Q Your book chronicles your personal journey of pain and brokenness and also of healing and reconciliation. But it isn’t only your journey; it’s the journey of your father and family, the journey of Aboriginal peoples, perhaps even the journey of this country. Why does your story resonate on so many levels?
A What my father experienced is a microcosm of what this country can be at its best as it confronts the legacy of residential schools and colonization. We have a lot of great people in this country who have risen above the negativity and the pain and the racism to embody the best aspects of human nature. To me, the book is about reconciliation on a number of levels — reconciliation between Indigenous people and the rest of the country, reconciliation between different faiths and spiritualities, reconciliation between a parent and a child, reconciliation across generations of a family, reconciliation through grieving the loss of a loved one.
I hope people who read this book recognize that while it is told through an Indigenous lens, it’s not an Indigenous story. It’s a lesson in humanity; it’s about the journey toward discovering our humanity, with that journey being grounded in the Indigenous experience.
Q Your father attended St. Mary’s, a Catholic residential school in Kenora, Ont. How did that childhood experience shape the man he became?
A He experienced the horror stories you hear about residential schools: he was removed from his family by force; he was beaten on day one; he was renamed and assigned a number; he was abused; he was raped by a nun; he was experimented on in nutritional experiments. He spent eight years there and was deprived of the opportunity to get a quality education and denied the chance to go to high school. It unleashed a lot of pain and anger in him; he ended up struggling with addiction for many years. He did beat that. But he was left a very angry person because, along with everyone else in his family, he grew up without his parents and with people who only ever showed him anger and malice.
Q You embarked on a healing path with your father. That personal journey happened at roughly the same time as a national journey was under way, in the form of the Canadian government’s 2008 apology for residential schools and the five-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission. How did those journeys intersect?
A They’re indivisible, really. I heard about my father’s residential school experience as a boy, but it was only when the issue rose to the forefront of national attention that I learned about it in depth. Certain experiences for my father — his trip to Rome in 2009 to meet the pope, his testimony to the TRC — played an important part in allowing us to move beyond truth-telling toward forgiveness and personal reconciliation.
We couldn’t have had the personal journey without the public process of truth-telling and reconciliation for survivors; but at the same time, my father would not have been able to embark on the apology and the TRC had we not also experienced the spiritual growth of that personal journey.
Q That journey couldn’t have happened without Indigenous ceremonies and teachings.
A Absolutely. Before my father was able to reconcile with the church, traditional spirituality gave him the strength to put his life back together. The real low point for him, and the culmination of a lot of his personal dysfunction, was the deaths of my two older brothers [one from suicide, the other in a car accident]. What put him back together after these losses was traditional spirituality — the sweat, the elders, the sundance and the pipes. It was actually a traditional adoption ceremony [practised by some First Nations as a way of promoting peace and healing] that really helped. He adopted a Lakota family.
It was fitting that after he went on his reconciliation journey with the church, he used those same ceremonies: he adopted an archbishop; he offered an eagle feather to the pope. He carried these teachings with him whenever he worked with church people from different denominations.
Q He integrated Indigenous and Christian spirituality. You give the example of him adopting the archbishop.
A Part of what happened is that the bishop came to our ceremony, an Indigenous ceremony. That wasn’t a syncretic fusion of Catholicism and Indigenous spirituality. Same thing when the bishop came to the sundance: he participated in our ceremonies. The best examples of reconciliation happen not when we fuse things together but when we walk in each other’s moccasins — when people from church traditions are also willing to come to us and learn about us without any sort of encumbrance on their embrace of Indigenous spirituality.
Q In your memoir, you criticize the Catholic Church’s doctrine of acculturation, according to which, you write, “Indigenous culture is merely a host for Catholicism.” This is an important critique for the United Church to keep in mind as it seeks to acknowledge Indigenous spirituality. For example, the Mohawk phrase for “all my relations” was recently added to the church’s crest. Do such forms of acknowledgment work?
A I think they’re good in a few ways. They send the message to the Indigenous community that the church has changed significantly, so there’s the ability to have a relationship that is more respectful today. They send the message to Indigenous United Church members that their heritage, their family and their experience are reflected in their church tradition — that’s really important, really powerful. Where the critique of acculturation I offer in the book impacts the evolving practice of the United Church is that [such gestures] are good so long as you recognize that you are doing them for the United Church, but you shouldn’t necessarily expect them to apply to all Indigenous peoples.
Q The Christian church has been complicit in the colonial project through its mission work and residential schools. How can it be an ally for Indigenous rights and reconciliation?
A Repealing the parts of doctrines that helped to justify colonialism in the past is imperative. A lot of that work lies with the Roman Catholic Church around the [15th-century] papal bulls and doctrine of discovery, but there may be elements of United Church tradition that still need to be examined. [Editor’s note: In 2012, the United Church officially repudiated the doctrine of discovery, which justified conquering Indigenous lands and peoples in the name of Christianity.]
But beyond church practice, the TRC’s calls to action are a really good framework for reconciliation. Church members should consider all of the actions in the TRC report, whether they have to do with child welfare, education or other issues.
Q In your father’s journey toward reconciliation, there is much for us to learn. What’s one of the most valuable lessons his life holds for us, Indigenous and non-Indigenous?
A It boils down to the arc of his journey: he was done wrong, yet he found a way to forgive; he did wrong, but he found a way to forgive himself. Toward the end of his life, he put things together in such a way that the only thing he left was love. That is the mission for all of us, whether we are Indigenous, non-Indigenous, United Church, Catholic or a sundancer. We ought to live our lives so that it is only love that governs our relationships with other people. We are human, so we are going to fail on that quest to manifest love in all our relationships. But so long as we remain committed to making amends when we do wrong and setting things right again, then we can in our lifetime get very close to walking those ideals on earth.
This interview has been condensed and edited.