a comprehensive self-government agreement in the mid-1980s. We continue to wait for a final agreement.
Some First Nations have signed partial self-government agreements in areas of jurisdiction such as education, which take them out of the Indian Act provisions for that area. Other First Nations have “opted in” to various amendments to the Indian Act which have been offered in recent decades, such as with respect to land management. My own First Nation voted in favour of implementing its own Land Code under such legislation in 2019.
The practice of giving First Nations the choice to opt out of portions of the Indian Act, as they see fit, has arisen in light of the repeated failure of wholesale efforts to amend or replace the Indian Act. I worked for the Government of Canada at the time of one such effort. In 2002, the government of the day introduced a proposal for a First Nations Governance Act. This legislation would not have replaced the entire Indian Act but, as its name implied, proposed a number of changes to the governance provisions of the Act which would apply to all First Nations not under self-government agreements. In my personal view, some of the proposed changes were positive. The proposed legislation, for example, would have allowed members of my community to elect Chiefs and Councils to four-year terms, instead of the current two-year terms under the existing Indian Act. This would have saved us, and the Crown, the expense of frequent elections and allow our First Nation’s administration a longer period of time to develop and implement plans for our community before facing a new election. However, the legislation failed for a number of reasons, including failures to consult adequately on the content of the Bill with Indigenous peoples.
I am of the view that in order for Canada to do justice to the consultation with First Nations that is required to replace the Indian Act, Canadians and Canadian governments will have to adopt a different approach to how they think about time. Typically, federal governments have a two or at best three-year window to develop, draft, and pass legislation before they have to worry about elections again. I submit that this is an inadequate amount of time to carry out the kind of consultation with First Nations on something as fundamental as changes to the Indian Act. It will take courage and leadership to recognize that we have to throw out an arbitrary timeline linked to the length of any given government’s time in office, and approach the replacement of the Indian Act with an understanding that it’s likely going to take more than one government’s mandate to get the job done.
Time to change our values
The subject of consultation has been a tough one for many Canadians. Most have been raised to think it is efficient to make decisions through “majority rule” and that setting “deadlines” is the key to success.
Indigenous peoples, by contrast, take issue with decision-making processes on matters of critical importance to their communities which could leave out almost half of their people. They seek to find solutions through a process of consensus, hearing the voices of all, and do not worry about the time it takes to arrive at such solutions, valuing processes that prioritize inclusiveness over speed; people over process. Decisions of great import need to pass the seven-generation test: will members of the community seven generations into the future see the decision as having been a wise one for them? In my experience, many non-Indigenous peoples long for such approaches on the issues that mean the most to them.
Those of us in the church need to think through what our faith tells us to value most when we consider decision-making processes, as well as the time needed to work towards respectful relations and what we believe about inclusion over exclusion as we build community. Our hope is in the eternal. And we have been given time, lifetimes, to build right relationships and reconcile with others as we have been reconciled to God through Christ.