Abiding in Right Relations

a sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter by Anne Harding
God our Creator, open our hearts to you and to one another so that we may abide in your love. Open our ears to hear truth with grace and mercy. Open our minds to know that the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways that we cannot instruct or understand. Open our eyes to see the many and various ways that we are called to show love to one another in today’s world. Amen.
I could almost hear the collective groan, see the collective eye roll, and feel the collective shrug from many of you when you heard I would be sharing the message today, talking about our Synod’s commitment to Abiding in Right Relations with Indigenous Peoples in Canada. To be sure, these reactions aren’t typically given to my face, but I am well aware that there are many prevailing stereotypes, misconceptions, assumptions and complexities when it comes to the history, experiences, and current context of Indigenous issues and interests in our country.
My request of you here today is that you, too, will prayerfully keep an open heart, open ears, and an open mind to what I have to say - at least for the next 8 to 10 minutes. And also that if there are additional thoughts on your mind, that you please share them with me, either after service in our discussion circle or privately in a way that works for you.
For me, this whole idea of “right relations” or “reconciliation” started almost 15 years ago, before the current ‘reconciliation movement’ really took off. When I was in University I had the opportunity to do some volunteer work with local Indigenous youth. I was asked to spend a year working with high school students from here in Calgary as well as from Siksika and Tsuut’ina nations who had been selected to be members of an exhibition team at the World High School Debating Championships.
I said yes, and spent the next year learning way more than I think I ever taught those young people, including from Jess McMann, Cam & Joy McMann’s daughter, who I coincidentally recognized from Hope. She continues to be a teacher of mine and gave me permission to reference her in this sermon. While working with these young Indigenous people, I visited their reserves - a first for this upper middle class white girl who heard nothing about Treaty 7 or the Indigenous people around Calgary in school growing up. I met these incredible young people and their families, and through them was shown a much more complex picture of some of the reasons Indigenous people in Canada are on the losing end of practically every socio-economic indicator in our country.
This experience started me on a lifelong journey down a path of humility, love, and constant learning about Indigenous communities. And I thank you now for welcoming me to bring this part of my journey to Hope, as I have brought it to pretty much every other volunteer and professional space in my life. Please stay with me.
While the intention of this sermon is to introduce a conversation rather than to provide a history lesson, I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to acknowledge that the version of Canadian history that most of us grew up with is incomplete. They say that history is written by the winners. But I think a more nuanced interpretation would be that history is written by those with the power and privilege to write it. Over the last 15 years I’ve worked hard to seek out and learn a more complete history of how Canada came to be. And what I’ve learned is that the Canadian education system has done a disservice to our communities. We have been taught to be proud of who we are because we are Canadian, and all that that implies in the way we are a peacekeeping people, a caring people, a polite people, and an accepting and diverse nation. With a more complete picture of the history of how our country came to be, I now recognize that we are a well-intentioned people, a diverse nation, a polite people who struggle to confront hard or complex issues, and a people of privilege.
Along my own journey I’ve felt different calls to grow my understanding and demonstrate love in my own relationships with Indigenous people and communities in Canada. A few years ago I was inspired by Lindsay Mitchell, another daughter of Hope Lutheran who’s parents Rob and Rhonda Mitchell attended here, to see if I could get a deeper understanding of my own family’s history in this country. Similar to growing up with the myth that Canada was ‘discovered’ by brave explorers, I was taught that on my mom’s side of the family we were “farmers who had homesteaded in Saskatchewan for over a century.” One day I was talking to my mom about this and she said “well did you know that you have an ancestor who was a Red River Settler?” I said “No….what does that mean?” And when she said “I’m not really sure” and handed me a USB drive with our family tree on it, I was thrilled to dig in and learn more.
What I learned is that my great great great grandfather John Nielsen and his family settled in Canada in the mid-1800s in southern Ontario. I also learned that John Nielsen was part of the Wolsey Expedition of 1870. The Wolsey Expedition happened at a time in history when all the promises about right relations, fair dealings and sharing the land with Indians had become quite inconvenient for the new government of the Dominion of Canada. Despite King George’s Royal Proclamation of 1763 where he acknowledged that Indians had been living civilized and complex lives in this territory for centuries before Europeans arrived and should be allowed to continue to live their lives ‘unmolested’ by the settlement that was happening around them, the newly formed Government of Canada had a different view.
