Rev. David Kim-Cragg’s Journal from the Pelican Narrows TRC hearings

Rev. David Kim-Cragg is a United Church minister in a congregation in Saskatoon, SK and is involved in Saskatchewan Conference’s Justice and Right Relations network. He and his eight year old son Noah went to the Pelican Narrows Truth and Reconciliation Commission community hearings in northern Saskatchewan in February 2012 and they have given us permission to share their reflections. You can read Noah’s thoughts in a separate post.  

Here we are at the hotel in Jan Lake.  I’m relieved to be here.  So many people told us to be careful on the roads.  It is true that the roads were lonely.  Only the last 10 kms were gravel.  Tomorrow we will have to drive 50 more km to Pelican Narrows to get to the TRC.

I was very emotional in church today before we left.  I find the whole thing a little overwhelming.  It catches me off guard.  I’m not sure what it is that is touching in me.  Tears are so near the surface but I can’t explain why.

On the way up I tried to tell Noah about why we are coming here.  When I first asked if he wanted to come he seemed eager but I guess he really didn’t know what it was all about.  I started to wonder whether bring him here was such a good idea.  There is so much pain and horror in the stories of residential schools and I have never seen any children at these hearings before.  Nevertheless these are things that happened to children.  So perhaps there is no one who will be able to understand them better than a child.  I hope that I am right.

When we arrived at the hotel I immediately felt out of my element.  The place is run down and unkept.  There is a bar downstairs. Empty beer cans littered the road on the way in from the highway and were scattered in the parking lot. When I was paying for the room Noah was told he had to go stand at the other end of the room by the door because it was a bar.  Our room has no windows, no TV and not even a lamp to read by.  The smoke detector is pulled out of the ceiling. Not the Holliday Inn! 

I am starting to feel nervous.  I am starting to have doubts about the wisdom of my coming here.  Tomorrow is another day.  We shall see what it brings.

The stars were absolutely beautiful.  I wonder if we will see the Northern Lights.

Monday night:

We’ve been to the TRC and now are back in another hotel.  We made the drive into Creighton today.  I tried to arrange a place to stay in Pelican Narrows at the health centre with some of the others who are working for the commission but no luck.  It felt like it was a bit of a cop out leaving the area all together but it just didn’t feel comfortable.  I felt ashamed when we arrived at the motel and felt a surge of happiness and relief that I was again in a familiar setting.  “I took the easy way out,” I thought, “we should have stayed near the community.”  But as it turns out it was just the thing I needed.  Leonard of the Mennonite Central Committee was the one who told me he was staying in Flin Flon and gave me the idea to come.  As it turns out many of the commission staff are also here in the very motel where Noah and I ended up.  We met them at supper.  I finally had a chance to connect with someone.

From the time we arrived in Jan Lake last night I was feeling a real tightness in my stomach, an anxiety.  The feeling grew all day as each passing moment I felt more and more a stranger in a strange land.  I failed to make conversation with anyone at the TRC except for Leonard.  Many attempts failed awkwardly.  Walking around I felt I stood out like a sore thumb.  On a walk outside children called out to me, the obvious stranger.  I began to feel like an imposter and more and more wondered why I had come.

There were some bright moments, however.  Some friendly smiles from the staff of the commission.  A exchange with a very amiable grocery store worker where I went to make sure we had some food.  A couple walks over sparkling snow, overlooking lakes and exploring a forested hill.  A group of kids playing hockey on the lake. The smiles, the beauty of the shield, and the familiar game did root me somewhat.

The stories were good to hear and again helped me to understand.  There were no really, really awful ones like I heard in Prince Albert and Regina.  But themes of corporal punishment and of missing family were strong.  In addition all the story tellers said that the food was awful and insufficient.  The kids were hungry.  And they were cold.  One woman spoke of how the children had only one blanket and that all of them were sick from the cold.  She told how one died after coughing up blood.  With every story the injustice becomes clearer and clearer.

