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Thoughts on the National Indigenous Peoples Day: June 21, 2020

A reflection by The Rev’d Canon Dr. Wendy Fletcher that originally appeared in our weekly newsletter.

Canada has long prided itself on the idea that we value diversity and that all peoples stand equally beside each other and before the law. In 1971, Canada became the first country in the western and northern world to adopt a policy of official multi-culturalism. The symbol of the mosaic has long defined us. However, as we prepare to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day, particularly at a moment in our world which is fraught with awareness that racism abounds in our society and others, we come face to face with the reality that the story we thought we were writing is in fact very different than the one we have written and continue to write. The impact of settler colonialism on Indigenous communities throughout this land continues to undermine the health, well-being and opportunity of each new generation of Indigenous children.

Proportionality in the Canadian population creates a clear image of this ongoing impact. Indigenous persons are:

    * Incarcerated at a far higher rate proportionally than any other group in Canadian society – in fact the fastest growing prison population is among Indigenous women
    * Likely to live much shorter lives: the average life expectancy for Indigenous men is 15 years lower than our national average, and women’s is 10 years
    * Much more likely to die as infants – higher infant mortality rates
    * Much more likely to commit suicide
    * Much more likely to have their children taken into state care
    * Much more likely not to have adequate nutrition and clean water

…than the average Canadian.

Current thinking about equity within our society argues that multi-culturalism, as well-intentioned as it was, is not enough. It is not enough to get to know each other’s cultures at a pot luck or community event. For meaningful change to happen, change which has the capacity to change the direction of ongoing harms, moving from multi-culturalism to an Anti-Oppression or Anti-Indigenous Racism stance will be required. A shift of this kind implies that we are willing to re-distribute power, away from historic settler hands and into the hands of Indigenous communities themselves. We must let go of who we thought we were and how we have done things in the past. Our former ways have defined power with settler privilege as the determining force. The former Indian Act and all it implies, still remains as the framework around which relations with Indigenous peoples and communities are framed. That must end. As persons who themselves were not raised as Indigenous we must change – we must move over and make space in our selves, our churches and our communities in support of self-government and self-definition by Indigenous persons.

But what does this look like on the ground? Let me share a story. This story is of the moment I began the journey of understanding what re-distributing power means. This story took place more than a decade after I, as a scholar, had been teaching on this very topic – and thought I understood something about it.

It was July, 2000. I had just moved to Vancouver to assume a new position with the Vancouver School of Theology. Right out of the gate, I was teaching a week long intensive in the Indigenous Ministries degree program. All my students were older; they were also all residential school survivors. The course was entitled, “Post-Colonial Theology”. The course was to run for 5 days. I enthusiastically began teaching, my lectures all prepared. I had trained in the 1980s as a feminist so the desks were arranged in a circle! I thought I understood about shared power. On the Wednesday, at 11:20am, half way through the course, an elder from the Gits’xan nation, Frances Brown asked to speak. She stood, as is the First Nations way when showing respect. “Professor Fletcher, we are very grateful for all of your knowledge. We thank you for sharing it with us. But everyone else in this circle has learning on this topic. We have lived it. We would like to share. Would you sit, so that we may stand?”

In that moment I had a choice to make. I could carry on as I had learned to: the professor who held power in the class and dispensed knowledge. Or I could let go of my old notion of what a professor’s role was so that the power and the learning could be shared. I sat down. And then the real learning began – and carried on for me in that place for 14 years. I learned that my voice was genuinely only one. My experience was no more important than anyone else’s. I learned that how I held power, how I held voice, would significantly affect the space there was (or was not) for others to hold their power, use their voice, realize their potential and achieve their place in history.

Jesus modelled this. He understood that power over was not the way of the God of love: he welcomed all, he made space in his words and actions for all, especially those harmed by the hard edge of the world. Ultimately he communicated The Way of God by giving up his own life on a cross for the sake of a world God loved. We as Canadian Christians are called at this moment also to give up old ways, to let go and follow, rather than lead, as our Indigenous brothers and sisters fashion a new day for their communities, and in so doing, a new world for all of us. May God give us grace and courage to follow. Therein lies the path of our redemption and the in-breaking of the kin-dom of God.

Note: While living in BC I was adopted by the Brokenleg family of the Lakota nation and given the name Wan Bli Wi’akawin (Eagle Feather Woman) and by the Kanyslu’ii Clan of the Haida Nation, Star House and given the name Xu’ll Xuhlan (Shining Raven). I honour these houses by signing this reflection with my Indigenous names.

Respectfully Submitted
Wan Bli Wi’akawin, Xu’ll Xuhlan

© 2020 The Rev’d Canon Dr. Wendy Fletcher