And yet where in your history books is the tale
Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth?
Of the preachers who lied? 
And the people who died?

– Buffy Sainte-Marie, “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying, 1966

In late May of 2019, the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls concluded its work and published an over 1200-page report. The Report engendered a brief maelstrom of controversy upon its release, most notably due to its unflinching evocation of the term, genocide, with respect to the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA in Canada. Beyond this initial eruption, there was little response from the Canadian public, particularly when compared to the enthusiastic reception of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and its 94 Calls to Action. Such silence was even more deafening in the churches, which, save for the ecumenical organization, Kairos, offered little, by way of direct engagement with the Report. This also stands in marked contrast to the churches’ endorsement of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and their wide-scale adoption of its Calls to Action. In this part of my reflection on the churches’ response to national inquiries and commissions concerning Indigenous peoples, I would like to begin by arguing that the “buy-in” to the TRC by the churches was not only due to its historical culpability, but is also due to the TRC’s tacit understanding of the nature of reconciliation, which is generally endorsed by the churches.  

When the TRC concluded its work in 2014, the Canadian Council of Churches presented an “Expression of Reconciliation” at the Commission’s closing ceremonies. The Canadian Council of Churches represents 85 percent of Canadian Christians and the leaders of each of the member churches signed on to the Expression.  The churches expressed sincere regret over the past, particularly with respect to the residential schools, and committed themselves to reconciliation, which was framed thus in the Expression:

As Christians we base our lives and all our relationships on our experience of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ to God, one another and all creation (2 Corinthians 5:18). Our faith calls us to love and serve in the same manner that Jesus loved and served, to be messengers and ambassadors of reconciliation. We are called to break down walls that divide and to welcome all we meet as fellow citizens.  [Emphasis mine].

Councilofchurches.ca, last modified 2020, https://www.councilofchurches.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/CCC-Expression-of-Reconciliation-Final-Final-EN-Signatures-Complete.pdf.

Here one must ask the question what the nature of reconciliation is that is upheld by these words. Why is fellow citizenship the modality expressed by the churches of restored relations? And why do the churches uncritically assume that the overcoming of past wrongs can or ought to be done through the colonial nation state? The next sentence is equally vexing:

In the long history of the relationship of Indigenous Peoples in Canada with other Canadians, it is painfully clear that we, as Christian communities, have often fallen short of living the love and service of Jesus. 

Here the problem is seen to lie in the fact that Christian communities failed to be adequately Christ-like, and while I do not take issue with the sentiment, there is no place in which the distortions of relations are attributed to the colonial project. The subtext is clear. We must become more loving and serving to be reconciled partners with Indigenous Canadians [Emphasis mine]. Thus the CCC’s response also conforms nicely to a nationalist narrative that reconciliation will come through acts of local healing rather than redistribution of resources, Indigenous sovereignty and structural change—in short, through an interruption, rather than a continuation of the national project. The reconciled future, according to the TRC and the CCC alike, is dependent upon local acts of truth telling, love, and service. It is through these therapeutic and private interventions that change will take place and the past will be left behind. 

Many Indigenous scholars have contested the assumptions that inhere in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, particularly in its casting of the Indigenous subject as one in need of healing from trauma. Two things are wrong with this modality of reconciliation. One is that it problematizes the individual rather than the structure; and second, it is predicated upon a view of trauma as a past and latent experience rather than an ongoing one. While there is no doubt that Indigenous persons experience trauma, the framing of trauma as a personal psychological imbalance rather than the consequence of colonial violence, ends up if not blaming the victim, then at least diverting the problem to the individual rather than the nation state. 

The churches need to ask at the very least the degree to which the healing mechanisms that they have endorsed are themselves colonially-produced. What tacit forces and assumptions about Indigenous subjecthood are shaping them? Who is benefiting from them? And finally, what is the picture that is in place of reconciliation? If trauma as seen as chiefly a personal (and Indigenous) experience to be overcome, then much is concealed about the ongoing role of the colonial state in its creation and perpetuation. As Anishinaabe philosopher Dale Turner argues, the dominant understanding of reconciliation, “focuses on resolving historical injustices in order to heal ‘unhealthy’ Aboriginal communities…”. (Dale Turner, “On the Idea of Reconciliation in Contemporary Aboriginal Politics,” in Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress,“ edited by Jennifer Henderson and Pauline Wakeham (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), p. 100).

Our notions concerning healing from trauma as the primary modality of reconciliation (including Christian versions of these therapeutic terms such as love and service) need to be critically interrogated, as they deflect from the current material changes required in this country for reconciliation, and as they shift the focus to intervention and management of Indigenous subjects and communities. As I write this, demonstrations have erupted throughout Canada in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs and land defenders of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia who oppose the Coastal GasLink project. The RCMP has descended upon the unceded Gitdumt’en territories of the Wet’suwet’en Nation to enforce a colonial court injunction; they are heavily armed and using intimidation against the peaceful demonstrators. Reconciliation in Canada is a long way off. It remains to be seen how the churches will respond, but one thing is clear. They will need to abandon old soteriologies, which speak of progress. It is hoped that they will at the same time critically interrogate their cozy confidence that the nation state will be the Kingdom’s benign usher.


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