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My Metis Heritage and the Question of Reconciliation, a Talk at St Paul’s Edmonton, October 4

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I bring you greetings from St John’s and I’m delighted to be here worshiping with my brothers and sisters in the faith this day.  The message is not so delightful, as it’s still an intensely personal and somewhat uncertain topic — the past four years have been a time of considerable discovery and healing for me.  Michael and Lori asked if I could talk about this topic of reconciliation through the experience of my search for wholeness, so this is what I will shape with words today.  I’ll note up front that I’m highly indebted to Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf and his book, Exclusion and Embrace, for the developing structure of my understanding of what is a pretty complicated interplay between Canadian history, our highly impaired relationship with indigenous peoples, and my shame-filled family history of denial of self.

Why is my search for identity relevant to the question of reconciliation with our indigenous brothers and sisters?  It’s relevant because I’m an indigenous person, my family comes from the historic Metis homeland in the Red River region of Manitoba and I’m a member of the Metis Nation of Alberta.  I could not have said that publically more than a few years ago, as it was something I only shared with close friends.  I’ve been able to keep that secret from the first time I learned about it, in my early 20’s, because I appear on the outside as one of the “privileged skin” (Andrea Menard, “Halfbreed Blues”).  The reason I kept my heritage secret was because of my very typical western Canadian up-bringing, that is, mildly racist and highly untrusting of “the other” and particularly when they’re aboriginal.  It turned out that I was continuing a family tradition of denial that started in about 1870.  A deep and abiding sense of shame is the result of such a fundamental denial of self, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Now, we are told some very specific things in Scripture about our identities on the other side of our rebirth as children of Christ.  There is no Jew or Greek (Gal 3:28) but only one in Christ, and we regard no one according to the flesh (2 Cor 5:16).  Yet this does not mean that we become neuter beings with no other identity, or gender, but rather that our racial identity is reordered so that it no longer becomes the centre of our being, as that place is taken by Christ.  Christ brings completion and fulfillment to our identity and displaces it from a possible place of idolatry.  All this to say that while I’m speaking of identity, I’m aware that my total identity was subsumed at the time of my conversion, but that does not eliminate it from my being.

This question of “the other” is the core of Christ’s ministry.  We see lepers, blind, crippled, possessed, bleeders, the dead…all who through the Jewish purity regulations have become “the other”, unclean and dangerous to have near those who are the pure and blessed…we see Jesus restoring “the others” to right relationship.  The healing itself, the physical change, is not nearly as important as the alteration of this “other” status.  But, our broken humanity continues to seek to define us by exclusion of “the other”, like the Pharisee and the tax collector, “thank God I am not like that ‘other person’ over there” (Luke 18:9-14).  This is comfortable, because it allows us to preserve our holiness and our purity, to preserve a boundary around us, while we exclude and distort “the other”.  That is the reason why the modern era shows us a continual stream of church splits, manifestly to keep ourselves safe and holy by surrounding ourselves with people that think like us.  This is not the call of the Christian.

If you apply this in a historic Canadian context, the relationship between settlers and indigenous establishes the same sort of dynamic: Pure <-> Impure   Holy <-> “the other”   Settler <-> Indigenous.  The policies of government were manifestly intended to destroy “the other” by converting them to become like the settler through policies of destruction, death and assimilation.  The goal was to ensure that there was not one Indian left in the body politic.  This question of our relationship with “the other” is one that sits squarely in the middle of the question of reconciliation.  Until we resolve our relationship with “the other”, there can be no hope of reconciliation.  In reality, the path to reconciliation with “the other” follows the path of Christ, opening our arms to “the other” and receiving them in the self-giving love manifested by the Father (Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 29).  This, of course, is the easiest thing to say, not so easy to do.

I didn’t really know any Indians as a child, using that word deliberately to reflect what I learned growing up.  What I did know had all to do with poverty and alcohol abuse, exceptionally racist jokes (so bad I can’t even repeat one today), all as a part of the normal fabric of growing up.  I can remember asking my mother one day as we drove past the Manitoba Hotel who those people were laying on the ground outside the door to the bar.  She replied, ‘They’re dirty Indians, stay away from them’.  What this created in my mind was a clear understanding that the aboriginal was “the other”, someone to be feared and to be avoided at all costs.  Now, what happens to my sense of identity when I find out one day that I am in fact at least partly “the other” myself?

The first day I publically declared my aboriginal identity, the day I “came out of the closet” as one woman described the experience, was a fearful day.  In reflecting on this afterwards I realized that by self-identifying as a member of that group, I was picking sides in a piece of Canadian history that has involved horrific wounding going back hundreds of years.  We have heard many accounts from those who relate the physical and emotional impacts of things like the residential school system…but we know too well that the story goes beyond only the physical and the emotional, for those experiences have left deep spiritual wounds that will continue to dog us until we find some healing.  That healing will not come without reconciliation.