In 1870, the Canadian government had passed The Manitoba Act in Parliament, which guaranteed 1.4 million acres of land in the province of Manitoba to be an area for Metis people and recognized Louis Riel’s provisional government of that territory. This land base was granted in recognition of the importance of Metis people as a unique group borne from primarily Cree and Dene women who safely navigated fur traders across Canada as trading posts were being established. A mere six months after this legislation was passed in Parliament, the Wolsey Expedition was sent across northern Ontario and into the province of Manitoba to essentially quash Riel’s government and displace the Metis people living there, the government completely ignoring the law that had been passed in Parliament. Riel of course got word that the troops were coming, which is when he fled south and lived in exile in the United States before returning to Canada in the Red River Rebellion and Battle of Batoche about 10 years later.
For his service, my ancestor was granted 160 acres of land, which surely would have belonged to a Metis family. John Nielsen moved his family from southern Ontario out to his new land where he learned to farm for a decade before settling in Saskatchewan where our family “homesteaded” for over a century. Learning this history has now allowed me to place myself in a more complete picture of Canadian history. I now know that my privilege in life, the fact that I grew up in a stable household, that my parents and their parents had the opportunity and encouragement for education and economic development, can be directly connected to government policies of assimilation and the trampling of the rights of the Indigenous people who had built this country.
Knowing this history, and appreciating a more complete reason why I grew up in such a different reality than my Indigenous friends and neighbours, is what drives what I see as my call to share these stories with non-Indigenous Canadians. Because I want to make sure that the attitudes and racism that prevailed in this country for over a century don’t continue for another 150 years. So what might our role be in all this? Well, our Synod calls us to take action as a faith community and explore what it means to ‘abide in right relations’ with Indigenous Peoples. For more information about the Synod’s commitment, you can visit their website or the bulletin board outside Pastor Kristian’s office.
I am calling you to step in to explore a more complete history of how our country came to be and where you fit within it. Perhaps you have a similar history of ancestors who settled in this land a century or two ago and can identify where your family’s history crossed paths with Indigenous Peoples.
Maybe you were an immigrant who arrived in this country before 1960, and you might take this as an opportunity to recognize that when you landed here you had more rights than the first peoples of this country who before 1960 were not even considered Canadian citizens with equal rights. Or maybe, as a resident in the City of Calgary, you might consider that just like the Tsuut’ina, Stoney Nakoda, Siksika, Piikani, and Kainai peoples, you too are a beneficiary of Treaty 7 which was signed in 1877 and allows us to live in privilege here today. And then perhaps you’ll take the opportunity to learn more about what this means by attending our faith & film night on Thursday to view and discuss the documentary about Treaty 7, called Elder in the Making.
Or maybe, as a person of faith and spirituality, you have an interest in deepening your own spiritual practice by exploring other ways of knowing and being, and will come to the session with Haudenosaunee knowledge keeper Dr. Michael Lickers on May 14th.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to love one another as He has loved us, which is to say with a self-giving, sacrificial love. What might this mean today, with respect to how we think about and act toward our Indigenous neighbours? I was at a conference last week where the term ‘grace’ was used in the context of right relations, which struck me then and stays with me now. The speaker, former national Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo, reminded us that the institutions that were in place that led to so many negative outcomes for Indigenous people in Canada, that those institutions were very much credible in their time and place, from the perspective of those who made them; that is, European settlers. He then said that what is needed as we move forward in Canada, as our institutions and systems now recognize that Aboriginal rights are real, legally valid, and that reconciliation is needed, that what’s needed are adjacent credible institutions.
I’m still unpacking for myself what that might mean, but I wanted to share the thought here with you because his point was that in order to find a way forward together, we must show grace to one another. In loving one another as Jesus has called us to do, we must find ways to stand together as one, Indigenous and all Canadians, and abide in God’s love in a relationship between equals, recognizing and validating our different worldviews while existing and acting in relationship together. Maybe this is a call that you feel ready to take on.
At a minimum, my hope is that you feel some call to prayerfully discern what ‘abiding in right relations’ means to you through intentions of love and grace, and that this brings you on a journey of knowledge, understanding, and reconciliation. Because if we do not first seek to understand our Indigenous neighbours’ experiences and our own relationship to them, how can we begin to answer Jesus’ call to love one another as God has loved us?