Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Prince of Peace Smokes a Peace Pipe

What follows is the abridgement of a paper I researched and wrote at Briercrest Seminary in 2007, and subsequently sent to a Member of Parliament and to the C&MA national office. It has been edited for space and updated for language and footnotes, otherwise it is more or less as it was in 2008 -- including a final note which I left after watching formal proceedings take place in Canadian Parliament. Since then the Truth and Reconciliation Commission took place, which concluded with 94 Calls to Action in 2015. In those years I completed a PhD on forgiveness and reconciliation and then expanded the below into a fuller essay about how the church might respond to those Calls to Action. That essay can be found in the 2020 book Theology and the Political, linked in the sidebar, or could be provided by personal correspondence.

The Prince of Peace Smokes a Peace Pipe:
Theological Preparation for Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission

When Indigenous people offered their sacred pipe to European settlers it was a full-bodied extension of good will and trust between peoples that was then trampled on by colonial powers. That this pipe is still being offered (e.g., to Brian Mulroney in 1987, and Chuck Strahl in 2007) is a tribute to the grace of those Indigenous peoples and a testament to the ongoing need to seek healing and peace. 
If there was ever a time to smoke the peace pipe it is in the ugly wake of the residential schools debacle. But such an opportunity should not be taken lightly. There is no peace when truth is swept under the carpet. Truth and reconciliation go hand in hand.

Peace and justice are never perfect in this world. There are quite simply too many variables in the irretrievable past, the complicated present, and the unknown future to make things absolutely right again. For Christians the activity of reconciliation is not a replacement for Christ, but a witness to the Prince of Peace. Jesus said the peacemakers would be called children of God. And yet in this case Christians can by and large only contribute to this by way of corporate repentance.


European colonization of these lands did not begin with residential schools, but they do typify the thinking that was ingrained throughout. In 1846, Indian Superintendent P.G. Anderson addressed the Inidgenous peoples directly: 
You will not give up your idle, roving habits to enable your children to receive instruction. It has therefore been determined that your children shall be sent to schools where they will forget their Indian habits and be instructed in all the necessary arts of civilized life and become one with your white brethren.[1]
These early rumblings of the what the U.N. would later call "cultural genocide" led to the Indian Act of 1876 which, in Sir John A. Macdonald’s words, was meant "to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the inhabitants of the dominion, as speedily as they are fit for the change." The Department of Indian Affairs annual report of 1889 clarified that the purpose of the new boarding schools was to thoroughly "civilize" the Indians so that nothing Indian was left.[2]

Although "the thought even before the deed . . . was violent in its intention to ‘kill the Indian’ in the child for the sake of Christian civilization," the recipe for disaster was complete when combined with "the most persistent flaw in the system – chronic under-funding." An already inadequate system became a pressure cooker for all kinds of misdeeds and abuses. Over the course of a century 130 residential schools housed between 100,000 and 150,000 students, and killed as many as half of them.[3]

It's not like nobody knew any better. A note of dissent appears in the records in 1908, from Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Frank Oliver, who questioned the forcible separation of children from their parents: 
I hope you will excuse me for so speaking but one of the most important commandments laid upon the human by the divine is love and respect by children for parents. It seems strange that in the name of religion a system of education should have been instituted, the foundation principle of which not only ignored but contradicted this command.[4] 
In 1948, Fort Vermillion Superintendent Neil Walker told his superiors "If I were appointed by the Dominion Government for the express purpose of spreading tuberculosis, there is nothing finer in existence than the average Indian Residential School." Doctors in 1907, 1922 and 1935 had already noted a disturbing and “almost unchecked ... trail of disease” and death in residential schools, with one doctor saying that if he were using the standards applied in white schools then 90% of the students would be discharged.[5]
Stories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, strictness and brutality, filthy living conditions, and rampant illness abound. But even if a few alarm bells were sounding, little was being done. Agnes Grant reminds us that it was "the prevalent attitude about sexual abuse in Canadian society at that time ... [that] you didn’t talk about it."[6]

This is clearly not the type of tolerance that makes a peaceable nation. Canada must be very careful not to build itself on a false peace, where
the role of the dominant group is to live without raising questions about the sources of and supports for the privileges it so easily takes for granted. The role of the subordinate group, on the other hand, is to learn to survive in a dependent and subservient role.[7]
Noting the colonial skeleton in Canada’s closet, Michael Ignatieff noted that "the truth of what happened is not yet part of the shared historical record of our country and until it is we will continue to talk past each other." This can leave us with little more than a "victor’s truth" that serves to benefit those in power.[8]

Pierre Trudeau "famously characterized apologies as efforts to fix history, and he refused to have anything to do with them," citing it as "our purpose to be just in our time." On the other hand, Robert Weyeneth said that at least apologies can reduce "the number of permissible lies in a society."[9]

But apologies can also be a means of putting injustice out of mind, and failing to work toward peace. It is quite possible that those Canadians who are not directly involved with Indigenous people will see it as something from which they can remain aloof. Such a widespread lack of public participation in the TRC would only be "another slap in the face to the survivors."[10] 
No wonder, when asked to recount his story, one residential school survivor expressed misgivings about framing it that way, saying "really this is not my story but yours."[11]
A poem by Duke Redbird[12] says 
I look at you white brother 
And I say to you: 
Save not me from sin and evil, 
Save yourself.
Christians should not be put off by the notion that they might yet need more salvation. As Martin Luther put it in the first of his 95 Theses: "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."

