Truth and reconciliation reflections
Understanding truth and reconciliation requires us to listen, to witness, and to share.
David Suzuki is an adopted son of the Haida First Nations. He is revered by aboriginals across Canada from east to west, north and south. Suzuki Elders were invited to attend the Truth and Reconciliation Dialogue Workshop in Vancouver on August 22 and 23rd, 2013. Sponsored by Reconciliation Canada, it was led by Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, Gwanaenuk Elder, Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, and member of the Indian Residential Schools Survivor Society. The purpose was to speak some truths about the trauma of the survivors of Indian Residential schools and other atrocities that have been imposed upon humans around the world. We were told that our main focus was to LISTEN to their stories with an open mind. Thirteen Suzuki Elders attended and met with 11 First Nations eye to eye, hand to hand.
Chief Robert Joseph opened with a traditional circle prayer before giving us his overview of Reconciliation Canada and a history of the impact of the Indian Residential School system. We then broke up into three groups, staying together for the rest of the day, and dealing with the ultimate question – “What does Reconciliation mean to you?”
My consciousness was aware that some inner process was taking place as we moved from one group session to the next. I had arrived as a Suzuki Elder, but felt a change was emerging within me as this venture continued.
This day was our time to listen well. Each survivor was shy to begin with in telling their stories of abuse, as these brave women and men shared their tears and pain with us. Eventually it was our turn as non-aboriginals to answer that question too.
It sent me deep into memories of also being born in poverty, lacking in adequate education and how we survived years of economic oppression affecting the whole family. Combined with memories of existing in the lowest strata of the equally oppressive social structure established by the English upper class discrimination system that victimised all who were living in the east end dockside of London where I was born. I was 11 years old when the Second World War began in 1939; it ended 6 years later when I was almost 17. Amazingly, we survived the bombing of London while coping with our own family tragedies.
By the time it was my turn to speak I was enlightened enough to say “Although I cannot in any way compare my painful stories to yours, I do know what it feels like to be oppressed and discriminated against, so in effect our feelings are the same, the details are different”.
To qualify that claim I shared with them some of my experiences. Their reaction seemed to create a breakthrough in our group dialogue. At certain times throughout the 2-day workshop we would re-connect with the larger group in sharing sacred space. We were assigned homework to prepare us for the next day to examine the concept that “Reconciliation begins with me“.
Day 2 began with Chief Robert Joseph’s welcoming sacred circle prayer. He talked to us and was available to us at all times. He had tears in his eyes this day while guiding us into the program. First in pairs, then divided into three basic groups again but with different people this time. Sharing many questions for us to explore together. My main memory of these sessions dealt with “What does reconciliation look like?”
The stories seemed to flow much better this second day as we came to realise that we have to reconcile ourselves from all that has grieved us, and from that we can work on our forgiveness. It also became clear that before we can forgive others we have to learn how to forgive ourselves. I shared with them some of my insecurities and inabilities saying it is not an easy thing to do. Two others in our group talked about their need to forgive.
We reconvened for reports from the three groups to share our findings relevant to each discussion. These groups were different from each other in various ways, but one thing they had all discussed at length was the spirit of forgiveness.
We had also been asked to discuss “What can we do as individuals”….. “What can we do as a community”…… for reconciliation.
In closing, Chief Robert Joseph lead the large circle, speaking to us in a most beautiful way, wrapping up the dialogue workshop with grace. In his final direction he said that “I want each one of you to find one word, one word only which epitomises everything you have experienced these last two days. What you have learned, discovered, or has changed you in some way”.
So, as we shared our thoughts within the circle for the last time, each one chose their word, giving the reason for it. Standing in that circle and the last person to speak, I said “My word is Respect. I go home with a much deeper respect for First Nations. Also with respect for all of us who dialogued here. YES – we can work together for a healthy environment and we are beginning to do that. There will be other issues we can work together with as well”.
Chief Robert Joseph’s one word was “Hope” saying that every dialogue workshop up to that moment had been different. He praised us for the work we had done. With the potential and promise of our group, he felt there was a good reason to hope.
Reconciliations can lead us to where we can start a new journey, empowered with the freedom to act, if we so choose to do. This dialogue experience was both sacred and powerful. Given the opportunity, we can work with First Nations on the major issues of our time. In smaller ways within our local communities we can keep the dialogue moving forward and help each other in any way we can.
My thanks to our Rev. Stephen Atkinson who added the dimension of Living with Shadows in Life which I feel we can adapt into this dialogue. Confronting our personal inner shadows can lead us to reconciliations, to self-revelations, to forgiveness, to respect, to hope and love for each other.
Namwayut – we are all one.
Reflection delivered by Patricia M. Grinsteed to the North Shore Unitarian Church, West Vancouver, B.C.