The way of reconciliation

July 2, 2015
Keith Simmonds

This blog post was published by Victoria's Times Colonist online column, "Spiritually Speaking". 

I was born in Kitimat, but didn’t know a lot about the Indigenous kids in Kitimaat Village. They were across the channel from us, too far away for me to know. We moved to Flin Flon when I was 12, at the time a white/European community surrounded by thousands of Cree on various reserves in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. I didn’t know much about them either. They weren’t in town a lot, weren’t all that welcome in restaurants and hotels. Not in some of the stores either.

Looking back I can see we lived in a racist culture. It wasn’t as easily seen then as it is now. Although it should have been. I served drinks in the Royal Hotel, the only bar in Flin Flon that would serve First Nations customers. Not out of any sense of altruism or human rights. No, we were told to keep ‘them’ in ‘their’ section, no straying into the other seats, to serve ‘them’ until they were too drunk to drink any more, then toss ‘them’ out to make room for the next one.

I could spend this column listing the myriad of ways a Cree man, woman or child was hurt, wounded or turned away. I could spend time talking about my mother, father and sister, who stood against the discriminatory practices of the wider culture, they and others trying to get the community to see itself as it really was.

Those were formative years for me, years I knew I’d have to deal with when I took up my training for ministry. Learning with the staff and student body of the Centre for Christian Studies (a school for diaconal ministers and deacons, housed in Winnipeg, with students across the country) about the wealth and richness of First Nations Spirituality, and the enormity of the harm we’d caused as a church running residential schools, I found myself wanting to revisit the north and establish a new relationship.

The school approved my plan to journey to The Pas, Manitoba, spending some time in community and with the staff of the Henry Budd Theological College for Cree Anglican Priests, learning about First Nations Anglicans and their history on reserves throughout Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

From there I was sent to Easterville, a reserve community on Cedar Lake, where I lived for a short time with the Priest and her grandson, in the house attached to the church. Although brief in duration, the time I spent marked me for life. I came in with fear and trepidation and left with understanding and an opened heart. I was, in some ways, transformed into a new reality, a new relationship with my past, present, and future. I continue to wonder in amazement at the gifts I received there.

A few years later I moved to Duncan BC and found another community – the Cowichan Tribes – sharing their understandings and their teachings with others in many ways. From Colonization workshops (we call them “The Village Workshops”) that give an understanding of life before, during and after contact between Indigenous Peoples and Europeans, to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal drummers coming together in one sacred and wonderful group, to Cowichan 101, a series of workshops led by Cowichan Tribes Elders that teach a variety of traditional practices, stories, language lessons and healing methods to those who want to come.

We have learned of ancient communities living out traditions based upon principles of Love, Honour, Generosity and Respect. Of cultures that valued those with the most to give away, that looked for gifts in children, not symptoms to control. Of a people who still, despite all that’s happened, give thanks to the Creator in word, song and deed. Give thanks for what has been given and for what has been received.

In the short passage of time between Easterville and Duncan, I have learned a great deal. Far too much to detail here. Except to say that the path to reconciliation and renewal of relationship begins with one step, and leads to unimaginable epiphanies along the Way. Along that Way I have been taken by the hand and shown the light. The light of dawning love breaking finally over mountains of despair, through ages of thoughtless treatment.

At every step of the way I have found wise and capable elders, at Henry Budd, at Easterville, at Duncan United Church, at Social Planning Cowichan, at the Cowichan Intercultural Society, from the Cowichan Tribes and in many other places. People willing to reach beyond past wrongs to create a new and kinder future for our children and our children’s children, down to at least the seventh generation.

They wait for you too. Somewhere, in your community, in your neighbourhood, in your life. The elders are waiting. What’s keeping you?