Over the past number of months, people in the U.S. have been confronting the issue of racism and violence against African-Americans.
Police shootings in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, and now the church massacre in Charleston, S.C., have held a mirror up to Americans — and the reflection isn’t always pretty.
Something similar happened in Canada in June, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission presented its report about Indian residential schools — a deep, dark stain on our collective history that reverberates into our troubled present.
The schools, which began in the late 19th century and operated until the latter part of the 20th century, were designed to assimilate Aboriginal people into the dominant Canadian culture — to “take the Indian out of the child.”
Children as young as 5 were forcibly taken from their families and taken to schools, many of them church-run, to be educated in the ways of white society.
Altogether, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were forced to attend the schools. They were forbidden to speak their own languages or practice their spiritual and cultural customs. Many also experienced physical and sexual abuse.
The result has been devastating for Aboriginal people in Canada — then, and now. The harm caused by the schools has been passed down through the generations. Many Aboriginal people today struggle with poverty and addictions, and they are greatly overrepresented in Canadian prisons.
The commission produced heart-rending stories and 94 recommendations. Among them is a desire for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians to find a way to bridge the great divide between the two groups, in order to promote healing.
Most of the recommendations are about actions governments can take. But what can individuals do? Prior to the release of the report, I asked that question of Kyle Mason, an Aboriginal Christian pastor in Winnipeg, Man.
The first thing not to do, he said, is show up with plans, projects or programs. Instead, sit down and have a conversation with Aboriginal people.
That conversation should cover what life is like for Aboriginal people today, what needs exist in the community, how Aboriginal people have experienced Christianity.
Non-Aboriginal Christians need to remember that “the church has not always been kind to us,” Mason said. “A lot of evil has been done to us in the name of the church.”
He noted that a lot of people still suffer the effects of residential schools, including those, like him, who didn’t attend one. His father was forced to go and “endured a lot of terrible and harsh things.”
These “are not easy things to talk about. But they are important if we are to have a truly open and honest conversation.”
If Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can talk like that, Mason believes it will be a big step toward healing.
For someone like me, who always wants to do something, that isn’t easy advice to hear. And I don’t think I’m alone; Most of the Mennonites I know are doers, too. If we see a problem, we want to fix it.
But Mason’s words ring in my ears: Take time to listen and learn. I suspect it’s good advice on both sides of the border.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.