Changing our minds: A first step toward healing in our relationships with Aboriginals

Written by Andrew Reimer, previously published in The Messenger

Like many of you, I grew up not knowing many Aboriginal people. I would not have thought of myself as racist. However, I was influenced by the stereotypes and superior attitudes most Canadians consciously or unconsciously hold towards our Aboriginal neighbours.

I really didn’t think very much about Native people or my attitudes towards them. I didn’t think Native people had much to do with my life.

No longer distant
Today, however, I am learning to see Aboriginal people no longer as a novelty, a one-dimensional stereotype, or having little to do with my reality.

Over the past nine years as missionaries and residents in Winnipeg’s North End, a predominantly Aboriginal inner city neighbourhood, my wife Amie and I have been blessed to know many Native people. Many wonderful friendships have formed with our neighbours.

Aboriginal neighbours have welcomed us into their lives, receiving our hospitality, offering us theirs, and sharing themselves with us by choosing to entrust us with their life experiences, hopes, joys, and sorrows.

We feel humbled and privileged to be welcomed and trusted in this way. These friends are not obligated to open their lives to us. That they have chosen to is a gift.

We have given up some comforts to live and serve in this community, but sometimes I wonder what sacrifices our neighbours have made to become our friends. I’m sure they have often put up with our ignorance, cultural inappropriateness, and even our unacknowledged attitudes of superiority.

When we begin to see our Aboriginal neighbours as friends and family, it becomes much more difficult to distance ourselves from their grief and their pain.

I’ve learned that church-run residential schools Aboriginal children were forced to attend as part of the Canadian government’s policy of cultural assimilation are not just a thing of the distant past. I’ve listened to survivors of these schools share their stories with me, while most of my other Native friends have parents or grandparents who attended residential schools.

Many of my friends who were too young to have attended residential schools have talked about the emotional, physical and sexual abuse they experienced while in foster care.

Racism is not just something that happens somewhere else. I’ve heard my friends tell about their experiences of discrimination in everyday life.

A wound that affects us all
I daily witness firsthand the effects of centuries of exploitation and marginalization of Aboriginal people, the effects of a history which includes dislocation from their homelands, death by disease and hunger, generations of forced cultural assimilation, as well as ongoing discrimination and internalized oppression.

The result of all this, I believe, is a great rift of pain, mistrust, and misunderstanding between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals.

A few years ago I interviewed a sampling of Mennonite pastors in Manitoba and found that we, as Mennonites, continue to hold simplistic and judgemental explanations for Aboriginal suffering. We fail to see how we are benefiting from the colonization and historical violence against Aboriginal people or acknowledge any responsibility in responding to this history.

The task of mission to our Aboriginal neighbours will lack credibility if the non-Aboriginal church continues to act as if reconciliation and healing are not necessary.

Too often, our insufficient understanding is perpetuated by the fact that many of us do not know or have meaningful relationships with Aboriginal people.

My heart is burdened by this wounded relationship and I believe this is a wound that affects us all, whether we have regular contact with Native people or not.

How might Jesus be calling us as non-Aboriginal Christians to seek healing in our relationship with our Aboriginal neighbours?

Missions with credibility
What about missions and evangelism? You may notice that I am not speaking in these terms. Let me be clear. I do believe in the importance of sending missionaries to serve Aboriginal communities and share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I believe Aboriginal people need Jesus just as much as do non-Aboriginal people. However, the task of mission to our Aboriginal neighbours will lack credibility and will carry a distorted message if the non-Aboriginal church continues to act as if reconciliation and healing in our attitudes and relationships are not necessary. We would be saying, in effect, “‘Peace, peace’…when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:11).

What I am advocating is just as much a matter of discipleship as mission. This is about humbly confessing our sin, removing the plank from our own eye before pointing to the speck in our neighbour’s eye (Matthew 7:4-5). This is about following our Lord Jesus as he crosses boundaries in identification and solidarity with the marginalized. This is about learning to do right, seeking justice, and encouraging the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17).

When our posture towards our Aboriginal neighbours begins to look like Jesus, then our message about Jesus will be believable. But it starts with our own humble repentance.

Changing our minds
While much could be said, from my heart and experience, about steps to take on this journey of healing, let me focus on one step at this moment: let us examine our own attitudes.

Our tendency is to distance ourselves from colonialism’s disastrous effects on Aboriginal people. We deny any responsibility, blame other people who exploited Native people and took their land, blame other church denominations for the residential schools, and blame Aboriginal people themselves for the resulting problems.

Wendy Peterson, a Metis professor and theologian living in southern Manitoba, has observed Mennonites making comments like, “Why don’t Indians just get over the past? We did.” It’s a sentiment I too have heard often.

Perhaps you have heard of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s residential school apology on June 11, 2008, in the House of Commons. Later, there was a Native Christian-initiated Forgiven summit, which intended to respond by releasing forgiveness from Aboriginal participants to the federal government.

Perhaps our response is, “Good. Finally, Aboriginal people will forgive us and move on.”

But maybe we fail to recognize that in order to receive forgiveness from Native people, we must be willing to recognize our need for forgiveness. We want to “move on” without going through the painful process of admitting our complicity in the sin and acknowledging its consequences.

Repentance means to turn around and move in the other direction or to change your mind. Have we changed our minds about our Aboriginal neighbours?

Do we continue to believe that we are smarter, more civilized, or more deserving than Native people?

The disturbing danger of mission that assumes Aboriginal people are less valuable is illustrated by a story told by Cree Christian leader and theologian, Ray Aldred. Aldred tells of his friend and ministry partner who said, “I grew up hating being an Indian and I liked hearing the gospel preached because it hated Indians too.”

Attitudes of cultural superiority-racism-can be one of the most toxic ingredients in our ministry efforts among Aboriginal people. Why? When we implicitly reinforce their own sense of cultural inferiority, we fail to convey Jesus’ love for, and affirmation of, all humanity.

Are we ready to build relationships, both individually and corporately in which we come to Aboriginal people not as saviours, judges or problem solvers, but as learners, partners, and friends? Will we realize that we need each other? That our futures and our healing are tied up together?

What new possibilities could be opened up as we change our minds about our Aboriginal neighbours? What new friendships might form? What will we learn? How might we seek justice and reconciliation? How could our lives and our churches be enriched with a deeper understanding of the Gospel and a bigger vision of God?

Andrew Reimer (Steinbach EMC) is a community minister serving with Inner City Youth Alive in Winnipeg’s North End and a member of the EMC’s Social Concerns Committee.