What I realized in considering the question of reconciliation, is that this path had to start with my own acceptance of who I am, which included uncovering and acknowledging a family history that had been deliberately erased.  This story required me to look at my history and myself using what Mi’kmaq elder Albert Marshall calls ‘two-eye seeing’, seeing things with an Indigenous eye, and with a western or settler eye.  As a product of the intermarriage between a Hudson’s Bay worker and a Saulteaux woman, I’m coming to realize that this ‘two-eye’ seeing is actually the story of my life.

The first time I was told that I was Metis was in my early 20’s – my father and I were walking down a street in my hometown, Selkirk, Manitoba, just a block off the Red River.  He was explaining to me how our family dentist, Dr Slogan, told my dad about the roots of my cousin’s wisdom teeth: “They were hooked,” Dr Slogan said somewhat scandalously, “the only place I’ve seen hooked roots is with Indians.”  My dad told our dentist that our family was Metis, which explained the hooked roots.  Now when people say “You don’t look Metis” I usually just smile and answer, it’s just my teeth.

As I started to piece together the family story, it became clear that my Métis heritage had fallen into a black hole between 1870 and 1985.  This was a double whammy – not only was I soundly one of those “others” I had grown up fearing, but I didn’t even have a family narrative passed on in which to place that newly found identity.  When a family exists by ignoring its own creation narrative, what kind of disassociation does that create for people downstream?  In my search for some family history I came across an article written by my great-grandfather, Archdeacon Jacob Anderson and Archdeacon Fairies, concerning a Métis churchman, Thomas Vincent in Leaders of the Canadian Church c. 1920.

Thomas Vincent was a Metis Anglican priest in northern Manitoba who had done simply amazing work ministering and evangelizing – with the usual stories of incredible feats like walking on snowshoes from Fort Albany on James Bay to Selkirk in February 1863, a distance of some 1,300 miles, so that Vincent could be ordained.  In researching Vincent and my family tree, I was shocked to discover that my great-grandfather and Vincent were related, something that was not mentioned in the article.  As I researched Vincent, I uncovered an article that spoke about how Vincent had been passed over to be the new bishop in the north, in favour of an English priest with no experience in the north.  That exclusion came about because Vincent was Metis.  The later researcher included a quotation from Vincent’s bishop, Bishop Horden:

Horden revealed his racism most clearly in his theories of hybrid vigor and rigor mortis. The “[loss] of the European intellect in the second or third generation” resulted from a Native’s choice of mate. If he married a European woman… Horden predicted children of “fair intellect” – hybrid vigor. Otherwise mental rigor mortis would set in as with Vincent, whose sons were “all stupid”…”

What is striking about that text is that these are words from the mouth of an Anglican Bishop, speaking from a culture that at least looked like it was fully Christian.  When you hear those words, the how and why of our involvement in the residential schools mess becomes a bit clearer.  Given this attitude, my great-grandfather’s failure to mention he was related to Vincent and Metis himself, suddenly makes sense.  As a priest in the church, it wasn’t safe to admit that (and maybe still isn’t).  If you think about the time my family identity disappeared, around 1870, we’re in the aftermath of the first rebellion of the Metis nation in Red River.  The first rebellion ended with the creation of the Province of Manitoba (July 15, 1870).  This period between 1870 and 1885 was a time of great unrest.  The Canadian government’s response to the Metis agitation was to send 1,000 armed men into the Red River area – the Red River Expeditionary Force (RREF).  This was not a good time to be Metis in Red River.  Around 1870 my family made a conscious or unconscious choice to move fully into the mode of being European.  The 1901 census lists them still as Scotch-Breeds, with red skin colour, but after that point they’re only shown as Scotch or English.  Through the tricks of genetics my family became white up until the point I stepped out and re-claimed my heritage.

Up until my registration with Metis Nation in 2012, no one in my direct family line had self-identified and my research supports most of them did not know they were aboriginal.  The loss of real identity replaced with a hybrid lie that we were somehow pure European stock, at least officially, is a pattern that mirrors the larger narrative of a systemic attempt to destroy the Indigenous.  While my loss was not due to a residential school, it was due to the same climate that permitted the concepts of assimilation, termination and enfranchisement to exist as government policy. My path of re-building that family identity involved the healing of that sense of shame, and the authentic claiming of who were are.  My personal journey presents an image of what the path to reconciliation looks like writ large.

I started by speaking about our human instinct to preserve our selves by excluding “the other”, and so we sinfully seek to protect ourselves through separation.  This is not God’s way, who instead asks that we define ourselves by inclusion by considering “the other”.  Our self, in Christ, is only complete when we are able to define ourselves in relation to others.  We see this clearly in the account of the creation narrative in Genesis.  God creates different things and separates them, but those things are bound together and defined in the context of each other.  So light and dark are created, separated, but bound together.  Light has little meaning without the existence of dark.  So too the land and the water, man and woman are created as different, but are also bound together.  So too our categories of settler and indigenous only find true meaning in the completeness of embracing “the other”.

