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Relationships are key to healing and reconciliation


Willard Metzger (left) and Tim Froese pose with frame bearing the slogan of the TRC event in Saskatoon June 21-24, 2012: “It matters to me.”

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July 12, 2012
-Deborah Froese with files from Tim Froese

Winnipeg, MAN. — “For the church in Canada to have any integrity, it must work to heal its relationships with host people and host land.”

This statement from Mennonite Church Canada Executive Director Willard Metzger reflects the importance of Mennonite connections with indigenous people—and its involvement with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process.

Metzger, along with Steve Heinrichs, Director of Indigenous Relations (formerly Native Ministry), and Tim Froese, Executive Minister, Witness, attended the most recent TRC public event in Saskatoon, Sask. June 21-24, 2012. They were among numerous others present from the broader Mennonite community including representatives of Area Churches and many volunteers.

The statistics are numbing. Thousands of Indian Residential School (IRS) survivors can be found in Saskatchewan alone. Generations of families—sometimes as many as four—are affected directly and indirectly by the impact of the schools, which forced separation of parent and child. The resulting destruction of family units and their ability to nurture has had catastrophic and lasting effects on communities.

One survivor offered the chilling statement that “we seldom have a natural death in our community.”

Forgiveness and healing, the work of the TRC, are difficult.

A survivor asks how something like the IRS system, a school, a government, or a church can be forgiven. “The perpetrators are not [at the TRC].”

“In order to have reconciliation,” says another, “you first need to do the work yourself. Work with self, family, community, elders, professionals, and ceremonies.” Yet another added, “You will never be able to live in peace if you don’t forgive. This is the advice I received from the elders. Pray every day, forgive and live in peace with others.”

Learning to love was a challenge cited by many survivors. “[I] want to learn my culture and how to love myself.”

 “My parents went to an IRS and never told us kids ‘I love you.’…I did not and do not know what love means…more than 90% of native people don’t know how to show love…If you are not shown, you can’t learn.”

Metzger acknowledges that these painful stories tempt an emotional shutdown."But the nature of the abuse necessitates that we show discipline in listening – to imagine what we do not want to think about, and accept what we do not want to believe. To hear of such treatment done ‘in the name of Christ’ is deeply troubling. We must not stop listening until those wishing to speak have stopped talking.”

There is room for hope. Heinrichs was moved by the inclusivity of the indigenous leaders and hosts.  “The TRC is a deeply spiritual event,” he says. “It welcomes both traditional indigenous expressions of spirituality, and Christian.  They model an openness and respect that many of us non-native, and church persons, can really learn from…The key, we are gently reminded here and there, is radical reverence and respect for the sacred traditions of different peoples.” 
For Froese, the TRC event was a humbling experience.  “At the opening ceremony, Chief Wallace Fox said that ‘we [indigenous persons] are a very forgiving people.’ The grace and reality of his statement only grew in intensity after hearing numerous testimonies and interacting with others at this event.”

Froese notes that the statement “It matters to me” was strongly promoted in regard to truth and reconciliation. While it resonated, he felt there was something missing—until Harley Eagle, coordinator of Mennonite Central Committee’s Indigenous Work program said that “reconciliation implies a prior relationship.”

“Here for me was the missing key,” Froese reflects. “I think the importance of truth and reconciliation would also be affirmed by most of us in the Mennonite Church. The harder challenge for us is to engage both truth and reconciliation in the context of an ongoing relationship. Without relationship, we do not have the opportunity to build the trust that has been so seriously eroded and abused in past generations.”

Sidebar: Is reconciliation possible?

Jennifer Henry, Executive Director of KAIROS Canada, suggests the following steps:
1. Listen with your whole heart.
2. Tell your friends until all Canada hears and until their hearts are also broken.
3. Act for justice.