Witness Online

Reconciling with First Peoples

RECONCILING WITH FIRST PEOPLES

Mark: What intrigues you about the history of the First Peoples in Canada?
Lloyd: The indigenous people were very gracious when foreigners first started coming to this land. It’s like they knew the passages in the Old Testament where it says that you should treat foreigners like your own people; you should love them as yourselves. They welcomed the Europeans, and showed the naïve newcomers how to survive the harsh cold, the summer heat, and the dreaded mosquitoes. They lived in harmony with their pale brothers and sisters. They even welcomed the Gospel message that the foreigners brought – that Creator had sent his Son, a great warrior of peace, to show the eternal pathway of forgiveness, faith, hope and love.

Mark: What went wrong?
Lloyd: Instead of making peace with the First Peoples, the European settlers tried to conquer them. They began a vicious cycle of colonization and controlled assimilation. There were various reasons for this oppression, but it’s clear that the First Peoples suffered greatly at the hands of the foreigners.

Mark: Can you give an example of this oppression?
Lloyd: Maybe the best example is the Indian Residential School system. During 1876-1996, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were separated from their families and forced into government-sponsored religious schools where they were to be educated and assimilated into Christian culture. In reality, these children were subjected to a very unsafe, unhealthy, and abusive environment. Thousands died of disease and malnutrition in these schools and many more suffered physical and sexual abuse. Many consider this to be Canada’s greatest historical shame.

Mark: Were Mennonites involved in these schools?
Lloyd: Initially, the schools were run by Catholics and Anglicans. But as Mennonites immigrated to Canada, many accepted teaching roles at residential schools, especially in the Prairie Provinces. By 1996, when the residential school system was abandoned, about half of the teachers in the Prairies were of Mennonite background. Although these teachers were well intentioned and may have not been personally responsible for abuse, they were certainly part of a system that left a deep wound on Canada.

Mark: What’s been happening in Canada since 1996 in response to this?
Lloyd: Not much at first, since most Canadians didn’t feel responsible. But the wound wasn’t healing and people started wondering if they could do something. So in 2008, government and church leaders across Canada initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which sought to inform all Canadians about what happened in these residential schools and to ensure that the stories of the survivors were documented. These are brutal stories, but if we are at all interested in seeking truth and reconciliation, then this is the only path. The TRC lasted for five years, but the work of reconciliation and true healing continues.

Mark: What can we do to help with the healing process?
Lloyd: In some ways, the answer is simple and scriptural: love others as we love ourselves. We need to foster genuine relationships with the First Peoples in a posture of love, hospitality and curiosity. As we get to know each other, we grow in understanding. Friendship is the best context for reconciliation. Local, national and global reconciliation is more likely to happen if it begins with people forging personal friendships first.

Mark: How have you been involved in reconciliation as a Mission Mobilizer?
Lloyd: One example is the Blanket Exercise. We’ve been doing this at our orientation for our short-term mission programs in Central Canada. It’s a simulation activity, which traces the history of Canada from an indigenous perspective. Blankets are spread out on the ground, representing North America. People move around on the blankets, representing indigenous peoples. A narrator walks everyone through the events of exploration and colonization, and whole people groups are wiped out by disease and war. As controlled assimilation continues, the blankets are ravaged and participants are either isolated or they’re observing from the sidelines because they’ve been “killed.” It’s a powerful exercise. Afterward, there’s a sharing circle when everyone has opportunity to share about how the simulation impacted their emotions, thoughts and actions. Every time we do it, it’s amazing how hearts are opened to the plight of our indigenous neighbours who have lived through generations of persecution and marginalization. People talk to each other differently afterward – they’re more compassionate and caring.

Mark: Do you partner with indigenous Christian leaders?
Lloyd: Absolutely. At most of our orientation events, we invite a Christian indigenous elder to speak to our short-term mission participants. They always bring a fresh perspective to our journey with Jesus. I remember when Norman Meade came once and started his session by holding a child in his arms and sharing how precious the child was to the Creator and to the community. He reminded us of Jesus’ teaching about what we can learn from children. It was very unique and holistic. Indigenous people have a lot to teach us about how we are social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual beings.

Mark: What about their perspective on the land?
Lloyd: That’s a critical piece for me. When I hear indigenous people talking about their connection to the land, it reminds me of the creation account in Genesis and how God entrusted the earth to humankind and asked us to take care of it. We are designed to relate to creation — to the land. Today, First Peoples globally have a legacy of being stewards of the land. They believed treaties would ensure that all peoples, despite their cultural differences, would be able to coexist and care for the land in ways that honour the Creator. Reconciliation must include the land. God is calling us to live at peace with him, with one another and with the land. Our indigenous neighbours understand this at a much deeper level than most of us. And they’re inviting us to relate to one another through the land, not just to own it, but to care for it.

Mark: Can you give us another highlight of your interaction with First Peoples?
Lloyd: At SOAR Saskatchewan in 2016, I saw something firsthand that I will never forget. My good friend, Dallas Pelly, invited his mother and his aunt to share their personal stories of being students in a residential school. We were privileged to bear witness to their pain and passion. In tears, we entered their stories. It was actually their first time in a church setting in many years. Even though the church had symbolized so much pain for them, they had the courage to join us because Dallas had found a loving and trusting community there. By the end of the evening, strangers had become friends and reconciliation had a face.