Embracing “the other” (and here I’m turning entirely to Volf’s analysis) requires that we are willing to create within ourselves space for the other.  This does not ask that we destroy our existing identity in Christ, but rather that we become willing to understand how it is that “the other”, in this case our indigenous brothers and sisters, are essential to us being able to be healed from this legacy of genocide, and how in turn the indigenous need us in order to achieve their healing from that same legacy.  Paul tells us quite clearly that there are no innocents for all have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and what this means is that you cannot avoid the task of healing by claiming victimhood as your identity.  Oppressor and victim are bound together in the same episode of sin.  A victim can only heal by making space within themselves for “the other”, in this case “the other” who was the source of the suffering.  Both oppressor and the oppressed need each other in mutuality of embrace in order to truly heal memory.

I could not achieve any sense of healing in myself until two things happened: the first required that my settler-self acknowledged and made room for my indigenous-self.  That the things I had feared from “the other”, was a part of me needing embrace.  Likewise, my indigenous-self needed to acknowledge that my settler-self was the source of my suffering, and needed to make room for that “other” within my indigenous identity.  Each part of my being, through the great embrace of Christ, needed to open arms to “the other” as Christ had opened his arms to us as hostile and sinful humanity.  True healing of memory can only occur in the context of mutual embrace of “the other” with “the other”.  Do you see?

Miroslav Volf uses the parable of the prodigal son to illustrate this process (Luke 15:11-32) through four stages.  The first is the (1) opening of arms, mirroring Christ’s arms of welcome to humanity on the cross.  We open our arms to demonstrate our willingness to embrace “the other”.  But, because we respect the integrity of “the other” we do not rush at them in order to force our embrace on them, rather we wait (2) with open arms until “the other” is ready to approach us.  There is still considerable anger and distrust in indigenous people toward the settler, and until they arrive at a place where they can embrace “the other”, we wait.  Our act of opening of arms, it must be said, is the first step in the ability of “the other” to even consider healing for themselves.  Next, once “the other” approaches us comes (3) the embrace.  This is not a tight embrace, but a gentle embrace that acknowledges the coming together of two independent “others” who are now seeking to complete their identity not by excluding “the other”, but by welcoming and acknowledging that they are only able to become complete in that embrace.  Finally comes (4) the opening of arms.  Once the embrace has occurred, we open arms to permit separation of the two “others”, but now in an acknowledged mutuality of being, in a preservation of self, but also in the transformation and completing of each “other” into a new reality.  It is only through the mutuality of this sequence that we can hope to arrive at a place where we may once again achieve some aspect of the vision of the initial meeting of indigenous and settler, of two sovereign nations dwelling together in mutual respect on the land.  A reality where we and they realize mutually that we are only able to be complete once we have acknowledged that our identity comes to fruition in the recognition of “the other’s” identity.

That process cannot happen without the presence of Christ on the cross, because the opening of arms has little meaning without there first being God’s welcoming of hostile and sinful humanity into Himself.  Our process of healing is now possible because Christ first walked that Red Road opening the path to all of us such that a new future is possible, where none was previously available.

This process of mutual embrace is the only path to justice, as much as we may prefer to find that place through destruction of the other, we can only find a place of true justice through that mutual embrace.  This is the same way that I could only find true healing of myself through the mutual embrace of my two “others” under the cross of Christ.  This only comes with an acknowledgement of my own state of sin, and my need for healing through God’s grace.  So while my identity is firmly fixed in Christ, the reconciliation of myself through the love of Christ is necessary if I hope to find complete healing.

This brings me to the end of what is still very much an ongoing journey of discovery as I try to make sense of my reality as a person who lives the Canadian experience of “two-eyed” seeing.  We, and by “we” I mean the Body of Christ manifest in our Christian communities, have a critical role to play in this process.  The Government of Canada in bringing the TRC process to a conclusion is hoping for an end to the apologies, to the pay-out of compensation, to the continual process of blaming and recrimination.  But, reconciliation cannot be achieved in that environment, because reconciliation as I’ve described is a process of mutual recognition and embrace.  That language is foreign to government.  In reality, the only group of people in our society that understand reconciliation are those gathered in church buildings like us today.  Our role in the years ahead is to manifest that opening of arms on behalf of Canada, not because we need to do it for them, but because we need to do it for ourselves.  This is our unique call as Christians, to be both reconciled and reconcilers.

This is our part in being the solution, to be the people that Christ calls us to be, by welcoming our indigenous brothers and sisters into the first step of mutual healing of the past.

———————————————————

Drew heavily from Volf’s work, most of which I’ve not directly cited by page #:

LIVING WITH THE “OTHER”. Volf, Miroslav, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Winter/Spring 2002, Vol. 39, Issue 1/2

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of IdentityOtherness and Reconciliation, Abingdon Press, November 15, 1996.

Long, “ARCHDEACON THOMAS VINCENT OF MOOSONEE AND THE HANDICAP OF “METIS” RACIAL STATUS” (Canadian Journal of Native Studies III, 1 (1983): 95-116)

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Written by sameo416

October 3, 2015 at 7:41 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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