All but one of the stories was told in Cree!  Thinking about it now I realize what an opportunity I have had.  Not only are these stories of First Nations people that I would rarely meet even in Saskatoon, not only are they the stories from a rural community that I might never come to, but also these are stories told in Cree that would surely never ever be accessible to me any other way.

I was proud of Noah.  He listened.  Even when he played his computer games which I allowed two or three times, he had his earphones on.  He also read and summarized a little pamphlet about why the TRC is necessary.  I think he is learning.

Tonight at the restaurant it was good to connect with the staff who are so intimately involved in the TRC.  I made some mistakes, some social faux pas.  Nobody wanted to talk about the NDP leadership race, for example. I made my ignorance of traditional medicine pretty obvious, too.  But nobody got up and walked out. 

And when it was finally time for Noah and I to get to our rooms a gentleman by the name of Rally got up and stood with me as I waited to pay the bill.  When I told him who I was and where I had come from he seemed pleased.  He told me it was good that I came.  He said that the TRC was important for Canada so that people would not have to be “so distant”.  He said that telling the stories was an important way to bring people together.  What he said and how he said it made me wonder if I had found a kindred spirit.  I told him that I was nervous about speaking tomorrow.  I felt good confiding in him.  He agreed that it was not an easy thing to do and told me it would be OK.  I sure felt better after that conversation.

Both Rally and Iris (another woman I got a chance to talk to tonight) as well as some of the story tellers today shared a similar perspective when it came to the involvement of the churches in the residential schools: that it was not the fault of the church or of Christianity but only of the individuals who were involved with the residential schools at that time.  People seem anxious to reassure me, or white church people like me, or perhaps even themselves that it is still OK to be Christian. 

I noticed that there was a strong Christian flavour to the TRC in Pelican Narrows as there had been in PA.  Prayers begin and end the TRC.  The Elder this morning, a devout Catholic, crossed himself and the beginning and end of his prayer.  The elder in the afternoon ended with a lovely English paraphrase of the Prayer of Jesus.  Despite the reassurances and the strong commitment to Christian religion, however, I wonder whether there isn’t something about the faith that we really should be acknowledging, something negative that needs to come to light.

Still haven’t seen the Northern Lights despite having a look before we come in to get ready for bed.

Wednesday Morning:

A lot happened yesterday.  I didn’t get a great sleep.  I think it was the anxiety about speaking.  But the strange room and the whole experience of meeting new people in a strange place kept my mind turning.  I hadn’t written anything down about what I wanted to say so when my eyes opened and wouldn’t close again at around 6AM I turned on the light and tried to make some notes for what I wanted to say.  I felt overwhelmed.  There was so much on my mind.  I wished I had taken the time to do that yesterday.  We got up at 7:45 and left the motel in time to get to the TRC when it started at 10am.  Unfortunately Noah got car sick as we arrived in the village and we had to stop to clean up the car a bit before proceeding.  We missed some opening remarks but otherwise were on time. Noah was not feeling well and looked tired.  I felt sorry for him.

I was a bit preoccupied by the idea of speaking and nervous.  I decided not to take notes and just listen.  The first speakers were men.  On this day they began to share about the more difficult things like sexual abuse.  All the speakers I heard on the second day spoke of this experience. They also picked up on the stories of the bad food that they had heard the day before.  There were also positive stories.  The men said that one of the things that they enjoyed about the school was the sports.  And one of them said that he managed to get his grade 12 and with that education was in a position to feel superior to his white co-workers who didn’t have it.  He said that education is an equalizer.

When it came to my turn to speak Leonard gave me an encouraging smile.  I decided not to take my notes with me.  None of the other speakers had notes.  Noah and I got up and walked to the front.  I shook Commissioner Littlechild’s and the MC’s hand.  Noah did, too.  We sat down.  I waited for someone to give us the nod.  I spoke the word “Tansi” which means “greetings” in Cree.  I thanked the commissioner and MC.  I thanked the High School students and the community for holding the TRC.  I thanked the Elder’s for sharing their stories.  And I thanked the Creator for the beauty of Pelican Narrows and for the new friends that I had made.

