A BEAUTIFUL EXAMPLE OF RECONCILIATION
My blog for this month is about a beautiful example of reconciliation. This happened at a conference in Ottawa last summer.
I can hardly breathe. The man's ignorant comment has derailed me. My presentation is next and I feel so low I'm not sure I can do it.
It's late afternoon at an international conference and my session, titled, "How to contribute meaningfully to reconciliation as non-Indigenous people" is in the last slot scheduled before the supper break. Normally my blood sugar is low at that time, so I always carry an energy bar with me. I grab it from my purse and eat quickly. It's not going to revive me. I feel I could eat five of them.
For the previous two hours, the first session on reconciliation, run by two lawyers, has focused on the facts of Canadian Indigenous and settler history, and some of the atrocities. There has been a powerpoint and much discussion. Most has been thoughtful, but an older man in his fifties, an immigrant to Canada, changes the tone when he gets up to speak.
"There is so much anger. Why is there so much anger? We came here to civilize people," he says in accented English. These are not his exact words, but the implications are nonetheless clear--the non-Indigenous who have come to this land have some superior qualities which are needed to civilize the original inhabitants. He doesn't use the word "savage", but it is definitely implied. I am shocked by this display of prejudice and ignorance of history.
My friend, Louise Profeit-LeBlanc, a traditional storyteller and artist from the Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation of Mayo, Yukon, is chairing the meeting. As the discussion continues, the same man keeps putting his hand up to speak. Louise ignores him. He finally objects.
"You had your turn," she says. He insists on saying more. One of the lawyer panellists who knows the man addresses him respectfully, yet briefly, presenting facts and defusing the situation. But I ask myself, "Is this the mentality we are dealing with, even at a conference of highly educated and supposedly enlightened people?"
At one point, I get up to respond to the question of anger.
"This is anger at injustice," I claim. "I too would feel angry if all these things had happened to my ancestors. I think we need to make a space for the anger, to not get defensive, to hear people, to listen to their stories."
I go on to make a parallel with women's oppression. In the book, Women's Reality by Anne Wilson Schaef, she talks about how many women are afraid of their anger. They believe that if they let it out, it will just burn up everything in sight. But in the telling, the women often begin to feel heard and empowered.
There is a break before my session and I feel completely spent. Earlier I had asked Louise to help beautify the room with two Indigenous hangings she has brought. I tell her how weak I feel. She calls out to her husband Bob to get us both a coffee. He quickly leaves to track it down.
We set about rearranging the chairs which are all in rows facing one end. We move the chairs into a couple of concentric circles. In the middle on the carpet, Louise places a red cloth with cedar boughs and a braid of sweetgrass. People begin to arrive. Once the room fills up, Louise closes the door and says she is going to smudge the room. Her eyes twinkle as she asks people not to tell the hotel management because of fire regulations. She lights the sage and sweetgrass and quickly walks around the room wafting the smoke over our heads with a feather.
Louise has taken charge of the situation with the power of Indigenous ceremony and her grace, wisdom and love. As I sit with eyes closed, breathing in the aroma of sweetgrass and sage, I slowly begin to relax.
Louise acts as chair for the session and before we start, she requests a prayer. She lovingly introduces me, and then, and only then, am I able to go ahead with my talk. The spiritual atmosphere she has called into being envelopes me, and with her by my side, I have the strength to begin.
Louise's intuitive response to my distress and the ceremony have helped me to broach my chosen topic, which is delicate, yet so infinitely important for our country. To me, her kindness and service have demonstrated, in action, the richness and power of true reconciliation.
The author and Louise Profeit-LeBlanc