‘I have learned to listen in new ways’

Cartoon of two overlapping speech bubbles
 on October 1, 2014

The Rev. Riscylla Walsh Shaw is the incumbent of Christ Church, Bolton, and an Ambassador of Reconciliation for the Diocese of Toronto.

As an Ambassador of Reconciliation for the Diocese of Toronto, it has been my calling to enter more deeply into the spaces between the words of our nation’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Indian Residential Schools. I listen and am present to the moment – to the truth being shared and to the time being invested in this journey of learning our way into relationships of reconciliation.

The TRC has a five-year mandate, comprised of community hearings and national events across Canada. It provides opportunities to share personal stories, to hope for change and reconciliation, to learn about the residential schools, to learn from those who attended the schools, and to celebrate Aboriginal culture.

The work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu on South Africa’s TRC greatly inspired me to get involved in our own TRC here in Canada, as did my commitment to the future of our Anglican Church. In the words of Archbishop Terence Finlay at the event in Inuvik, “We have failed the church, and we need to find a new way ahead.” He was referring to the inhumanity that we, the church, harnessed in our complicity with the government in imposing the residential schools upon our First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. I am part of that church, and plan to be a part of the new way ahead. I am part of the historical failure, and part of the future solution.

With a foot in both camps, I have Métis heritage on my maternal grandfather’s side, and settler heritage on my maternal grandmother’s side. My maternal grandfather, Oliver Chick, was born near Pilot Mound, Manitoba. In his early years, he attended a residential school, and later went on to become a teacher. He was a World War II veteran, and proudly retired after 40 years of teaching, “without missing a day.” He was not proud, however, of his heritage. He didn’t talk about it and didn’t share the details of his residential school experience. His sister Edna, a stoic yet lively woman well into her 90s, uncharacteristically broke down one day before he died, and revealed that they had attended residential school for several years as young children. While there, they were forbidden to speak their language, Michif, and as punishment were beaten and had their hair cut off. How could this have ever been a necessary way to treat children? Let us not make this terrible mistake again.

It has been an honour and my pilgrimage to attend all seven of the national events of the TRC, in Winnipeg, Invuik, Halifax, Saskatoon, Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton, themed with the Seven Grandfather Teachings: respect, courage, love, truth, humility, honesty and wisdom. I also went to the Toronto 2012 regional gathering, which I had the great privilege of attending with my mother.

Being an intentional witness, I observed that at the first TRC in Winnipeg, there was tangible pain, palpable fear, and a culture of shock and anxiety that accompanied the revelations of experiences, abuse and suffering in the residential schools. As the national events continued, however, with many community gatherings held in between, there emerged many revelations of resilience and profound courage in the peoples and in the atmosphere of the venues. Artists shared their interpretations of experiences, musicians expressed their deep emotions and steadfast hopes, and craftspeople created beautiful and challenging pieces that contributed to the enlightenment of the witness.

When truths were told in public testimonies, permission was given to pass along what was heard. We witnesses were encouraged to re-tell, and in the end, the truths demanded to be shared, broadcast, re-told and remembered from shore to shore to shore: no more shall we ignore the realities of our country’s history of colonization and racism. No more shall shame envelop and obscure the First Peoples of our land. We are being called into right relationship with ourselves and each other, with our land and all its inhabitants, with our Creator.

Each TRC event was new, with people from all over the province and country. There was an author from the north who chronicled her days at the residential schools and her sad homecoming: her mother didn’t even recognize her. There was an elder and healer from out east who shared his wisdom gleaned from surviving. I talked to a university-educated elder who was never allowed to raise his hand in class at residential school. I heard from a young woman whose parents didn’t know how to parent her, as they had been taken from their homes at such a young age. I witnessed a family, spanning several generations, taking the microphone with great courage and humility to share the pain and suffering that had isolated them for years.

Meeting the people kept me coming back as a witness, and those meetings broke my heart. The community of listeners and sharers’ tears were gathered with care in tissues and placed in the sacred fire as offerings to our Creator God, bringing healing, peace and, sometimes, blessed emptiness to the aquifers of our souls.

When it arises in conversation in our diocese, there are so many different ways the subject is received: I encounter reflexive defensiveness and denial, with ongoing racism and, even worse, indifference or dismissal. But there are also the people who are interested and engaged in it, and many who are deeply concerned with reconciliation beyond the TRC. For example, our National Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald’s Living Water Working Group, Pimatiziwin Nipi, is an ecumenical grassroots network that operates on the pillars of advocacy, education, spiritual practice and strategic giving. The Primate’s Commission on Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice is working to find ways ahead for the church. Ecumenical grassroots networks in the churches and in many communities are working for change and awareness, transformation and education, renewal and reconciliation.

I have learned to listen in new ways, with my heart and my mind, as well as my ears. A sacred trust is entered into by sharing these intimate and deeply personal truths. It is vital to speak out, recognizing and using for good our places of privilege (religion, ability, citizenship). I am grateful to be part of a diocese that has resources, and a parish family that has encouraged and facilitated my journey. Reconciliation takes much time, even generations, in a family and in a community, working toward right relationship. The key is to start the work, even though it might take more time than we have.

My favourite passage from scripture is from Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” I can never put my heart back together the way it was before I began this journey. All my relations. Shalom. Miigwetch.


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