I told the assembly who I was.  That I was a United Church minister from Saskatoon.  That Noah was my son.  That a friend had met me at the TRC in Prince Albert and encouraged me to come to Pelican Narrows to speak for the church.

I said that I was from Sudbury.  That in Sudbury I had met a First Nations leader by the name of Art Solomon.  I met him through my Grandfather who was his friend.  I told them that I had been at a circle when I was Noah’s age where they smoked the pipe.  I felt very fortunate for this experience.  I told that in Sudbury there was a pile of stones that Art Solomon and others had made and that in 1987 the moderator of the United Church, Bob Smith, had come to that place and had said sorry for the residential schools.  He had felt that the Churches had tried to make the students European like them rather than learning from First Nations people.  I said he was sorry and that I was too.

I said that having my son with me for the TRC had helped me to listen to the stories that had been shared.  I said that though I was younger than the elders who had shared their experiences their stories made me wonder how their parents had felt.  I said I could not imagine what it would be like if someone came to my door and told me that they were going to take away my son. (My lips began to tremble at this point and I had to pause.)

I think there was something else that I said after that and paused but I can’t remember.  I remember looking over at Noah and Noah looked at me, worried that I wasn’t saying anything.

Then I started to talk about the fact that Noah’s mom was from Korea.  That there was a man in Korea called Moon IkWhan who had worked hard to bring the two Koreas together after the separation.  I said that I sometimes thought that the two Koreas reminded me of Canada where First Nations and the rest of Canada rarely talk to one another.  I said that I would like to share a song from Korea, following the example of Horace who shared a song the day before.  I said the translation of the song was:

Let us take our warm minds and put them in the wind so that all people could hear the sound of justice.

Let us take our warm minds and put them in our tears to water the earth with and make something beautiful grow.

Let us take our warm minds and but them in a song that will bring people together and make them one and give them hope.

Then I sang.  When I started to sing I could hear the room go silent.  It was the most beautiful moment for me.  People really listened.  It is funny because I wasn’t sure I should do it.  What does my singing a Korean song have to do with the TRC?  I’m not sure but people afterwards said it was beautiful.

When I finished singing I said “tapwi” which means “that’s the truth” and then “Amen.”  And Noah and I went to sit down.  We both got up pretty fast and were tripping over one another.  I was in a hurry to get out of there.  I felt conspicuous, exposed, uncomfortable.    I felt my words had been so hollow.  When I was sharing them I felt that people were bored.  I felt that I had failed to find the right words.  All these things went through my mind.

When I arrived back at our seat the health support workers that I had met the night before gathered around to say thank you.  I got some warm and tender hugs.  I wondered why I was getting this attention.  I hadn’t noticed other people being given that sort of treatment after they spoke.

Steven Bear came and sat down beside me.  He too is a health support person (a counsellor).  He asked me if I wanted to go somewhere private to talk.  It was a great help to debrief with him.  He reminded me that the people sharing their stories were strong and though they had been hurt their spirits were not broken.

Noah and I ate lunch.  At 2pm we went out for a walk.  I met someone who told me that the event was going to go on late into the evening.  I didn’t want to spend another night in a hotel.  Noah was looking tired.  Since we couldn’t stay ‘til the end and since many of the friends I had met, like Leonard and the counsellors, were already going home I thought Noah and I should also get going.    I felt bad leaving early.  I also felt bad because I had failed to connect with any of the elders who spoke. 

On the way home Noah played his computer all the way until PA.  We stopped for Chinese food.  Noah and I wrote his journal for the day after we ate.  As we left the restaurant we reflected that the one thing we had hoped to see but had not yet seen: the northern lights.  Lo and behold as we pulled out of the city a very faint vale of light began to appear in the sky.  It increased in intensity until it was a bright ark across the northern horizon.  I pulled the car over twice so that we could get a good look at them.  Was it a sign of blessing?


Filed in: Indigenous Rights


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