The last day of our Imagine a Canada experience began with small table groups with the Elders. An assortment of honorees, parents sat with an Elder, each table had a skilled facilitator to help move the conversation along. Our table needed no such facilitation, our Elder was lucid and clear, he shared his experience and we listened with rapt attention. Our Elder was born in the northern part of Manitoba, his father a trapper, and his mother, a nurturing woman, raised 12 children. At the age of 8 he was removed from his family and sent to a religious boarding school where he slept in a room with 49 other boys. He would not see his parents until July and then only for 2 months. Whatever spirituality, whatever language, whatever culture, this Elder had experienced as a young boy was systematically removed by a rigid catechism and discipline designed to turn these boys into good European Anglophones.
The Elder told us he saw things he could not tell his religiously devote parents, so he kept them to himself. Without that outlet and without his own culture and told over and over that he would not amount to anything he grew disconnected, alone and despairing. Inevitably this downward spiral led to challenges with addictions and very low self-esteem. It took him years to find his way back. He ended up raising two children on his own and retired from a 37 year career with the Manitoba government. I am so pleased none of us asked questions, interjected or made comment, this Elder’s story needed to be told, understood and accepted as truth. As we heard many times over these three days, until you have truth there can be no reconciliation.
One young Indigenous woman at our table, one of the honorees, wanted to say something at the end of the small table groups. She asked why there was not more healing centres in the cities, on the reserves, for persons who needed support, healing aided and directed by Elders who could share some of the traditional ceremonies and healing practices they had rediscovered themselves. It was a constructive suggestion, one based on compassion and realism.
One thing the Elders remarked on over and over, “we are tired of words, we would like to see action in our lifetime.” I find it interesting that we have shifted from a conformity culture of intentional assimilation for all peoples to this mantra of words and positive energy. Wherever I go I see deep challenges met with hyper positivity, slogans, clichés, upbeat optimism and promises like, “There is nothing you can’t do” and “What we need is positive energy, not judgment”. But to make real change it takes some critical assessment, judgment of faulty systems and programs, and a clear-eyed plan to make concrete differences.
At the end of the time with the Elder we transitioned to a much larger stage, the Canadian Human Rights Museum, in its largest gathering space, with a crowd numbering more than 300. The President of the University of Manitoba, the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba, all local MLA’s, and many national and local dignitaries were present. The 13 honorees each stood at the microphone, shared their vision of reconciliation and were given their awards. One Inuit lad spoke about growing up in a non-Indigenous family with recent attachment to Indigenous culture and spirituality, his art work featured a hockey player (his Canadian identity), wearing Indigenous colours, with surrounding symbols and shapes incorporating his two identities. He told us that reconciliation would only become real when that kind of effort and understanding was honouured by the country as a whole.
Obviously the highlight of the three days occurred when our daughter Lucy stepped to microphone and shared a 5 minute speech about her work, a sense of mutual support, affirmation and aspiration to be, to strive, to belong, to the traditions of one’s own culture. We were very proud.
There was great wisdom in that room, throughout all three days of this gathering. The challenge for those of us who want to bring healing is how to harness that spirit so it becomes accessible and tangible in the lives of all Canadians, especially our Indigenous sisters and brothers. My own covenant in this quest is to hold up what Indigenous peoples can and do teach us about the land and what a relationship with the land can do for our spirit. Words of affirmation without any constructive way to learn and be together different strike me as hollow and beside the point. Words and images that shape a new way of being, a healthier and more holistic way of being, seem not only fitting and right but also realistic and accessible and transformative. That’s how I imagine Canada.