Because We Belong Together

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By Naomi Pattison-Williams | Twitter: @NaomiWilliams87

I started learning the story of Canada’s indigenous peoples quite slowly. After marrying a Canadian three years ago, I picked up information in bits and pieces but, as we were living in England, it remained in my peripheral vision.

We moved to Vancouver nine months ago and from the first days here in unfamiliar territory my heart felt pulled toward the stories of those who have been here “since the first sunrise,’” as Melaney and her people often say. I began to learn some beautiful things and some terrible, weighty ones about their stories. All the while, though, as an immigrant I was trying to figure out how to approach the narrative, how it intersects with mine. Given Britain’s role in shaping the story through policies such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, it is a part of my history. And yet, for the first few months, I felt I was what they call in the legal world “an interested party.” Namely, an engaged but ultimately neutral outsider.

***

A few months later and I found myself in a talking circle at the Atamiskākēwak National Gathering with Chief Robert Joseph. He spoke candidly about his experience in Residential School: how it felt as a six-year-old to watch his mother walk away as she dropped him off in a strange place and how he would watch worms “dance” in his morning porridge with his classmates. He told of the pain of displacement, abuse and fractured identity; about the subsequent outplaying of trauma in his life; about what reconciliation now means to him and what it looks like in his life. He talked deeply about Love and embodied it with a generous grace.

Toward the end, a young man named Michael Starr-Desnomie raised his hand. He began to say in a quiet voice that, for him, reconciliation looks like “peace.” He spoke even as his voice quavered, sharing vulnerably about the racism he experienced in school and on the hockey rink and of the deep pain from his childhood as the son of parents suffering the effects of inter-generational trauma. He spoke of his longing for peace, asking through his tears, “Don’t we all bleed the same colour?” I could barely breathe and the whole room sat spellbound, completely undone.

Later that week, Michael and some of his classmates led us in a blanket exercise and, after we had all shared what had impacted us, they shared some more of their stories with us. They responded to our tears with some of their own, but also with playful prods towards our messy, Kleenex-strewn group–“C’mon smile! I want to see you smile, not cry!”

I asked Michael afterward what he hopes to do after school and he looked me in the eye and said, “I want to be a leader of my people as we move towards a better future.” These guys are already leading us–leading us even though they shouldn’t have to–and I am humbled.

So many holy spaces from throughout that week have marked me. As we told these young people that they are brave, that we wouldn’t forget them, that we would do all that we could to help make things right, I was struck by the weight of those assurances. While my privilege means that I could go home and file the week away simply as a “powerful experience,” I want to honour my word to these courageous and magnificent young people whose names are etched on my heart.

I won’t forget them. I won’t move on. I will hold their stories knowing they are like incense–a rich reminder of the sacred and the true–and keep seeking a better way for us to live together in our world. Not out of guilt or shame, but because of what the week in Moose Jaw reinforced deep in my bones: we belong together and that means we are to honour each other.

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And so, as a Canadian immigrant woman I know that the stories of indigenous people in Canada do intersect with mine, but not just because I am British. They intersect with mine because, as Idelette often reminds us, we are not free if our sisters and brothers are not free.

I am not free while indigenous children make up 87% of children in the foster care system. I am not free while over 100 reserves across Canada still don’t have ready access to clean drinking water. I am not free while my indigenous sisters are being murdered and going missing. I am not free as long as anyone says that indigenous folk should “get over” Residential Schools and racist comments are thrown around the hockey rink. I am not free while the ravages of intergenerational trauma rob young people of opportunity, flourishing and wholeness.

My liberation is bound up in that of my indigenous sisters and brothers, and theirs in mine.

Chief Joseph said that every morning we are to ask the Creator, “How am I to live into reconciliation today?” We were encouraged to each pick just a couple of the 94 Calls to Action and to make those our focus. So I am looking at ones from the legal, the church and the ‘l”newcomer to Canada” categories as these are all areas in which I feel somewhat invested–and I am starting to research what is already being done and how I might offer my prayers and my voice and my hand.

I was struck by a question that Nichole asked Chief Joseph–“We are talking a lot about reconciliation, but do you think we have sat long enough with the truth?”

“No,” he responded. “The truth is something that we need to sit with and search for every day.”

Seeking and reconciling with the truth is a long, ongoing process and we aren’t done. But may we be women who are all in. May we have the courage to sit long and steady with uncomfortable truths and lament. May we be led forward in that truth by those too often pushed to the margins. And may we have the gracious wind of the Creator at our back as we walk out this journey of reconciliation together.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for bringing us into this space, Naomi. I’m learning to sit and search for that life of reconciliation… It’s hard and overwhelming but I love seeing God’s perfect creation at work when I hear these stories.

    • Thank you for reading Annie – yes it can be hard and overwhelming to sit in that space, but beautiful too.

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