Dear John… A response to John Stackhouse’s column – In search of Truth and Reconciliation By Terry LeBlanc, Mi’kmaq-Acadian
By Terry LeBlanc, Mi’kmaq-Acadian, is the Executive Director of Indigenous Pathways and also the founding Chair and current Director of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS), an indigenous learning community. Terry holds an interdisciplinary Ph.D. from Asbury Theological Seminary
I must admit that has a strange ring to it. Whenever I think of those two words together, “Dear John,” I think of brushing somebody off as if they are no longer relevant – unimportant. And, that’s precisely the experience I had when I read your article. You brushed off 500 years of history in a matter of moments in the few words you ‘penned’ on the electronic page. You made it seem as though you were sympathetic, that you were being fair to both sides. After all, human beings are human beings and each of us is as guilty as the next. Right?
The problem with that idea John, is that it’s the same thinking that has been used for the last hundred and fifty years or so to justify the existence of an often sociopathic and racist system that has consecutively targeted Indigenous peoples for physical eradication, then death through identity decay, and now, what we experience today, social marginalization.
Perhaps “being in the know” as a well-informed Canadian is not enough. Maybe what it takes is the realization that simply acquiring information about something is not knowledge; that knowledge alone does not confer understanding; that beyond understanding we must sit in quiet so that we might ultimately arrive at the apprehension of wisdom. Perhaps, just perhaps, this is the challenge that, when risen to, prevents us from becoming as Job’s counsellors.
Your article cum blog uses simplistic binary summaries of what you claim to know to misstate reality from the start. Either/or thinking, as you appear to be engaged in, sets up a straw man to destroy with your “obvious” logic. Such shallow dichotomous thinking postulates a “clearly right” answer that backs a pejorative perspective. In other words, you appear to ask questions just to set up a put down.
I find it curious that you identify modernity, Anglophone power, and globalization in such a positive light John. Is this a Freudian slip or does it capture what you deem to be the only appropriate direction of progress – one that is clearly and only European/Euro-Canadian led? Part of the reason I ask is that the use of the phrase “our First Nations” is incredibly racist. It is equivalent to saying, “our black people.” We are not your or Canada’s property, though the Indian Act may continue to articulate the relationship that way. We established treaty relations with the French and then British Crown as nations. Within the North American Free Trade Agreement you wouldn’t refer to the United States of America as “our Americans” or to Mexico as “our Mexicans.” Why do so with us? First Nations people are your treaty partners, not your property.
If you are a well-informed Canadian, how is it possible that you can even think to compare Residential Schools with “boarding schools anywhere?” Are you completely inured of the fact that Residential Schools forcibly took our kids whereas Boarding Schools, such as missionary and elite societal schools, were mostly voluntary parental placements – and they were operated according to the cultural norms of the residents? Residential Schools were not our culture – they were someone else’s. Try listening to the stories of the beneficiaries of Indian Residential Schools, http://wherearethechildren.ca/en/stories/ or read the history, A Knock on the Door: The essential history of Residential Schools, from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2016. We don’t need more uninformed voices in the guise of those who would “raise questions of concern” as with Senator Lynn Beyak.
Your desire for truth is admirable. However, if “all truth is God’s truth” is an axiomatic statement of Christian faith for many, its corollary for some, at least, appears to be, “If it’s true, then it is European/Euro-Canadian in origin.” An examination of the countless reports, Canada wide, that fill public agency shelves concerning the ongoing treatment of Indigenous people over the past hundred and fifty years, never mind prior years, should cause you to pause and wonder at Indigenous experiences of what Euro-Canadians have perceived as “truth” – whether God’s or not. This is tragic, given, what you correctly note to be our continued desire to walk in the ways of Jesus.
Just because many of us choose to follow Jesus, however, does not mean that we buy into or support all that Western Christianity has interpreted our faith to mean. Nor does it mean we have not resisted all that we have been subjected to in Jesus’ name that, in our opinion, has been contrary to His teachings. It may simply mean that for a prolonged period of time we have been subject to an oppressive experience of that faith and are just now beginning to make it our own.
Castigating our traditional religious and spiritual reality, as not measuring up to European and Euro-Canadian standards, is beneath you John. You are better than that. And, to imply that we were helpless, hapless, and lacking in intelligence until European salvation and civilization came to us perpetuates the myth of progress vis-à-vis Europeanization as per the Gradual Civilizations Act of 1857, yet again. Please note, that I make a clear distinction between this and Christ’s salvation though many Europeans/Euro-Canadians continue to confuse or conflate the two.
