Being a witness
The end of the beginning
“Truth and reconciliation don’t have a time limit.” The words of honorary witness Cindy Blackstock echo and reverberate.
I had the privilege of being a witness in Edmonton. Along with nearly 20,000 others, I was present for the final national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) event Mar. 27–30, one of seven held across Canada over the past five years. The TRC’s goal is to unveil the truth of the survivors’ experiences in Canada’s residential schools and to provide opportunity for those affected by the operation of those schools to offer “expressions of reconciliation.”
The guiding theme of this final event was wisdom, which is “about bringing forward the knowledge and experience we have and finding a balance between these two things,” Commissioner Murray Sinclair remarked in the opening ceremony, “and combining it with our hope for the future.”
Listening to stories is not the end, but the beginning of the reconciliation process.
Over the four days, I heard stories of tragedy from survivors: children taken from their families and stripped of their culture, many who experienced further emotional, physical, sexual and spiritual abuse in the schools.
One survivor’s poetic response to his experience left me feeling emotionally confused: “Eight long years in a residential school, eight long years under white man’s rule. Out to Christianize that is what they claim, out to missionize those with mortal stain…”
I heard stories from intergenerational survivors: children and grandchildren of residential school survivors whose families have been broken and scarred with long-term relational wounds. “To learn to talk, I had to learn to cry,” one said hauntingly. These stories were sobering and challenging to hear.
Justice Sinclair emphasized that the residential schools are not “an aboriginal problem” but a Canadian problem, with so many residual effects. This is a reality that demands a response from our churches today. This issue holds relevance for even the youngest of generations and will continue to be a place in which the Spirit calls us to be reconcilers.
Becoming a witness
As I reflect on this experience, I am challenged in my own understanding of what it means to be a Christian witness. On Friday, in an auditorium of thousands, the practical significance of being a witness was made clear as Commissioner Marie Wilson commented, “All of us here have signed up for an ongoing individual and collective process of reconciliation.” The TRC isn’t meant to finalize the reconciliation process but to initiate an obligation for the people of this country to become involved.
Tim Dyck, general secretary of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, representing several Mennonite and Brethren in Christ denominations including Mennonite Brethren at the event, offered this expression of reconciliation:
We are aware that we have a long path to walk. We hope to build relationships with First Nations communities so that we can continue the learning journey and walk this path together.… We are aware that words without actions are not only ineffective but can also be harmful.… We will encourage our churches to reach out in practical and loving ways.
Many of the other expressions of reconciliation from non-indigenous peoples at this TRC echoed the idea that our apologies will be measured by our actions. My mind flashes with the words of an ancient expert of the law who realizes the answer to his own question, “Who is my neighbour?” actually lies in his own becoming a neighbour (Luke 10:29).
And so, just as we witness to the passionate acts of our Lord Jesus Christ who reconciles this broken world through his own death, resurrection and ascension, this commission embodied a passionate reminder that what seems like the end is just the beginning. Departing this gathering, I am captivated with a uniquely Canadian understanding of the hope-infused Christian role that requires individuals to both be and to bear witness.
Luke Heidebrecht is an instructor in theology and mission at Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask. He is learning along with his second year students who were graciously hosted by Sturgeon Lake First Nation in September 2013 what it means to be a neighbour in Treaty 6 territory.
Read the inter-Mennonite statement here.
Read CCMBC executive director Willy Reimer’s reflections on the TRC here.