Rev John Whyte’s reflections on Saskatoon

Rev. John Whyte is a United Church minister in Regina, SK and was present at the historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event in Saskatoon June 21-24 2012. Here are his personal reflections, shared with his congregation and shared here with you with his permission.


SUNDAY, JULY 8, 2012.

INTROIT:  There is a Balm in Gilead  


This service is based on the experience of the Saskatoon National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held from June 21 to June 24. 

Vindication through the power of the Lord, even in the face of the destructive force of others, is one way to see the promise of wholeness and of living within the spirit of peace and holiness.  We yearn for God’s vindicating love.  Waiting for, and waiting on, and seeking.  The Lord brings courage and strength, says the psalmist.  How does these ideas of vindication, peace and waiting for holiness relate to the experiences of Indian Residential Schools – experiences which proved to be so abusive and which inflicted such deep and, as it turns out, such long-lasting damage on Canada’s First Nations people. 

At the TRC hearings, witness after witness described the search for courage, strength, vindication, emotional well-being – for vindication as persons who are granted respect and dignity.  As we know, there are many, many First Nations people just as there many among all of us, who have not found this and whose lives are in chaos and destruction, and for whom dignity and wellness are still a distant dream.

But, at the TRC event, the consistent image was people who had come through so much broken-heartedness, had faced so much denigration and disrespect, but who are on the path of courage and wellness.  Has this come from seeking the face of the Lord and feeling the grace of God?  Well, yes, that would be one way of putting it, although not a way of putting it that is truer than any other.  The way this seeking is put in the TRC process is called honesty – or truth.  And, not just the truth of suffering and damage, although there is plenty of that to face, but equally importantly – or more importantly – the truth of the oppression, of cruelty and abuse, of mindless and the destructive displacement of everything persons and societies value – home, land, religion, economy, language, parents, kinship, safety and love.

This truthfulness can heal the broken spirit, the broken child, the broken family, but only when we all are willing to share in this truth.  We are on a great journey in our land from suffering to justice, and to hope, to healing and to cure. Troni’s song has named fort us one path of wholeness – waiting on the Lord’s strength.  Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, names another path to this healing in his poem “The Cure at Troy”.  It is the path of hoping and striving for justice. 

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

 History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

 So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

 Call miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

 That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

It means once in a lifetime

That justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.

 Let me be straight. The road to hope and history rhymimg is through a hard history – the history of “Human beings suffer, they torture one another”.  And the miracle of recovery is self-healing.

 The TRC witnesses have stories both brutal and heart-wrenching – stories of torture and genocide. Well, that latter claim is in dispute, although we know that people experienced deeply cruel treatment and the stated aim of policy makers from Nicholas Flood Davin to Duncan Campbell Scott was to eradicate Canada’s Indigenous society.  In any event, whatever the exact moral parallels of human oppression, for me, being present at the Saskatoon event made it impossible to celebrate Canada Day, at least for this year. 

Here’s the gist of what I heard– over and over and over again, in a loose pattern.  I was happy in my home with my mother and father, and my kokom and my nimosom. I was warm and well fed. I was happy, especially on the trap line in winter. But when I was six – or seven – they came to our village and they took me away to school, and I cried. 

My father wanted to stop them but he couldn’t.  He told me that I would be fine, that I would be alright, that the school would help me.  

They cut off my hair and I cried. They took away my clothes.  They took my moccasins. They called be a dirty little savage. They told me not to talk to my brother. They heard me speak Cree and I was beaten. 

At night the priest came to the dormitory and chose one of the girls to go with him.  Until I was twelve and had an operation I couldn’t speak and the caretaker sexually assaulted me, again and again. 

My brother and I ran away. They caught us. I told my brother I would take the first beating so they would be worn out when it was his turn to be beaten.  

My father sometimes came and stood outside the school fence. I wanted to talk to him; I wanted to ask him to take me away, but I wasn’t allowed to speak to him. 

When I was sixteen I left the school. I was so happy, but I couldn’t go home.  

I was ashamed.  My mother was ashamed. My father was ashamed.

