Even though the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission is stalled as it awaits a new chair, significant work by Canadian churches on the issue continues.
The Anglican, United, and Presbyterian churches have completed a creative discussion guide about the l50-year legacy of residential schools. Writers Adele Finney of St. John’s Anglican Church in Peterborough, Ont., and Dixie Shilling of the United Church in Curve Lake First Nation, Ont., have produced the guide which uses the award-winning DVD Niigaanibatowaad:FrontRunners as a starting point to explore the difficult, often contentious issue of forced assimilation of natives through the residential schools.
Written by Laura Robinson and filmed for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, FrontRunners is the painful story of 10 indigenous young men who were chosen to carry the torch from St. Paul, Minn., to Winnipeg for the 1967 Pan American Games. When the runners arrived at the Winnipeg stadium they were barred from entering and the honour of carrying the torch inside was given to a non-aboriginal runner. Thirty-two years later, in 1999, the province of Manitoba issued an official apology to the runners, nine of whom were students of residential schools.
The 46-minute DVD is a shortened version of what was originally a memory play of the true stories told to Ms. Robinson by the runners. “It is a story of survival, hope, reconciliation and a dream for a new beginning that transcends hatred and racism,” says the film’s synopsis.
Ms. Finney and Ms. Shilling – who had not met each other before they were contracted to produce the guide – decided to view the film together last June as an initial step. “We were both very aware that we were looking at it from an aboriginal and non-aboriginal perspective,” said Ms. Finney. “After viewing it, we realized that now wasn’t the right time to talk. It was a clear indicator that we were going to have some strong responses to it and that we would need gentle spaces and time to take it in to be able to respond from the heart.”
They followed up their initial meeting with phone calls, met over tea, facilitated focus groups to help them learn how aboriginal and non-aboriginal people responded to the DVD, and then wrote the guide together. They also became friends. It is their hope, they said in a written introduction to the guide, that “when you meet and talk in a group setting you will also experience the beginnings of friendship,” which can be the foundation for a new, right relationship.
“We had a mandate to raise awareness and analysis about how the schools’ experience affects aboriginal and non-aboriginal groups. We are, after all, all treaty people. We’re all in this together,” said Ms. Finney. “We are hoping to have people say, ‘What can I do?’ ‘Is there something we can do as a church? As a parish?”
For the ecumenical working group that contracted the guide, the goal is that “there will be no church members who say, ‘I never knew,” and no residential school survivors who will say that they have not had a chance to tell their story.
Aside from the DVD, the guide also includes references to the aboriginal practice of a talking circle and the use of a feather or a rock when speaking in that gathering. “We refer to the feather as a ‘talking feather’ and it is used as a sign of respect. The feather comes from the eagle who acts as a messenger from the Great Spirit,” the writers explain in the guide. “Therefore when you are holding a feather, you have the ability to be a messenger. Only the person holding the feather is to be talking. Thus people are not talking on top of each other. Everybody’s opinion is valuable, no matter what they’re saying, and we must listen with respect.”
Watching the DVD elicited strong reactions from focus groups in Curve Lake, Shawanaga and Wasauksing First Nations, among members and young adult members of St. John’s Anglican Church and the TRC support group in Peterborough, Ont. Individuals felt shame, remorse, anger, anxiety, humour and hope, said the writers. It raised a lot of questions from both aboriginal and non-aboriginal participants, mostly about “history, policy, and responsibility.”
Some former staff of residential schools spoke of their experiences and feelings. Others walked away from the circle but returned.
The community of Curve Lake recently added a memorial stone for residential schools survivors with an existing cenotaph of aboriginal veterans of the Second World War after hearing about the pain of those who had been forcibly removed from their communities as children and who, unlike the veterans, “were never welcomed back” when they returned.
On a recent trip to Curve Lake, Ms. Finney said she realized that FrontRunners had assumed a greater significance for her as she thought about how the flame of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics will be carried across the country, including numerous aboriginal communities. “It’s a very interesting piece of our society to hold up and ask, ‘Are we still there? Are we now different or are we the same?'”
For more information on the guide and the DVD, please contact eco-justice co-ordinator Rev. Maylanne Maybee at [email protected]