Friends, we gather today from many territories, territories called by particular names given by the First Peoples of those lands, territories that we now collectively also call Canada. I speak as one originally from Winnipeg in Treaty 1 territory, the land where my maternal ancestors lived thousands and thousands of years. I have been asked to share with you the importance of this day. Here are my reflections.
Over 6 years ago, in June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded its 8-year long process. The TRC hosted 7 national events across Canada to engage the Canadian public, educate people about the residential school system, and share and honour the experiences of former students and their families, as we heard the stories of over 6,500 witnesses. Out of this commission came an extensive historical record about this dark chapter of our shared history. And from this process came the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action, actions that affected every level of society – because our shared history in these lands shapes us at every level. And while there may have been some in this country who hoped that this chapter would be closed at the end of the commission – we know life does not work that way. Our history shapes us. The stories we tell about ourselves and our history shapes us as individuals, as communities, and as societies.
While listening to a podcast a number of months ago featuring a theologian named Chris Green, he said something that I have been ruminating on, and I have used it many times since I heard it. He said “The future is nothing but what we tell or don’t tell about the past. [and] The future will be as good as the telling of our past is truthful.” (InVerse Podcast, Jul 19, 2021).
We are headed into an unknown and unknowable future, a future that is only known by the Creator. So how do we walk with integrity and humility and wisdom into an unknowable future? We speak the truth about our past and we move forward in a better way. And as we course correct on this path we call Today, we keep speaking the truth. We keep telling our stories.
We are often taught to think in a straight line, to think in a linear fashion – that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. But life is not like that. The grand story that we are part of as God’s people is not like that. If you open your Bible to the beginning, we are with God in a bountiful, beautiful place with the tree of life at the center. Flip to the back of your Bible, and we are back to that place again. Our planet revolves around the sun, the moon circles around our planet, and the seasons always come one after another, and as we go through our calendar, we eventually get to January again.
A healthy and holistic life is cyclical. Indigenous folk continually remind themselves of this reality and have been shaped by this, as we fall into rhythm with the seasons of the lands, and as we look to the medicine wheel as a symbol that orders many aspects of our world. It is into this reality that we come to this new National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. You see, the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action were grouped into a number of categories. Some were specific to sectors of society like education or media, and other calls were specific to all of Canadian society. Under the sub-section of Commemoration, Call to Action #80 stated:
We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, to establish, as a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour Survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.
The work of commemoration is an important one, a vital one. You see, there is something that is profoundly true about us as human beings — we are forgetful. And in an individualistic society such as ours, one that values youth and the latest and greatest things, we are especially forgetful about things outside of our lifetimes. But we are shaped by our past both individually and collectively in profound ways, ways that we do not often recognize. And so we are called to commemorate. To remember. As followers of Jesus and readers of the Bible, we should no doubt understand the importance of acts of commemoration. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were often told to remember. And here is the thing, they are often called to remember events that happened way before they were even born. How could this be, and why? They were invited to listen to the stories that have been passed down in both oral and written form. They were invited to make the old story their own. They were invited to recall, for instance, that God brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and that this event has had a profound effect on their lives, even generations later.
But not only were they called to simply recall something to their mind. They were called to embody that remembrance. They remembered by eating lamb during Passover to remember the Exodus. They were also told by God to live in tents for seven days to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles and remember the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness that we read about in the book of Numbers. And that act of remembering was not of events that happened to them, but it became about them in this embodied act of remembrance. They remembered this time when their community did not trust in God, when God nonetheless provided for their needs, and when he led them through to the other side. And finally, as people of the New Covenant, we commemorate the life of Jesus with our holy days, and with the act of worship through the table of communion.
We are forgetful people, and we need to remember in good ways. Not simply to recall something to mind, but to enter into an embodied act of remembrance. To educate ourselves and to listen to the stories. As Chief Justice Murray Sinclair said, “this nation must never forget what it once did to its most vulnerable people.”
As we come together as Canadian Baptists today, we come to do the work of remembering the evils of the past which have shaped our present circumstances. We do so to recognize that we have benefitted and continue to benefit from injustices of the past – injustices that were intentionally and expressly done to the Indigenous peoples of these lands. We do so to enter into the lament of communities that remember the horror of the government and the church who came for their children. The majority of Canadians have had the luxury of not having to grapple with inter-generational trauma and pain. But we have awoken all the more as we have in these past months been confronted with hard news of unmarked graves of children at residential schools. You have been shocked no doubt. For some, it has shocked you out of complacency. For some of you, this was the first time ever hearing about the residential school system. As you may know, it began with the finding of 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops. There are 12 schools whose sites are currently being searched, 7 that have been completed, and over 100 more sites for which searches have not yet commenced. With only 7 of the over 100 schools planned for search, the number is already over 1,300 unmarked graves.
These are of course approximate. God alone knows the precise numbers and knows the name of every child in those graves and the graves of those that will not be found. You know these as numbers – sadly these children at these schools were also known by numbers. Stripped of their clothes, their identities, their cultures, and their given names – they were identified and called by numbers in these institutions. The residential schools sought to kill the Indian in the child – this was their expressed goal. It stripped them of their humanity in an act of cultural genocide. And now we are confronted with the reality that this program of cultural genocide fostered spaces which led to sexual abuse, torture, malnutrition, and death. But these children were not numbers. They were Image-bearers of God.
They had parents, siblings, cousins, and grandparents. And these families, these communities throughout Turtle Island have always known of this horror. They have lived with the trauma of children removed from families, with many who never came back, and those who came back broken.
I am reminded of the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:10, when God tells Cain that Abel’s blood cries out to him from the ground. Injustice is not forgotten by those who are affected. Families remember. Communities remember. God remembers. And the land remembers. We too are now called to remember.
Each year on September 30, many will wear orange, a tradition started by Phylis Webstad in 2013, a 3rd generation residential school survivor, who proudly wore an orange shirt bought by her grandmother for her first day of school. It was stripped from her and never given back.
As we commemorate this for years to come, we will remind ourselves of how the evils of the past have shaped this nation and we will seek a better way forward. And this day will become a catalyst in our education systems, when our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will learn for the first time about Residential Schools. This new day will work to reshape or collective Canadian culture such that talk of reconciliation does not become something we work to finish and check off our to-do list, but something that becomes the new ethos of our country, walking in a good way – and confronting us with the question “who do I need to be given what I now know?” And we must also recognize that there are places and spaces in our country in which we cannot even yet speak of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, because there was not conciliation to begin with.
Finally, as those that have pledged their allegiance to Christ – I hope that we will not shy away from hard truths. That we will own up to the ways in which this colonial legacy has shaped us at the expense of others. That we will not shy away from speaking prophetic truth to power even when those powers reside within our own house, or even within our own hearts. Because “the future is nothing but what we tell or don’t tell about the past. [and] The future will be as good as the telling of our past is truthful.”
DANNY ZACHARIAS is a professor of New Testament Studies at Acadia Divinity College, located in Wolfville, NS, on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaw peoples.