Thursday, September 9, 2010


In mid-June I attended some of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) events held at the Forks in Winnipeg. Hearing the stories of the survivors of the residential schools gave me pause to reflect on my response to this dark chapter in our relationship to the Native people of this country.

Where do I, the son of an immigrant, fit into this picture? As a Canadian I feel a sense of accountability for the actions taken by the government of this country. As a member of a Christian faith community I feel a deep shame at the flagrant disregard for the rights and outright abuses perpetrated in the name of "Christian Mission". As a member of the Mennonite faith community I am well aware that my forbears maintained their identity by having a very strong focus on worship and education as they moved from their originating countries in Europe to the Ukraine, North America, Paraguay, Mexico and the list goes on and on. As each new community was formed, the school played a pivotal role in educating with the specific goal of propagating the faith and the culture of my particular faith group.

The Mennonite faith community has been very involved in "mission work" and has seen the value of the school as an institution for fostering not only the academic development of the students but also that of faith and culture. It raises a haunting question: In spite of our good intentions, were we inadvertently partners in the effort to erase the cultural identity of the students in this setting?

In a small group setting where these issues were being discussed, a suggestion surfaced to the effect that, as recent immigrants fleeing war-torn Europe and having struggled for survival in various other countries, we had "pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps". Could we not expect others to do the same?

As I reflected on the imagery of "bootstraps" it struck me that our "bootstraps" had been woven over the centuries in the context of our schools and communities. In many cases, these had been transported intact as we migrated from one country to another. True, for many of the immigrants, especially those fleeing the soviet regime after having been stripped of their spiritual leaders and in many cases, of the male members of the family, fathers and brothers, the straps had become frayed and extremely weakened. However, most of these people found their way into a pre-existent community of support in their new environment. There is no comparison between the above experience and that of the cultural groups who, for several generations, were subjected to a very deliberate and conscious "cutting of the cultural bootstraps" with an equally deliberate

Can we as outsiders "fix the damage?" "No!" We need to recognize that the mending can happen but only as the ones who suffered the loss live in community with each other and reconnect their "cultural bootstraps". We need to honour and celebrate all cultures, not only our own. In such an atmosphere reconciliation is possible. This process can be an uplifting experience.<

The stories need to be told. We need to listen. We need to acknowledge our involvement, deliberate or inadvertent in the injustice that was done. We need to honour the culture that is bringing them back into their rightful place in this country and we need to count it a privilege when we are asked to join in the celebration of their "bootstraps".

Submitted by Martin Penner
Volunteer with Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA)

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