 I had a baby. I got married.  I took drugs.  I was a bad husband.  I left my wife and kids and travelled around.  I beat my wife.  I was a bad mother.  I drank whenever I had the chance.  I went to the city and lived with a guy. My mother looked after my children.  I spent a long time in jail. I killed a man.  

Twenty years ago I got a job.  My manager helped me.  She gave me a second chance when I didn’t come to work.  My mother asked me for forgiveness.  We cried.  I began to read the Bible. An elder taught me the way of the Creator. I have been dry for 14 years.  I work at the regional hospital.  I work for the corrections services.  I’m a volunteer in the school.  My wife and I have 10 grandchildren.  Our grandchildren dance and go to school.  My granddaughter won a scholarship.  Three of my children have degrees.  My son works for the province as a supervisor.  I am proud of my children. 

These are the voices; this is our legacy.

Before leaving the experience of hearing truth, I want to say two more things.  Sometimes men in their fifties would step up to the witness table – strong and proud, competent and confident. Would say they want to tell their story.  They would start. 

Then, they would say: “I was seven when … “  And, then, no more  words, just tears.  Just a seven year old boy watching, again, as his mother and father disappear from his life, broken today, as he was broken then.  Grasping for the composure that will let him become the person he has become. 

To experience this is to be drawn into the deepest sense of sadness – a relived sadness over the loss of parents’ presence that is palpable and immediate, made deeper because the loss was so callously inflicted, and our church was an agent of such suffering.  Can we atone?  How?

The second thing is this: At the TRC event the evil of residential schools had a specific face.  And it was not the government that created them. It was the churches.  Before the Saskatoon event I knew that the churches ran schools and were implicated in Canada’s Indian Residential School program..  Then I went to TRC event in Saskatoon and I knew – I really knew – that it was the churches that destroyed lives. 

I was asked by one of the panel moderators in Saskatoon to speak at one of the open discussions.  I did not intend to identify myself as a United Church member or as a Christian.  I intended to talk about steps for political reconciliation.  When I got there, however, I realized that I had no other relevant identity than as a member of a church that had played its part in what is perhaps Canada’s greatest moral collapse – at least, I hope there has not been anything more brutal or more socially destructive. 

I did not proclaim my United Church identity in order to proclaim the great benefit to the healing process of the gospel of love, peace and mercy that Jesus showed us.  Although I hope that this healing power can be present, I simply found myself unable to claim for the church any place in the much needed processes of restoration from brokenness, or reconciliation from our dividedness. 

At that moment, the churches, including the United Church of Canada, seemed too implicated in this loss and this destruction, seemed too integral a part of an evil devastation of a people – a devastation of humanity – a precious part of humanity.  At that moment, I simply could not figure out how to be present in a healing way, or in a way to hold in my heart peace, not shame, and not guilt.

 So, now what?  Our church is part of a horrible rivenness between peoples – a rivenness that has left a legacy of crippling social incapacity and fostered toxic inter-societal relations… How do we now join with Canada’s First Nations on a path of right relationship, of right living, of righteousness?

Of course, I have my ideas – ideas of political daring and trust and generosity – I have my voice, a voice supporting claims for liberation, empowerment, sharing our wealth, inter-community respect –  claims, in fact,  to unwind the ravages of our colonialist history.  But, my friends, those steps are for another day.  Let this part of our journey end with this poem of the American poet, Christian Wiman –“Every Riven Thing”.  Distinctions, classification, divisions are the way that God made us to understand, that God brought us closer to Godness, closer to the miracle of creation.  But, at the same time, it is God’s presence in our riven state that brings home the core truth that our understanding of differences is not the deep truth, cannot be the basis of our moral compass, and gives us no privilege. 

Within creation are one, all are the one creation, all have a bound fate.  We are joined to all, all is holy, and all must and all can be reconciled.  Creation is transcendent and grand and whole – just as we all need to be.  Just, in fact, as we already are – reconciled, and our brokenness already healed.  This grace is here; we need only see it – and accept it. 

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into the stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.

Filed in: Indigenous Rights, Spirited Reflections


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