How quickly Western Christianity forgets its origins, distancing itself from its ancestors. As a Trinitarian follower of Jesus I am conscious that the practices of pre-CE Judaism were not dramatically different than our pre-contact Indigenous practices in many ways. I am also conscious that the demand for blood and sacrifice in Judaism was God’s, not the priests and Levites. Further, I am aware that in Jesus’ sacrifice, one member of the Trinity asked another to be crucified while the third looked on – as was the scene at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. Here was a man hung on a cross, flailed with the thongs of a Roman whip, whose brow was pierced by a crown of thorns – all while the Father looked on.
That you could even make such a ridiculous comparison with the propitiatory efforts of the Sundance or the social redress, that provided for the well-being of the community in the Potlach, is patently ignorant of both the Indigenous practices and the scriptures which promoted or described similar practices – particularly, to use your words, “pathological” passages like Acts 2:43-46 and II Corinthians 8. You might have (correctly in my view) simply said, that according to Christian teaching and theology, the Sundance was ultimately as non-efficacious as any other human centred sacrifice. But to suggest it was more barbarous than the practices of our ancestors of the faith or, by extension, the central ceremony of our faith lacks research integrity if not an effective assessment of “truth.”
Then, to bait your argument by suggesting that the backhanded portrayal of First Nations people in the media is only and always “innocent, gentle” across the board is ludicrous in the extreme. Cynical, collective Ad hominem argument does not become you. Allow me to quote a discussion between one of my people and a European forbear of Canada to suggest an alternate perspective:
I am greatly astonished that the French have so little cleverness, as they seem to exhibit in the matter of which you have just told me on their behalf, in the effort to persuade us to convert our poles, our barks, and our wigwams into those houses of stone and of wood which are tall and lofty, according to their account, as these trees. Very well! But why now, do men of five to six feet in height need houses, which are sixty to eighty? You say of us also that we are the most miserable and most unhappy of all men, living without religion, without manners, without honour, without social order, and, in a word, without any rules, like the beasts in our woods and our forests, lacking bread, wine, and a thousand other comforts which you have in overabundance in Europe. . . . It is true, that we have not always had the use of bread and of wine which your France produces; but, in fact, before the arrival of the French in these parts, did not the Mi’kmaq live much longer than now? And if we have not any longer among us any of those old men of a hundred and thirty to forty years, it is only because we are gradually adopting your manner of living, for experience is making it very plain that those of us live longest who, despising your bread, your wine, and your brandy, are content with their natural food of beaver, of moose, of waterfowl, and fish, in accord with the custom of our ancestors and of all the Mi’kmaq nation. Learn now, my brother, once for all, because I must open to you my heart: there is no Indian who does not consider himself infinitely more happy and more powerful than the French.[i]
If, as it appears, you have the temerity to suggest that Indigenous people’s conduct toward one another was worse than European behaviour of the same period, then you either have a bias toward Europe’s more sophisticated murder, mayhem, and greed or you are indeed ignorant of the facts of its history. British “drawing and quartering,” family picnics for public hangings, heads left on spikes to rot, child labour in factories, imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread, the bounty for Indian scalps on our eastern shores, enslavement of Africans – which of these are not “savage”? Perhaps we also need to analyze the Christian church and its posture during WWII, its behaviours in the years of the Crusades, and other such “savage” conduct in global mission ad nauseam.
Further, given the behaviour of “spiritually enlightened” Christians engaging in tortures and cruel treatment of its own members to the point of martyrdom, it lacks integrity to suggest that Indigenous life was more barbaric than European. It is an indication that your history is deeply Eurocentric. Stop with the one-sided analysis already. Given the cruelty of the European system of “justice” (please note the quotes) of the same era, give me our “savagery” any time. The following accounts alone should be adequate to correct your “savage” history:
And, in this respect, I consider all these poor savages, whom we commiserate, to be very happy; for pale Envy doth not emaciate them, neither do they feel the inhumanity of those who serve God hypocritically, harassing their fellow-creatures under this mask: nor are they subject to the artifices of those who, lacking virtue and goodness wrap themselves up in a mantle of false piety to nourish their ambition. If they do not know God, at least they do not blaspheme him, as the greater number of Christians do. Nor do they understand the art of poisoning, or of corrupting chastity by devilish artifice.[ii]
The second, from Jesuit missionary, Pierre le Jeune, in what almost seems to be a sense of pride in these “primitive” peoples, describes a character absent from most Europeans of his familiarity. He observes,
Moreover, if it is a great blessing to be free from a great evil, our Savages are happy; for the two tyrants who provide hell and torture for many of our Europeans, do not reign in their great forests – I mean ambition and avarice. As they have neither political organization, nor offices, nor dignities, nor any authority, for they only obey their Chief through good will toward him, therefore they never kill each other to acquire these honors (sic). Also, as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them gives himself to the Devil to acquire wealth.[iii]
That you would have the audacity to make such a comparison as you do without a balancing of the reality of life in Europe during the same period mystifies me. This simply perpetuates the myth of a “civilized” Europe and an “uncivilized” other.
