Last March, I spent a week at a retreat centre in Prince George B.C. taking in the second week of Returning to Spirit, a program of face-to-face reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.
This program was created in the Northwest Territories by Marc Pizandawatc, an Algonquin from Kitiganzibi First Nation, and Ann Thompson, a Sister of St. Anne from B.C., to assist those living in the legacy of the residential school experience to move towards a personal experience of reconciliation and healing.
This location was significant for me, because the event was held in a building that was once a Catholic high school where I taught nearly 40 years ago when I first came to Canada.
This school had significant numbers of aboriginal students who lived in residences on campus, and non-aboriginal students who commuted from town. This year of teaching at Prince George was my first experience of working with aboriginal people.
The Returning to Spirit experience for me was an opportunity to share experiences, both painful and joyful, with aboriginal women and men from the area, some of whom attended the school where I had taught.
The group at Returning to Spirit contained equal numbers of aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. We worked hard at developing listening skills, and learning how to tell our stories without getting stuck in past experiences of pain, trauma and anger.
The last three days were spent in one-to-one and large group conversations in a safe environment where words of apology and forgiveness could be spoken.
Returning to Spirit shows a way to enter deep and honest conversations that can lead to trust building, reconciliation and healing between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples in our own churches and local communities.
Returning to Spirit is coming to Edmonton in early March (www.returningtospirit.org).
Today is a time when aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples need to find practical ways of working together more effectively. Generations of colonialism, and social, economic and cultural disruption have done great harm to aboriginal communities.
This can be seen in the statistics describing the disproportionate numbers of aboriginal people homeless on our streets and incarcerated in our prisons.
Programs such as Edmonton's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness can help to make a difference. Of the 1,600 formerly homeless men and women who have found homes through the Housing First program in Edmonton, over 40 per cent are aboriginal.
The Welcome Home program will soon be launched in Edmonton. In this program, members of Edmonton's faith communities will be invited to volunteer to journey with, welcome and befriend the formerly homeless women and men who are moving into their communities and starting a new life.
The Welcome Home program will provide training opportunities for the program volunteers that will include cultural communication and an appreciation for aboriginal culture. Hopefully, these encounters will provide rich opportunities for friendship, healing and reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.
This is also a time of reconciliation and healing all across Canada. The national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is now entering its final years. The TRC emerged from an experience of years of litigation between the federal government and the churches and aboriginal peoples who attended government funded and church-operated Indian residential schools.
The TRC has already conducted national hearings in Winnipeg, Inuvik and Halifax. In Saskatchewan, local hearings are already underway that will lead to a large national TRC event in June in Saskatoon. A TRC event is scheduled for Alberta within the next two years.
What has become clear in the TRC events that have already taken place is that it is important for both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people to attend and participate in these events.
Because of the historic connection with the Indian residential schools, it is important local Catholics attend the TRC events in their regions.
Gerry Kelly, who has worked on these issues on a national level, reminds us that these conversations are not only about the past: "It is very important not to separate a response to residential schools from the broader issue of culture, of language, of treaty and land rights or the many other questions of justice within out own church community and the broader Canadian society."
The Catholic Church has a rich spiritual tradition that speaks often of reconciliation. Today we need to take the practical steps that begin to make this a historical reality.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)