Open to Change

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When you read a story for yourself, you let it in. Reading is an act of vulnerability. We don’t know how stories might change us. We don’t know what might happen.

After the final Tragically Hip concert last August, Alan Herbert, retired director of Gracefield Camp and Conference Centre, posted the following message on Facebook:

“On Saturday night Gord Downie challenged all Canadians to understand the plight of our Indigenous peoples and take responsibility for corrective action. Imagine if all 11 million of us who heard Gord’s call to action took the time to understand this country’s painful past. Imagine if all of us understood how the legacy of residential schools and colonization continues to shape the lived experience of Indigenous communities… It begins with understanding, and the best way to start is to read the TRC final report. Join me in reading the report.”

So I did. I am. It’s a long document—364 pages—and it’s a hard read, too. There are so many things I wish I didn’t know. But I am glad I am reading.

Alan’s post is part of the larger Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reading Challenge which was launched by B.C. writer Jennifer Manuel. Manuel emphasises that this is not a government project and that she is just a someone who wants more people in Canada to pledge to read the TRC report for themselves. Her initial goal was to have 1,000 people pledge by June 21, which is Aboriginal Day in Canada. Now well over 3,000 individuals have pledged. The Reading Challenge is a way of demonstrating that people are listening to the stories of Indigenous Canadians.

Reading the report, I am impressed by how many names and voices have been included. There are no vague anecdotes, only memories. This is a concrete work of history-making. I am learning that there is so much they never taught me in high school. Even at university, when I took a course in Contemporary Religious Situation, there was no mention of the troubled relationships between churches and Indigenous communities.

But through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we know now that this is our history—nationally and denominationally. Last month, Gord Downie and comic artist Jeff Lemire published Secret Path, a linked book and album which tell the story of Chanie Wenjack. He was 12 years old when he ran away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in Kenora, Ont., and his subsequent death from hunger and exposure sparked the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools. The school was run by the Women’s Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church. This is our story.

On the Secret Path website, Gord Downie wrote: “All those Governments, and all those Churches, for all those years, misused themselves.”

The institutions of government and church are meant to serve the people and yet for many over many years, their authority and power was misused and people were hurt. I am devastated by the calm assumption that the Government of Canada held for so long that Indigenous people were considered unfit to make decisions for their own children. I grieve for the loss of language suffered coast to coast because without our languages, how can we begin to understand our hearts? I hope that by reading the stories shared through the truth and reconciliation process, we not only create a permanent record of the residential school experience, we are also establishing a practice of listening to each other. 

In the spring of 2008, I attended the launch of Remembering the Children, a cross-Canada tour promoting the then-upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was a remarkable occasion in the Grand Hall of the National Museum of Civilisation with drums, dancers and powerful, hopeful words. At that time, Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and himself a survivor of the residential school system, said the sad story of the residential schools “belongs to the country.” It is ours to hold in our humble hands that we might not misuse ourselves again.

The TRC Reading Challenge demonstrates that we are listening individually as well as institutionally. The website includes a personalized page where readers can keep track of pages, as well as see statistics about themselves and other readers. While I don’t think that competitiveness is helpful, accountability is. It is good to be held responsible for my pledge to read. To lean on Paul, I feel called to be a doer, not just a hearer, and reading is my action. I hope that many others feel that way, too. This might be how we are the church—by each taking our part and not delegating our work to a vague or abstract collective identity.

It isn’t easy to open ourselves up to these stories but this is healing work we can do. We can each listen, receive, mourn and remember. We can begin to understand. We can be open to being changed.

As Jennifer Manuel puts it: “There’s no deadline. It’s not a race. It’s a commitment.”

If you want to find out more about the TRC Reading Challenge, please visit trcreadingchallenge.com.

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About Katie Munnik

Katie Munnik is an Ottawa writer currently living in Cardiff with her Spouse and three growing children. Each Monday on the Messy Table, she writes about the practice of reading lectionary and the practical theology of parenting - from birthday cakes to broken hearts and everything in between. Katie also writes Kaleidoscopically, a monthly column in the print edition of the Presbyterian Record. You can also find Katie on twitter @messy_table Subscribe to this blog.