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By Jane Barter
Each of our parishes embraces reconciliation with Indigenous peoples as a value. However, reconciliation is often imagined to be something symbolic and interpersonal. Perhaps it is a change of understanding in which non-Indigenous people come to see their Indigenous neighbours in a new light and thus overcome the inner forms of racism they once held. Or perhaps it involves coming to terms with our vexed past of church-run residential schools and moving toward a better, more humane future together. Perhaps we also imagine reconciliation as Indigenous flourishing, by which we often mean an overcoming of the trauma of the past.
Many non-Indigenous Christians are surprised, then, to learn that the idea of reconciliation is not universally embraced by Indigenous peoples. The idea of reconciliation is too often focused on the past and fails therefore to attend to ongoing forms of colonization that remain deeply embedded within structures of Canadian society: from relentless resource extraction on Indigenous lands, to the vast disparity of wealth and opportunity in this country, to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirited persons. How is reconciliation even possible in light of the vast structural inequities that remain? In such a context, the futility of reconciling gestures such as land acknowledgements and apologies resound uncomfortably with the prophet Jeremiah’s words:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)
Because reconciliation is construed primarily as affective and interpersonal–as opposed to structural and economic–churches too often view residential schools as a low moment in an otherwise peaceful and progressive nation. However, many scholars tell a different story, one which links residential schools to a project that was and remains intent upon land theft and Indigenous erasure. As Eva Mackey writes:
The erasure of links between residential schools and the larger land theft process allows the apology to be appropriated into the kind of unifying and future looking discourse we see here because it does not require Canada or Canadians to account for the ways that intersecting processes of colonial theft of land and cultural genocide are foundations of the modern nation-state, or to recognize that non-Aboriginal Canadians are all contemporary beneficiaries of this process.
In such a setting, I believe it is incumbent for Anglicans to think of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships not as a past tragedy which is being overcome by our symbolic gestures, but as an ongoing colonial dispossession. This means that before speaking of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, we must think more clearly about who we are as a church today, as ongoing beneficiaries (as well as past collaborators) in the Canadian colonial project.
If the churches were to listen carefully to the voices of Indigenous activists, legal scholars, and land and water defenders, I believe we would think less about symbolic gestures of reconciliation and more about material forms of redress. One central call for material redress is Land Back, a movement about both the return of Indigenous land and the self-determination of Indigenous peoples. As Jesse Wente puts it:
Land Back is really about the decision-making power. It’s about self-determination for our Peoples here that should include some access to the territories and resources in a more equitable fashion, and for us to have control over how that actually looks.
Land Back is a growing international movement that is part of efforts to decolonize Indigenous lands. This is not about returning all lands to Indigenous peoples, but it is about learning from Indigenous leaders to relate to the land in ways other than as private possession. It is about viewing the land as a commons based upon shared use and respect for the earth, a view based upon Indigenous laws and traditions that predate contact. Such traditions are also respectful of the biodiverse nature of the land and seek to reclaim it in ways that help to heal the wounded land. As the Red Paper of the Yellowhead Institute puts it: “Indigenous jurisdiction can indeed help mitigate the loss of biodiversity and climate crisis. In the Canadian context, the practices and philosophies … contain answers to global questions. Canada—and states generally must listen.”
Perhaps Anglicans at long last have an opportunity to correct some of the past harms that we have done through supporting such efforts. Perhaps today, with our churches in ever greater decline, we have the occasion to enter into a new kind of relationship with Indigenous peoples, which is one based upon the redistribution of resources as opposed to mere symbols. Perhaps today Anglicans may also learn to enter into a new relationship with the land that was never ours to possess in the first place.
In the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, we have begun doing some of this work through the process of rematriation of the historic parish of St. Peter Dynevor to Peguis First Nation. We are not the first diocese to do so. As Diocesan Discipleship Developer, Dr. Ryan Turnbull, points out, the Diocese of Islands and Inlets returned land to First Nations back in the 1980s and 1990s. Land Back initiatives have also taken place in Canada and the US through the committed work of the United Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Methodist Church. This represents a new and exciting moment in the history of the church.
Jeremiah 6 continues with God’s call to Israel to repent and return to God. God reminds Israel that it is at a crossroads between destruction and peace; and that the latter depends upon walking the good way, what the Nêhiyaw (Cree) call Mino Pimotéwin. Today we have an opportunity to live into a new kind of relationship with Indigenous people based not upon paternalism, but upon justice; not upon possession, but renunciation. This is where the good way lies.
Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. (Jeremiah 6:16).
Jane Barter (PhD) is Professor of Religion and Culture at The University of Winnipeg. She is a priest in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land. She views writing and teaching as her primary vocations at this time and is completing a manuscript on witnessing to contemporary atrocity and its theological antecedents.