Coming face to face with the effects of colonialism

Published October 1, 1998

BEFORE COMING ON this Canada World Youth exchange to the Philippines, I never really understood the term “colonialism.” In fact, I never really thought about it, even when I was learning about development in a high school world issues class or hearing about Native Canadians in Anglican residential schools.

On this exchange, participants were challenged to examine our world view and to reflect on the effects a colonial mentality might have on the developing world. I still didn’t give it much thought, though.

It was only when we were listening to one of the Filipino participants give a cultural presentation on indigenous people that I came face to face with colonialism. He was describing some of the native traditions here. For example, do not defecate near a water source as you might offend spirits who could make you sick. It’s obvious, this is a wise law. There were others like it, many about respecting one’s natural surroundings.

Unfortunately, because most of these laws incorporate spirits, the Christian missionaries who came to the Philippines rejected them all. At present, the indigenous way of life here is mostly replaced by the customs of those missionaries. This is a state of affairs with which my fellow participants, Filipinos and Canadians, are not too pleased.

I am now recognizing other signs of colonialism. During community research, some informants were more compliant and helpful if Canadians were present. In conversation, some community members assumed that I was an authority on various topics, even though I am only 19. Because of my pale skin, I’ve received compliments; but I’ve never considered myself a knockout and, in my view, the native Cordilleras are very striking.

Some community members have asked our group what we can teach them and just assume that they have no knowledge from which we would benefit. Children we pass on the road shout, “Americano! Give me money!” I’m neither rich nor American. A question I’m often asked is, “Are you a missionary?” It’s difficult to get the point across that, though we are with the church, we are here to learn, not to convert, to raise funds or to donate money.

Spanish, American, Canadian, Filipino … Christianity erases all national boundaries, all divisive differences. Doesn’t it? Not when mixed with a colonial mentality: my way is the one true way, and your way is separate from ours and pagan. To become Christian, individuals should not be required to reject their ethnic identity and costume themselves in an alien culture. Nor should they come to revere and depend upon that alien culture.

There is discussion in theological circles about how indigenous beliefs and practices everywhere can exist in harmony with Christianity. In my opinion, this is great news. Hearing about the global impact of a colonial mentality, especially where missionary work is concerned, angers me. But it doesn’t reduce my pride in being a follower of Christ. It makes me want to be a Christian all the more, so that I can help change our attitudes, our active role and our reputation as Christians from the “developed” world.

Jenny Rosser is a 19-year-old from Georgetown, Ont., and one of seven Anglicans who participated in a Canada- Philippines exchange sponsored by PWRDF, Canada World Youth and the Episcopal Church in the Philippines earlier this year.


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