Imagine, if you will, that someone you love is having trouble breathing and you know it is serious. What do you do? You would seek medical attention. Perhaps you’re scared and worried. You see the fear and panic in the eyes of your loved one and those gathered around in love and support, no one is sure what to expect. The medical staff put them on an oxygen tank to ease the stress of breathing while they try to figure out what the underlying problem, or problems might be. You are all under great stress to be sure, but there is some comfort at least in knowing you are getting help. As your loved one begins to relax you think things might be ok. Then, all of a sudden, the oxygen tank runs out and everyone begins to panic again as your loved one experiences a shortness of breath again. You are told that the closest oxygen tank is over 500km away. You and your loved one are loaded onto a small plane to embark on an agonizing flight to get to that oxygen supply. Shortly after arriving, your loved one is overcome by illness and dies in the hospital. How do you think you or your loved ones might respond to this situation?
Laura Shewaybick had this very experience; she was from a remote First Nations community called Webequie, 500km north of Thunder Bay. An elder in her community, Laura had long advocated for improved health care in her community which was chronically underserved, and ironically, she died a victim of that very health care system. These situations occur every day across Canada yet are very much under reported. Canadian apathy and resentment toward First Nations people has a long history in this country and is evident across many media platforms. The only reason why we know about this particular story is because of the incredible strength and courage of Laura’s husband and children. Norman Shewaybick and his sons Leon and Erick, in the dead of winter, walked from Thunder Bay to the Webequie First Nation carrying an oxygen tank on a toboggan. Through dense forests and across frozen lakes and rivers they walked to honour Norman’s promise to Laura that no one would suffer the same fate as her, to raise awareness about the deplorable living conditions in First Nations communities.
Inspired by grief, Norman’s heroic quest achieved what years of urgent advocacy have not; the Government responded to Laura and Norman’s story by promising to provide an oxygen concentrator machine in every First Nations health centre so they no longer have to rely on oxygen tanks. We’re not sure how much it will cost yet, but how many of us will begrudge this investment? How many of us have been told repeatedly that First Nations people are living in the lap of luxury, no taxes, government handouts, corrupt chiefs, etc. Surely you’ve also heard things like I don’t know why they don’t just solve their own problems, pull up their boot straps.
I am reminded of a saying,
If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.
Today we can also apply television, internet and other forms of misinformation to this principle. If my daughter Lumi were here right now she would remind me that we don’t say hate.
Our Scripture readings today describe difficult situations and difficult relationships. They are steeped in the brokenness of the human experience. And despite that brokenness, or perhaps because of it, God endeavours to teach us about the power of not only repentance but reconciliation. In Joshua, we hear about the people of Israel being reconciled to God in Canaan bringing to an end the journey from Egypt and the 40 years in the wilderness. In 2 Corinthians, we hear the Apostle Paul speak eloquently about the world being reconciled to God through Christ. In addition, Paul tells us that through Christ, we have been entrusted with the message of reconciliation. And again, verse 20 says “we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” A humble yet very serious responsibility and call to action. And of course in our Gospel reading, we hear a parable about a father and a son. In particular, a son who seeks reconciliation through repentance for his sin against heaven and father alike. Once again, Scripture reaches out across time to deliver a very important message to us, the broken Ambassadors of Christ, in this particular time and place, this tiny sliver of existence that we have been granted. To teach us about the power and responsibility of reconciliation.
A necessary condition of reconciliation is accepting truth, however difficult it may be. Many of you have heard about Canada’s residential schools program and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Allow me a brief overview:
It is well known that First Nations people were kicked off their land by European settlers. Including the very land this church sits on. The survivors of that violence were transported to the most inhospitable areas that could be found, where reservations were established. When a people meet such violence and are displaced like that they lose the ability to sustain their culture, their identity, their dignity. They have to adapt to a whole new way of life, at the mercy of a foreign government, with no legal rights.
Following this, the government embarked on a campaign of assimilation, or cultural genocide as it has come to be known. With the help of several national churches, they began to implement the residential schools program.
They built low standard living conditions in the middle of nowhere all across the country, far away from First Nations communities and careful government oversight. Then they forcibly removed First Nations children from their homes and sent them away to these schools. Once there, these children were horribly abused. They were malnourished, they were used as child labour; sexual abuse was rampant. Thousands of children died in the schools due to the harsh conditions imposed upon them. Many completed suicide; others ran away and died in the unforgiving wilderness. Others were worked to death or beaten to death. Others still died as victims of medical experimentation. The list goes on.
After several years of this forced “education” they were sent out into the world and forgotten by the system which had created their brokenness. And when they had kids, their kids were sent to residential schools, and their kids, and their kids. For seven generations, our government and churches inflicted the most humiliating and cruel program of cultural genocide on these poor children. In all there were over 130 schools across the country with over 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Metis children attending. I myself am Metis.
Of course alcoholism and domestic violence became common among these communities because of the psychological, emotional, physical and spiritual trauma they had suffered. Problems which have now come to define the entire race in the eyes of mainstream Canada. It really makes me angry when I hear people say, “why don’t they just get over it?” The abuse runs so much deeper than we can ever imagine. We are all, to some degree or another, victims of this shared cultural history which, for a long time has been hidden from us. How will we be judged if we allow the abuse to continue?
As a part of a government apology and offer of compensation to survivors of residential schools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was created to investigate extensive government and church archives to shed light on what happened. In addition, testimonies of survivors were collected to allow the possibility of healing and to let the rest of us learn about the depravity that they experienced. Just this week another story came out about how government lawyers aggressively discredited survivor testimonies and withheld important documents which validated their claims. The abuse continues.
However dark and difficult our history may seem, the scriptures teach us that through that pain is healing. But first we must come to an honest account of what happened. Without truth we cannot repent, and without repentance we cannot achieve reconciliation. Every day God grants us new opportunities to uncover divine truth, to see the error of our ways, and having truly come to know our brokenness offers forgiveness. That forgiveness allows for our brokenness to be mended, for reconciliation.
We need to actively pursue right relation with our abused and abandoned brothers and sisters. We need to seek their forgiveness by offering them the respect that all of God’s peoples deserve. In this age of environmental crisis, we desperately need their knowledge and wisdom to learn to live sustainably within God’s creation. We’ve come to a point where we can no longer continue on our path alone. It is no longer an option to continue to push them aside. The prodigal son came to know the seriousness of God’s truth and set aside his pride and arrogance to admit that he was wrong, to repent. He realized that he was not able to move forward on his own, that he needed right relation with his family and his God to live with dignity. This realization and his journey of reunification to his father was not met with harshness and punishment, rather the father rejoiced that the once thought dead son was had returned to life. Such will be the reconciliation when we live out our call as ambassadors of Christ and work to heal the deep wounds of our common history.