For many years, I have been troubled by the inability of non-Indigenous people and institutions to receive and grasp the full reality of the pain and challenges of Indigenous life in this land. Statistics and stories are acknowledged with sympathy, but the realization of what this might mean seems completely elusive. People say they know, but things stay the same. Some non-Indigenous people seem to feel that this is the result of Indigenous shortcomings. Others seem unable to stare it in the face because of what they might see about themselves. In the past months, these questions have seemed more urgent. The things that face Indigenous peoples seem magnified. In the context of what we have seen the past few months, the incapacity of people to see the suffering of other people seems more hideous.
The present difficulties facing Indigenous peoples and their churches are as bad as anything experienced in many decades. Indigenous communities are enduring a pandemic in the middle of gigantic threats and suffering related to climate disruption (wildfires, for example). The ongoing incapacity of colonial governments to dismantle the economic and social strangulation that they have imposed upon Indigenous communities for centuries was highlighted by politicians’ avoidance of this topic in our recent election. We are in an especially toxic mix of fear, frustration and despair.
In the midst of this, Indigenous peoples were hit hard by the reminder of the pain and suffering of their children in and through the Indian residential schools. Elders and survivors have long known that the unaccounted remains of children were present across the land, lost and hidden in the indifference and hostility of colonial systems to Indigenous life. Many, if not most, of the survivors and elders have expressed surprise at how deeply these revelations have hurt them. They were unprepared for the way the public acknowledgement of this gruesome reality would make them relive and realize the hatred and cruelty of colonial schools.
The pain increased when it was clear that the initial intense moments of honesty and recognition by the rest of Canada were to be short-lived. The shame and sadness Canadians felt became anger and blame. Instead of facing this as a whole people called to repentance and new life, many escaped national introspection by focusing on the identification of culprits. Although some of the initial grief and anger seems to abide among Canadians, the question of what this will mean for the future is draining away into conversations about appropriate days of observance, if the Pope will visit, and more talk about finally granting Indigenous communities the right to drink clean water.
I do not think the voices of the children will let this land get away with this. Canada is called to much more than finding who to blame and how to honour the dead. To avoid the transformation of repentance and its call to new life is a desecration. The only future worthy of fullness of life and purpose is a future that fully examines what these things mean and fully receives their moral remedy. Within a path of humility, honesty and moral resolve, the evils represented in these crimes against children must die in an opposite way of life. There will be a new identity for this land, a land touched by the voices of the children and lifted by the hand of God to a discipleship of justice and compassion.
It is the task of the churches to follow Jesus into this identity and future. The churches have lost the capacity to moralize to others about the behaviour that is required. They must plunge into the death of Jesus on the Cross so that the life of Jesus may be seen in a compelling goodness. The joy of this life is so much greater than the pain that now confronts us. It is the only way I feel we can follow. It is the only path that Indigenous and non-Indigenous can walk together. It is a life that promises such joy and goodness to our children. May God grant us the grace to walk together on this path.