Response to TRC must avoid mistakes of history

By Rev. Larry Brown

“You are not responsible for the things that have been done here, but you are responsible for what you do, now that you know’’.

These kind words were spoken to me by a guide from my visit to the Mohawk Institute during a session of Linking Arms several years ago. I had shared with this young Mohawk woman about my feelings of guilt and shame I had experienced upon hearing for the first time directly from a survivor of the Institute in Brantford about the chronic sexual abuse of some of the children at the school. He named his abuser – an Anglican priest. I was horrified. I was wearing a clerical collar and felt ashamed that a colleague in ministry could commit such despicably methodical sexual abuse. I felt tainted by association with him. The guide knew that my feelings of guilt and shame would simply paralyze my will to do anything constructive.

For us, today, it is easy to point to the overwhelming mountain of evidence from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and say that we do not know how to respond, to be paralyzed into inaction. Our Primate addressed the whole Canadian church from the pulpit of the Mohawk Chapel on March 19, 2016, as a response to one of the calls to action from Justice Murray Sinclair, the author of the TRC Report.

Justice Sinclair called for all Canadian churches, and, I conclude, especially the ones who had run residential schools for the government, to publicly identify a plan of action as a tangible response to the report. Primate Fred said that we are to incorporate information and reflection on the injustice of how we have dealt with First Nations People into all phases of Christian initiation. Primate Fred said that we were to read the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People on the Sunday closest to the National Aboriginal Solidarity Day, June 21. It is not too late to do this – Building Bridges provided a liturgical format which some successfully used as a litany. The world around us will watch to see how seriously we take our response.

Mohawk2June7-webMohawk Chapel Information Day

Part of our response in Huron was a clergy information day at the Mohawk Chapel on Six Nations of the Grand River Territory on June 7. The Thanksgiving Address was offered by Cayuga speaker, Taylor Gibson, before we began our celebration of the Eucharist. During the homily, I spoke about my visit to the school and the guide’s kind words. I invited those who had gathered to consider what their response is, now that they know.

Following our worship we gathered in the meeting room to learn about our government’s callous disregard for the rights and properties of First Nations People. Phil Monture presented a careful and detailed exposition of the many unsettled land claims in the Haldimand Tract, often using the government’s own documents to indict them.

We were appalled by the information Phil shared with us. Nobody could hear this presentation and still whinge about the “great deal” the government gives our indigenous neighbours. Phil emphasized that they don’t want the land returned – so much of it has been developed – but they rightly insist that they be compensated for it by the federal government who did so much to cheat them out of what is theirs.

The Mohawk Institute

mohawkAfter lunch we toured the red brick building which housed the Mohawk Institute, now being preserved as an historical site. Our guide told us about the recollections of the survivors when they came back to visit the school. We heard about the appalling injustice of the school’s normal regimen for these children – the deprivation of their indigenous identity, their language, culture and spiritual beliefs, so that they would no longer self-identify as indigenous. We heard about the appalling food, poor clothing, and the lack of most things that would bring joy to a child.

One of the Lutheran pastors who attended the day later said that as we walked around their old dormitories, he could imagine their voices crying out for reassurance, for rescue, for their families, for their way of life. We are all called to respond to this heartbreak. But how…?

Treaties Week

A working group from the June 7th meeting gathered at St. Mark’s, Brantford on June 28 to consider a further response. We discussed participation in “Treaties Week”, from November 6 to 13, 2016, as proclaimed by Premier Kathleen Wynne. We are arranging some liturgical resources for use on Sunday the 6th, as well as devotional material for people to follow through the week. On Sunday, November 13, we are planning for an opportunity to meet at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford to extend our learning about these issues with all of our people. Our Lutheran colleagues have an audio/video resource which they will use to carry the conversation through the month.

All of our group shared some thoughts about our impulse to DO something. Peeter Mogk, a Lutheran pastor and activist with Kairos, suggested that we have a huge learning curve before us and that, perhaps our main response for now is “to be” and not “to do” – at least until we have learned, considered and walked with our indigenous partners in these issues we share. We need to avoid our pattern of patrimony in telling our friends how we intend to help them. They have begun to tell us. Are we in conversation with them, are we listening, or are we so busy planning our response that we fall out of step?

At one time, indigenous people and European settlers and explorers lived harmoniously, after the example of the Two-Row Wampum of mutual independence and respect. It is going to take patience, sensitivity and faithfulness to reach the point where we could say that we are walking together as the Creator intended.

Rev. Larry Brown is the rector of the Holy Trinity Church, Brantford and former chaplain at the Mohawks Chapel.