IN many of the addresses I have made, interviews I have given, and questions I have answered during the past months while the residential schools issue was focused on the agreement with the government and the request for the whole church to become involved, I have spoken of the reality that the majority of Canadians, including the majority of Anglicans, have not had significant contact with aboriginal people.
As well, I have often referred to the fact that I grew up in a city where there was an aboriginal community within two miles of my home, but until I was an adult (indeed, until I was a priest!) I had not met an aboriginal person.
Recently, I was telling that story to a person who grew up in the same part of the city, and at the same time, as I.
She had another story to tell – a fascinating glimpse into the life of wartime Canada and into the aboriginal spirit.
During the Second World War, among the realities of life were ration books. Especially in the shopping for food, this reality impinged very directly on life in every household. One of the rules about ration books was that the coupons had to be taken from the books only after the date on the coupon, and that they had to be removed by the grocer.
In fact, even as a boy, I knew that this rule was far from universally observed. My grandparents had great difficulty living within the tea ration. My grandmother, when she had a cup of tea at the tram station, always wrapped the teabag in a napkin and took it home.
So our household, less committed to tea, gave her coupons for tea in exchange for other things, especially butter and sugar. Presumably my mother and my grandmother dealt with grocers who winked at the law.
But the story I heard recently concerned a meat market in the same shopping street where I grew up. The person telling the story was a member of the butcher’s family and remembered the participants.
And the story was: one day a woman from the reserve came into the butcher’s store with a bag of coupons for meat. She said that the people on the reserve did not need them because they ate only fish, never meat. So they had decided to contribute the coupons to people who might need them.
The easiest way to do that was to collect them and take them to the butcher, who was most likely to know which families needed them most.
Obviously, as they did not buy meat, the people from the reserve would be unknown to the butcher. But he clearly was impressed enough to tell his family about it. When I heard the story, my mind went to Jesus’ words about giving alms (Matthew 6:3), “When you give alms, [do it] so that your alms may be done in secret.”
This gesture of 60 years ago had to be done in secret – it was, in fact, as illegal (and as common) as the transactions between my mother and her mother-in law.
But it was the giving of alms in every biblical sense. And from a community whose living standards 60 years ago qualified them unequivocally as poor.
Alms from the poor to the rich. Archbishop Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.