Last year, as we celebrated Canada’s 150th anniversary, I had really mixed feelings. I was nostalgic for the unbridled pride and joy of Expo 67, Centennial year, when I was too young to be aware of politics or social issues. But last year, as an adult, my feelings were mixed. I was proud to be Canadian and at the same time I was concerned about the ongoing issues with First Nations peoples and the things in our history we cannot ignore and which don’t make us proud: broken treaties, residential schools, the 60s scoop, and a whole host of challenges that continue.
I’ve had a year to work this through. In the process, I have learned more.
Just last week, I heard a report on CBC’s Ideas program about slavery in Canada. I knew there was slavery here, before Confederation, since the British empire emancipated its slaves in 1833. What I hadn’t known is that Canadian slaves were not only captured people from Africa, traded here through the West Indies or the United States.
It was complete news to me that we had also legally enslaved many First Nations people during colonial days, typically after taking them prisoner in small local wars. The First Nations slaves were not as popular as African slaves, because their friends and family would attack to try to release them. Additionally, the slave owners were expected to set them free when, for example, a peace treaty had been signed to end the war with that particular group. Many owners didn’t want to lose the free labour, so they’d change the paperwork and find other ways to keep them illegally.
Given that history, it’s easy to understand why people who have been treated that way wouldn’t want to celebrate all that the creation of Canada, with its colonial history, has meant, and continues to mean, to them.
At the same time, when we compare Canada to other nations of the world, we have done some remarkable things. One of the things we are proudest of these days is the way we have set an example for other nations regarding building a diverse and inclusive society.
We’re trying. We really are. And in many ways we’re being more successful at embodying what I would identify as Christian values than most explicitly “Christian” nations in the world.
So what do we do? How do we go forward with this mix of pride and shame? How do we balance this history where we’ve tried to live up to high ideals while at the same time seriously oppressing the very people whose land we are on?
We are taught not to judge history by modern standards. That’s important to remember. I cannot honestly say what I would have done if I had been alive 400 years ago as a settler here.
At the same time, we cannot avoid the consequences of our history, either. And I believe that it is fair to examine the past in the light of our ideals so we can learn where we made bad choices and do things differently as we go forward.
The Apostle Paul wrote the passage 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 almost 2000 years ago. That means that the colonial powers of Britain and France certainly had access to it, especially those trained as clergy or missionaries. Why wasn’t it applied?
What Paul presents is an attitude to other people that he, as a missionary, used to shape the way he approached people. He came as a servant, respectfully, actually willing to endure all kinds of hardships and false accusations as he did his work.
Paul’s attitude exists in stark contrast to the attitude of the leaders and lawmakers in the colonies. They were prepared not only to make war on the local inhabitants, but to enslave them; treat them as less than human, as property that could be bought and sold.
The physical reality of slavery was appalling. It was dreadfully violent and inhumane for the most part. But the attitude that permits its existence is even worse: to be so arrogant that other people simply don’t count as real. This was the very opposite of Paul’s example to all Christians of every age.
How different would our history have been if we had treated the First Nations with respect right from the start? We can only guess.
We can recognize, though, that respect, honesty, integrity, and love are the values we are given on which to base all our relationships. And we can take note of what happens when these are absent.
I am very grateful that so many of the values taught in the scriptures have made their way into the values Canadians publicly embrace. Having said that, our only honest way forward is to address our past, work for reconciliation, and celebrate the accomplishments we can make not only with refugees and people fleeing oppression in other places, but also with the people we have been oppressing for centuries.
This will be very uncomfortable for us. It will require us to be really honest with ourselves. We shouldn’t forget, though, that another deeply important Christian teaching is all about repentance and forgiveness.
We haven’t always presented this idea well. Too often we’ve let people off the hook by saying they can confess to God and just be forgiven without reconciling with the people they’ve actually hurt.
What Jesus taught fits the model of reconciliation. In the Sermon on the Mount we are told to leave our offering to God at the altar and run to reconcile with the person we’ve hurt, before we try to be right with God. We need to reconcile with each other. It is central to our calling.
It’s not easy, but it is important, because it is the only way to build a family, a group, even a nation, that will truly reflect God’s love and those other values Paul showed us.
Today marks year 151 of the existence of Canada, and there is a lot to celebrate, especially when we contrast ourselves to so many other nations of the world. We’re especially good at pointing out how much better we are than the Americans, aren’t we?
But that’s not a very high standard, considering the history of empires and world powers, and the controversies we see percolating south of the border. We want to be able to say more than “we’re better than them.”
And as some have pointed out, we aren’t necessarily better, either. We have been separating First Nations children from their parents for decades, except that we send them to foster care or adoptions, rather than institutions, at least since we closed the Residential Schools.
On Canada Day we should celebrate the good that we are doing. It is real. At the same time we should work to do better. We should put our best foot forward as we go into the future.
To do that we must come to terms with our oppressive past and present. We need to reconcile with the people who have provided us with all the space and resources that make Canada such a rich nation.
And from the particular perspective of Christianity, I think we should embrace those values Paul talked about: where we present ourselves honestly, respectfully, without arrogance or presumption; where we go forward in a way that truly welcomes and deals with people as they are, rather than as we want to force them to be.
I regret that we’ll never know how things might have been different if we had come to this land with those values in the past. But it’s never too late to start. The future is stretching out ahead of us, and it’s in our power to make our nation even better.