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Truth for reconciliation

It is timely that the Christian Reformed Church at its annual Synod this year will formally discuss the so-called Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DOCD). Both the DOCD and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Report (2015) deal with the unjust and prejudicial treatment of the First Nations peoples of North America by the European settlers. Ecclesiastical authorities of the 15th century church sanctioned the colonial paternalism and exploitation that followed. Settlers were given the general authority to convert and civilize the natives, by force if necessary. Courts and prisons backed the interests of the colonizers’ desire for land and resources; treaties were not honoured, and in B.C. usually not even bothered with. Aboriginals were considered of lesser human-civic status and were not allowed to appeal to the courts for justice. Thus the TRC and DOCD call for a renunciation of the doctrines that legally endorsed the unjust, morally flawed policies, grounded in supremacist and racist thinking.

We may think: “That was then. What has that to do with us and the church today?” Read the headlines and you’ll realize this isn’t ancient history. The loss of culture, language and of self-identity became pathways to addiction, suicide, violence and murder, current realities in many urban and reservation native communities. It was nice to hear an official apology regarding the abuses of the residence schools in 2008, but as prison chaplain (mainly in B.C. Women’s Prisons for over two decades) I was appalled by the lack of official concern of the injustice reflected in the numbers of murdered and missing aboriginal women (and men and youth) and of the plight of their families. What was happening disproportionately to Aboriginal women and girls was simply considered individual issues of crime disconnected from “sociological” and historical forces. In my two decades as prison chaplain I watched the aboriginal incarceration rate of women climb to 43 percent, while First Nations people only account for four percent of the Canadian population. I listened to their stories of social disorganization, objectification and pain; I witnessed continued systemic injustice.

Too many barriers

Aboriginal children raised in institutions often grew up and had kids that they did not have the skills to parent. Most turned to alcohol to cope. Communities disintegrated. Girls who left home, young and vulnerable, regularly experienced racism and sexual violence. In B.C.’s towns and urban centres, they were profiled as high-risk and suspicious, and would get picked up by the police for the smallest thing and thrown in jail. Non-aboriginals would have been given bail, but not Aboriginal people. They usually would not have the local support services available to others; they were also ineligible later for parole.

When a Correctional Investigator exposed the disproportionately high numbers of Aboriginal prisoners, many with mental illnesses, the government refused to renew his contract. Community justice and restorative programs for Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system are seriously underfunded. That’s why the TRC calls for services that address fetal alcohol syndrome and drug addiction, psychological counselling and educational programming.

It is high time all Canadians, our churches and government take the issues raised by the TRC seriously. Its intent is not punitive but restorative. It calls for just attitudes and actions that honour the God-given human worth of Aboriginal peoples. The Doctrine of Discovery led to the negation of legitimate Aboriginal status as nations, and made the people wards of the state. At Confederation in 1867 only two founding nations or races were recognized, the English and the French. First Nations did not count! Without apology expressed in heartfelt action, what would there be to celebrate for Canada’s First Nations at next year’s 150th celebration of Confederation?

Not only are our nation’s policy makers and legislators called to direct immediate just action; it is urgent for all of us to acknowledge our co-responsibilities for public social justice. We help form public opinion, which is an aspect of the forces that encourage political powers to create public policy and justify their agenda. Thus we can unwittingly express our collusion and sanction, as it were, with dominant public ideology and practice even when it is wrong-headed. That much became clear to me as a chaplain in the Canadian criminal justice system. Becoming aware of how we think on public policy matters is critical for Christians if we want to be worth our salt. We are called to reflect the already of the kingdom in the not-yet of social political reality. We can learn much from the traditional Aboriginal paradigms about restorative justice and of the vitality of human, creational, interrelationships. We may not rebuild the dividing walls of separation and hostility that Christ has broken down, for he has given us a ministry of reconciliation, and this may not, no, cannot, be coerced but is only possible in the power of God’s love as shown in the cross and affirmed in Christ’s resurrection.
 

  • Henk Smidstra is a retired prison chaplain living in Surrey, B.C.

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