Faith and Social Justice: Church in the World – Reconciliation (talk at Garneau United Church, September 17, 2017)
On September 17, 2017, I was invited to speak to Church in the World monthly session at Garneau United Church. This is a session over lunch following a Sunday morning service, dealing with some aspect of social justice. My topic was Reconciliation and what Edmonton United Churches are doing to address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. I presented my short talk in the context of Moving Forward with Reconciliation, a group I have been involved with for a couple of years. Below are the notes from my talk, as well as a summary of the responses to the questions I was asked afterwards.
My work: I have an interest in documentation and communication, particularly bringing groups together that have a common cause or interest. To that end, I have been documenting local activism in Edmonton and posting on social media, which is building greater awareness of progressive movements in the city. This extends to Indigenous issues and Reconciliation.
I’ve been involved with a group called Moving Forward with Reconciliation for a couple of years. It’s a ministry of Edmonton Presbytery and we have members from a number of Edmonton United Church congregations. I got involved with the group through a woman named Debbie Hubbard. Debbie and I knew each other through Palestine solidarity work, and I later found out she had formed the Moving Forward group and was facilitating it at the time. I was also writing for an Indigenous newspaper (I’m a multi-media journalist by profession) and was following what the group was doing, which was working on building bridges between the United Church and Indigenous communities, through meetings, events, dialogues – all of this was in the planning stages at the time but I started to attend planning meetings of the working group.
A large part of Moving Forward was the building of an email list to send out announcements concerning events relating to Reconciliation and Indigenous education that are open to non-Indigenous people. Last summer, Debbie moved to Kelowna with her husband, and needed someone to take over the list. She felt I was the natural person to that given my background with communications and, although I am not of a United Church background, I am involved with the United Church on a professional basis as Marketing Project Coordinator with Mill Woods United Church, where I assist the congregation with its website and social media. So, I did indeed take over the email list after she moved.
What I have built: The email list has grown quite a bit since last year. I send out more event notices than in the past, although I try to limit to one per day because it is quite a large list. I also built a Facebook page where the events, which mostly have Facebook event pages associated with them, are also posted. People were requesting this, particularly younger people who tend to check Facebook more than their email. Some kind of list of events was also requested, so that people did not have to go back-tracking through their email to look something up, so I built a Reconciliation Calendar as part of the Mill Woods website. (I am paid an honorarium for my Moving Forward work through a grant that is administrated through Mill Woods, hence it being the logical connection). Many of the events I post I find on Facebook – I spend time searching through pages of Indigenous and Reconciliation-related organizations – and also I am contacted personally with request to post information and events.
Ongoing work/integration: The working group itself continues to be dynamic and finding its way in terms of mission and purpose, while its members are a presence at many events as participants and volunteers. Why are we doing this? As we know, the United Church has been responding to the Calls for Action and there is an excellent section of the main United Church website that deals with Reconciliation:
The response to the email list is overwhelmingly positive. A resource such as the Moving Forward list is a relatively simple, inexpensive way to make church people aware of events and bring people out in greater numbers. Reconciliation can’t happen in a vacuum – it’s definitely great to have church-based discussion groups because there are many things that need to be discussed on a church level in terms of what the role in Reconciliation should be, and people’s experiences and such, but in order to take it to the next level (so to speak), we really need to be out there at events and learning and volunteering and taking part.
Speaking of which, we need people from Garneau to be involved. The church is on the email list, as are a number of you, and I notice a number of the items I post make it into your weekly newsletter, but the only person who was attending meetings regularly was Jim Graves, who as we all know was very passionate about reconciliation. Since he passed away in April, there has been no official representation from Garneau. We miss Jim terribly, and know that he would want someone from Garneau to be a part of Moving Forward.
Here are some issues and information that have been raised in previous talks I have given on this topic.
The Calls to Action pertaining to the Churches are 58-61.
58. We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.
59. “We call upon church parties to the Settlement Agreement to develop ongoing education strategies to ensure that their respective congregations learn about their church’s role in colonization, the history and legacy of residential schools, and why apologies to former residential school students, their families, and communities were necessary.”
60. We call upon leaders of the church parties to the Settlement Agreement and all other faiths, in collaboration with Indigenous spiritual leaders, Survivors, schools of theology, seminaries, and other religious training centres, to develop and teach curriculum for all student clergy, and all clergy and staff who work in Aboriginal communities, on the need to respect Indigenous spirituality in its own right, the history and legacy of residential schools and the roles of the church parties in that system, the history and legacy of religious conflict in Aboriginal families and communities, and the responsibility that churches have to mitigate such conflicts and prevent spiritual violence.
61. We call upon church parties to the Settlement Agreement, in collaboration with Survivors and representatives of Aboriginal organizations, to establish permanent funding to Aboriginal people for:
i. Community-controlled healing and reconciliation projects.
ii. Community-controlled culture- and language revitalization projects.
iii. Community-controlled education and relationship building projects.
iv. Regional dialogues for Indigenous spiritual leaders and youth to discuss Indigenous spirituality, self-determination, and reconciliation.
Apologies need action. Saying you’re sorry and acknowledging what you did wrong is the first step – but what are you going to do, moving forward, to effect change?
Go to events and listen and learn. Offer to volunteer, where appropriate.
Have conversations. Get to know people as individuals, where they are at. We all have different backgrounds and stories. When we get to know people, we stop seeing them as “other.”
Ask questions. If you are unsure if something is cultural appropriation, or if you can take photographs, or in any situation where you don’t know how to proceed – ask. Asking shows respect.
I made my main presentation short on purpose, because Reconciliation needs to have discussions, not some white person talking non-stop for an hour. Several people in the congregation spoke about their experiences learning about residential schools and with Indigenous people, such as a retired physician who worked for a time in an Indigenous community and witnessed a high rate of tuberculosis there.
I was asked what churches are doing specifically to address Reconciliation in Edmonton, and the answer is that it is really a church-by-church sort of thing. Each congregation is doing different things, some more than others, in terms of events and such.
I was also asked about how seminaries and theological schools are addressing Call to Action #60. I am definitely not in the loop when it comes to what is being taught in seminaries, but I did say that when I was growing up as a student in Edmonton’s public school system, I never learned anything about residential schools. It was only more recently, when I attended the final TRC event in Edmonton in 2014 on assignment for a newspaper I was writing for at the time, that I learned about them. My mind was blown when I found out that the last residential school closed in the mid-90s. And I felt angry that such a gap existed in my education, and that what I received was a sanitized version of history. A younger man in the audience said that he learned about residential schools, so this is something that is changing with the generations. Someone added that this has indeed been added to the curriculum.
The conversation shifted at one point to the current controversy surrounding the removal of monuments and the changing of place names because of a historical figure’s attitudes and actions towards Indigenous people and others. I acknowledged that this is a complicated issue, and that one way to deal with it is, instead of removing something, to add to a monument by indicating those negative actions and beliefs – complete the story, so to speak, instead of replacing it. Also, the practise of naming places and things after people is inherently flawed, because in many cases people have beliefs or have done things that do not stand the test of history. I discussed this in the context of my involvement with Completing the Story, which seeks to increase the visual representation of women in public places.
Finally, someone mentioned about having to be careful when it comes to building things where it is known there are sacred burial grounds, as well as building tributes to Elders. My response is that any project that is about Indigenous people should involve Indigenous people.