In a pastoral analysis of the situation in 2003, Gary Redcliffe said European descendants need 
a change in our spiritual capacity to identify ourselves with the residential schools’ story... [and] to see ourselves as heirs and continuing participants in the colonialistic narrative of Canada, as sinners and wrong-doers in need of repentance, confession and the grace of new life.[13] 

It is not possible to repair fully the wrongs that have been committed. But at some point a society has to decide to do the justice it can instead of doing nothing because it can not do everything. More broadly speaking, reconciliation is not a replacement for justice, but an attempt to do what justice can not do on its own; namely, to build a more peaceable society. A society that separates justice from reconciliation may watch both slip through its fingers. 
In Michael Marrus's view, societal reconciliation 
comes in varying degrees. In ‘thinner’ versions, the two parties could agree not to kill each other; in ‘thicker’ versions, they could show mutual respect and agree to work together; and at the ‘thickest,’ the former enemies could commit themselves to friendship and solidarity.[14]
It would be deeply problematic to force Indigenous people to bear the burden of bringing healing to society. That said, it would be equally problematic for European descendants to simply take over the reconciliation process rather than listening and granting Indigenous peoples the lead.

Dale Turner has gone so far as to say that if Euro-Canadians do not "adequately address the legacy of colonialism" and continue "to stake a unilateral claim over [Indigenous] people without entering into a meaningful and participatory dialogue with them," then the proceedings do not count as a "peace pipe".[15]
It seems to me that were the Prince of Peace here in the flesh he would take up the peace pipe and smoke it, perhaps going so far as to multiply it, like he did the wine at the wedding at Cana, so that many more could take part.
Christians who have read the book of Acts should not be surprised to find the Holy Spirit going on ahead to stir up truth and reconciliation in the world without them. Though the Church had its hand in the sins of colonialism and failed to love its neighbor as itself, it can have a hand in redemption by submitting to the Spirit’s reconciling work and participating along the trajectory of Christ’s teaching and example. Ambassadors of reconciliation want to see the truth set people free.

As I listened to the speeches in our House of Parliament I was both optimistic for this country and saddened by the knowledge that reconciliation efforts will likely come up short. But at times I welled up with tears as I imagined a vision I've read about and found hard to imagine:

And he carried me away in the Spirit
to a mountain great and high,
and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem,
coming out of heaven from God.
It shone with the glory of God . . .

I did not see a temple in the city,
because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it,
for the glory of God gives it light,
and the Lamb is its lamp.

The nations will walk by its light,
and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.
On no day will its gates ever be shut,
for there will be no night there.
The glory and the honor of the nations will be brought into it. . . .

Down the middle of the great street of the city
On each side of the river stood the tree of life,
bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.
And the leaves of the tree
are for the healing of the nations.

Revelation 21-22
  1. Judith Ennamorato, Sing the Brave Song (Raven Press, 1998), 53.
  2. John Boyko, Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism (J. Gordon Shillingford, 1998), 191-2, 196.
  3. John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879-1986 (University of Manitoba, 1999), xv; Catherine Rolfsen, “Reconciling the Truth: Making Amends,” Edmonton Journal (Jun 3, 2007).  
  4. Milloy, A National Crime, 28.  
  5. Milloy, A National Crime, 262, 51, 105, c.f., 139-45. 
  6. Agnes Grant, No End of Grief: Indian Residential Schools in Canada (Pemmican, 1996), 229.
  7. Gary Redcliffe, “The Residential Schools and Narrative Identity: A Pastoral Analysis,” Toronto Journal of Theology 19 (Spring 2003): 62.
  8. Michael Ignatieff, “Setting the Record Straight,” National Post (Jun 22, 2007); Erin Daly and Jeremy Sarkin, Reconciliation in Divided Societies: Finding Common Ground (University of Pennsylvania, 2007), 146.  
  9. Michael R. Marrus, Official Apologies and the Quest for Historical Justice (Munk Centre for International Studies, 2006), 5, 39. 
  10. This was said by Assembly of First Nations lawyer Kathleen Mahoney. Rolfsen, “Reconciling the Truth.”
  11. Milloy, A National Crime, xviii.
  12. Grant, No End of Grief, 279.  
  13. Redcliffe, “The Residential Schools and Narrative Identity,” 54-5.  
  14. Marrus, Official Apologies, 36.
  15. Dale Turner, This is Not a Peace Pipe: Towards a Critical Indigenous Philosophy (University of Toronto, 2006), 7.  


The Hansens said...

Thanks for posting this Jon. I hadn't heard Harper's apology live, so I appreciate your encouragement to hear it and your thoughts in this essay. I'm glad I happened upon this today because it's so essential that I be a part of it.

Geoff-Cummer said...

In 1946, Indian Superintendent P.G. Anderson addressed the Aboriginal’s situation: "You will not give up your idle, roving habits to enable your children to receive instruction. It has therefore been determined that your children shall be sent to schools where they will forget their Indian habits and be instructed in all the necessary arts of civilized life and become one with your white brethren."

I believ the date you were meaning to say is in fact 1846 as opposed to 1946

Jon Coutts said...

That's right Geoff, thank you for the correction.