Remembering Truth and Reconciliation Day
Today marks the second annual Truth and Reconciliation Day, a federal statutory holiday that aims to promote reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians. How might Christians react to this holiday? Do we count it as just another holiday – such as Victoria Day, Labour Day, or Family Day – where we mostly ignore the meaning of the day? Do we think that is a twisted version of what was originally good, such as secular bunny-and-egg Easter, Santa Christmas, or Cupid Valentine’s Day? Or do we remember the day like Canada Day, Thanksgiving, or Remembrance Day, respecting the holiday’s true purpose?
Truth and Reconciliation
Before delving into the day of remembrance itself and the nature of Indigenous truth and reconciliation, we should pause and acknowledge what ultimate truth and reconciliation are. Although Indigenous cultures and mainstream Canadian culture may understand these words in their own way, truth and reconciliation are Christian terms.
Jesus is the “way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). There are many true statements – that 1 + 1 = 2, that men and women are genetically different, that the earth orbits the sun – but Jesus is THE truth. The arc of history, the message of salvation, and the purpose of the world revolves around Him. After His ascension, this truth is revealed by the written Word of God and the Holy Spirit. As Christians today, as in every age, we are charged with bearing witness to this truth (Ephesians 4:25, 2 Timothy 2:15, 3 John 1:1-8).
Jesus is also the ultimate reconciler. He accomplished the most difficult reconciliation imaginable, that between a holy God and sinful men (Romans 5:10-11, 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, Colossians 1:20-22). While there are passages in Scripture that encourage people to make non-salvific reconciliation among each other – for instance, Christ commands people to be reconciled with their brother before bringing an offering to the LORD (Matthew 5:24) – Christ has given His people the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18) that focuses on this reconciliation between God and man. “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Ultimate truth and reconciliation are found in Jesus Christ. We as Christians are first and foremost called to be ambassadors of this ultimate truth and reconciliation to the world around us. But since Christ is sovereign over all things and our faith impacts all of life, we are called to advance truth and reconciliation in earthly matters as well.
The Truth About Canada’s Past
The truth is that Canadian governments – both before and after Confederation – and Canadian churches have failed Indigenous communities. This failure takes many forms. Many failures between Canadian governments and Indigenous peoples could be cited and the magnitude of these failures can be debated, but three big failures stand out to us.
One of the greatest failures was the forcible removal of children from Indigenous homes to be educated in residential schools, a mass kidnapping coordinated and executed by the state and in which many of the established churches in Canada were complicit. Jonathan Van Maren explains this central grievance well in a blog on The Bridgehead:
“In much of the debate over the nuances of these re-emerging stories [of mass graves at former residential schools], I think an opportunity for appropriate empathy is sometimes lost. Yes, it is true that not all of the children were abused. Yes, it is true that healthcare standards during that time meant that diseases were far more deadly. Yes, some students remain ambivalent about their experiences to this day. But none of this changes the central fact of the matter: children were forcibly removed by the state from their families for the express purpose of destroying their family bonds and eradicating their language and culture.”
A second failure is policies that divide or discriminate against Indigenous people based on their ethnicity. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “The Indian Act attempted to generalize a vast and varied population of people and assimilate them into non-Indigenous society.” It infringed on the sphere of First Nations governance, ignored the freedom of religion and expression by outlawing many religious and cultural practices, birthed the residential schools, restricted the mobility rights of Indigenous Canadians, set rules and regulations based on Indigenous ethnicity such as the inability of status “Indians” to vote, and established the reserve system. While the most egregious problems of the Indian Act have been corrected, the reserve system still exists. These reserves, the only example of racial or ethnic rules around land ownership in Canada, encourage many Indigenous Canadians to remain geographically separate from the rest of the population in remote areas with poor access to clean drinking water, internet/phone connectivity, education, health care, and employment opportunities. The current reserve system all but guarantees that many Indigenous Canadians will remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.
A third failure has to do with Canada’s treaties with First Nations, its lack of treaties, or confusion around how to interpret these treaties. A majority of Canada’s land is covered by treaties of some sort negotiated between the Crown and First Nations, though most of British Columbia, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador are not. The lack of treaties in these provinces lead to uncertainty about who holds the rights to the land. Differing conceptions about land ownership (Indigenous vs Western, private vs communal) and the exact wording of treaties also have created great confusion around land ownership. Several court cases, notably Calder et al. v. B.C. attorney general (1973), Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (1997), and Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2014), and the negotiation of modern treaties such as the Nisga’a treaty (2000) have begun the work of disentangling these land claims, but this work has only just started in earnest.
There is no doubt that Canadians have mistreated Indigenous communities throughout Canada’s history, and so reconciliation is incredibly difficult. For now, we’re going to leave aside questions about how reconciliation can take place and focus instead on who bears responsibility for this reconciliation. The answer to this question greatly depends on our theology, our anthropology, and our history. We’d like to stress that reasonable people and reasonable Christians can come to different conclusions on who bears responsibility for past actions and how reconciliation for sins in the past can be made in the present. Just because this is a difficult question, however, doesn’t mean that we can ignore it.
What is clear is that Scripture speaks both of individual guilt, responsibility, and reconciliation as well as communal guilt, responsibility, and reconciliation. Individuals are always responsible for their actions: God’s punishment upon Cain for the murder of his brother, upon Moses for striking a rock, and upon Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit, to mention but three examples, testify of this. Sometimes, family members bear responsibility for the sins of their father, for example when Achan’s entire household was stoned for his theft or when Korah, Dathan, and Abiram’s families were swallowed up with them for their rebellion against God’s appointed servants Moses and Aaron. Beyond that, entire communities bear the punishment for the sins of their leaders: we all share in the guilt of Adam’s first sin and the entire nation of Israel endured the plague for David’s census.
In the same way, the individuals throughout Canadian history who mistreated Indigenous Canadians bear personal guilt and responsibility that the rest of us do not share. However, to some degree, we do communally share the guilt of the sins of our fathers, leaders, and countrymen. Just because we personally did not participate in the residential school system or because our ancestors recently arrived in Canada doesn’t absolve us from all responsibility to bring reconciliation to Indigenous Canadians. Understanding our responsibilities here is incredibly difficult, but that doesn’t mean we can skirt the question. Rather than providing you will all the answers, we simply hope here to start a much-needed conversation.
Truth and reconciliation are Christian concepts. The first settlers to Canada, although they failed Canada’s Indigenous people in many ways, did prioritize efforts to bring ultimate truth and reconciliation to these peoples. Catholic and Protestant evangelists alike sought to bring the good news of the gospel to those who had never heard it before. Alan Hayes, a Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Toronto, reports that Indigenous Canadians are just as likely to identify as Christians as non-Indigenous Canadians, with about 67% identifying as Christian. Indeed, as reported by the 2011 National Household Survey from Statistics Canada, there are 14 Indigenous Christians for every practitioner of traditional aboriginal spirituality.
Today, we can and we should spend part of the day reflecting on how we can bring truth and reconciliation to our Indigenous neighbours, just as we are called to for our non-Indigenous neighbours. Many today would say that this type of Christian evangelism to Indigenous people is continuing the failures of the church in Canada, yet this is one thing that Christians do not have to apologize for. Truth and reconciliation ultimately needs to be spiritual, reflecting on the need for Jesus Christ, but it also can be temporal, reflecting on how our country can treat all of its citizens with justice and equity.