What’s more, your comment about alternatives to the “rapidly shrinking islands of traditionalism” reflects a clear bias toward Europeanization as manifest destiny, “discovery” as ownership, westernization as progress, modernization as sophistication. How tragic, since it is this trajectory – ostensibly established through Western Christian replacement eschatology’s, and ideologies of bigger, better, more, faster – that has left creation in its present mess. Dispensability has and continues to drive the machinery of progress – an ideology arguably predicated on a distorted Western Christian theology acted out over the centuries.
“Growing communities of traditional Indigenous cultures” is the reality for many of our Indigenous folk. Disillusionment with Canada’s ongoing colonial efforts to break the bonds of Indigenous connection and support is what is really happening. While espousing reconciliation Canada continues to fight Indigenous children and impoverished communities in court.
John, you’re better than that. Undertaking an analysis of the situation that you think you know as a scholar when in fact you don’t, is not very good scholarship. What’s more, it influences your followers to ignore the TRC’s Calls to Action and justifies their prejudices. Furthermore, to portray the young folks with Colton Boushie as being from “the families of chiefs of that nation” is tantamount to saying that we are all corrupt. If you would like to discuss corruption tied to culture and position in society, please, let’s do so. I expect we would have much to muster in such a discussion. But do not bait the argument as you have done by casting aspersions on the status of these young people and their families.
What puts the lid on this is the fact that you present “facts” (dare I say, alternate facts) of the case of Gerald Stanley and his killing of Colton Boushie that neither you nor I were present in the courtroom to hear. The only thing that is clear, from your and my distance, is that the jury was not even remotely representative of the present population of Saskatchewan. What would have been the hue and cry had the killing been of a white person by an Indigenous person with an all-Indigenous jury hearing the case? I suspect that you and I both know the answer.
In your analysis of the situation of “motherland” similar countries, you appear to suggest that were we to not have a patchwork “quilt of paper” we might be at least slightly better off. I would suggest that this is erroneous thinking since each of the countries you name has one common issue – European colonial power that has been neither blunted nor fully abated; not even as per the calls of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its current Canadian research champion, the TRC.
While I agree that this must not be a binary conversation, good versus bad, one unfortunate “truth” – one clearly born out in our joint history, and continuing to weave its insidious tale today – is that for a large number of Canadians, Indigenous peoples continue to be the “bad guys” regardless of what we do unless it mirrors them precisely. So I must ask, “If we meet your expectations, will we be okay?” Somehow, given our history, I am neither encouraged nor confident to believe so. The only thing you said that makes sense is that we need truth – and not simply the Euro-Canadian version of it that you so carelessly, albeit obliquely, offered.
Ultimately, your piece reminds me of a song of my era:
And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply”
So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why
He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do”
So I took off my hat, I said “Imagine that. Huh! Me workin’ for you!”
John, you have a wide influence in the evangelical community – a community that we happen to be part of. Unfortunately, your article will likely have many nodding heads from within that community. Apart from its erroneous assumptions, and misleading statements, our concern is that you have given racism as a justification in this analysis – something that those nodding heads will then also feel justified in using.
Finally John, I’d like to invite you to our annual NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community symposium, held this year at Acadia University and Divinity College. Our theme is “White Supremacy, Racial Conflict and Indigeneity: Toward Right Relationship.” You might find the discussion helpful.
Sincerely in Christ,
Terry LeBlanc, Mi’kmaq/Acadian, PhD.
Executive Director, Indigenous Pathways
Director, NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community (NAIITS)
Wendy Beauchemin Peterson, PhD (ABD), Red River Metis
Editor, NAIITS Journal,
Board Member, NAIITS
Shari Russell, Saulteaux, M.A.
Board Member, NAIITS
Cheryl Bear, Yinka Dene, D.Min.
Band Counselor, Nad’leh Whuten
Board Member, NAIITS
Keeper of the Circle, Sandy Saulteaux Spiritual Centre
Former Board Member, NAIITS
[i] Chrestien Le Clercq, New Relations of Gaspesia, 103–6.
[ii] Marc Lescarbot, “Conversion of the savages who were baptized in New France” in, Jesuit Relations, trans. Reuben Gold Thwaites (Cleveland: Burrows Bros., 1896), 1610, Vol. 3, 73.
[iii] Pierre Le Jeune, Jesuit Relations, trans. Reuben Gold Thwaites (Cleveland: Burrows Bros., 1896), 1634, Vol. 6, 66.