On Feb. 12, at Shaughnessy Heights United Church, there was a dialogue featuring Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan Kaplan, director of Inter-Religious Studies at Vancouver School of Theology, and Rev. Ray Aldred, director of VST’s Indigenous Studies Program. Held under the rubric of Shaughnessy Heights’ Reconciliation Matters initiative, The Teachings of the Land: Our Oldest Relative explored the spiritual relationships between people and land.
Aldred, who is from Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta, said his understanding of the land has been formed by his Cree upbringing and his life study of indigenous wisdom. Asked about the title of the talk, he said, “For us, the land is part of the family.”
Kaplan spoke of the Jewish people’s connection to the land of their birth, Israel. A self-described “born urbanite,” she also spoke of her personal spiritual connections to the land – hiking in nature or learning from her husband how to grow food – and what she called the “eco-theology” of the Bible.
“The first chapter of Genesis takes us through the creation of an ecology, where everything is interconnected and blessed by the Divine,” she explained. “The first human is called ‘Adam’ in Hebrew, which is not just a random pleasing sound, but comes from adamah, red clay dirt, and means ‘the red clay dirt person,’ the ‘earthling.’ The Hebrew Bible is an indigenous text, which tells us ‘how to walk well on the land,’” she said, using a phrase of Aldred’s. “The Book of Leviticus, for instance, teaches us to consciously let the land rest – the commandment of Shmitah, where the land has rest from farming every seven years. The Hebrew Bible teaches that the ecosystem belongs to God, not to us. It is not ours to come in and displace peoples and animals and to take what we want.”
When Kaplan attended a course of Aldred’s in 2016, she said she realized she was a “rank beginner” in eco-spirituality. “Hunter-gatherers were specialists in sustainability,” she said. “They were not primitive; they are the next level.”
Kaplan also discussed the view of some that First Nations were one of the lost tribes of Israel, a view Aldred had also jokingly referred to earlier. Although lacking historical evidence to support it, commented Kaplan, “it works as a metaphor for a similar history of displacement.”
Aldred made another biblical allusion when speaking about how early Europeans were greeted by some Ojibwe as “Anishinaabe” (which literally means “people”) but they refused the title. “Reminds me of another story about some other people who didn’t want to be what they were created to be, but wanted to be God,” Aldred commented with a grin, referring to the story of Adam and Eve.
Aldred spoke a lot about the need for humility and the renunciation of certainty in order to find a relationship both to land and to other people. “Your perspective is always limited, it is always just ‘your perspective.’ You need other people, other creatures, to learn from. The Creator is giving us an opportunity to learn humility. If we miss that chance,” Aldred warned, alluding again to a biblical text (Leviticus 18:28), “the land will spit you out.”
Asked about practices of connecting to the land, Kaplan suggested learning about the local ecosystem, spending time exploring it and getting to know the unique creatures who inhabit it. She also spoke about connecting to members of one’s own tribe in order to cultivate a sense of home, and about getting to know the indigenous peoples of the area.
Aldred discussed the importance of really listening to the land so we can make better decisions as a community. Noting that Mary was Jesus’ mother, he asked who Adam’s mother was. “The earth was his mother, and the earth cared for him and cares for us.”
Aldred also said that indigenous people reverse Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, which places basic needs like food and lodging on the bottom and spirituality and community at the top, as being less necessary. “Get your spirituality right,” said Aldred, “and everything else will be right. Take care of your relationship to the land, and take care of your neighbours.”
Asked about the ownership and economic use of land, Aldred said, “We belong to the land, it doesn’t belong to us.” He noted that treaties, in the indigenous understanding, were less about the division of land than about how it should be shared. “Of course, we should enjoy and make use of the gifts of the land,” he said, “but, in our decisions, we should think seven generations ahead – that’s 225 years into the future. That might take a little more time, but it’s worth it to our grandchildren.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Sam Bob is one of seven šxʷʔam̓ət, cast members. The play will run at Firehall Arts Centre March 3-11. (photo by David Cooper, design by Dafne Blanco)
Vancouver theatre director David Diamond, who founded the Theatre for Living 36 years ago, is hard at work this month on a play titled šxʷʔam̓ət(home), about reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. Eleven performances are scheduled March 3-11 and Diamond says anyone that has any interest in a healthy Canada will find the play interesting.
“I don’t think we necessarily understand where we live but I think we all have a vested interest in living in a healthy country,” he reflected. “The tagline for the play is, What does reconciliation mean to you? Our hope is that we’re asking real questions about how to engage in this (reconciliation), in an honourable way that isn’t a repetition of colonization.”
Diamond was born in Winnipeg and has lived in Vancouver since 1976. Why did he choose the subject of reconciliation for his latest play? “Some of it is just paying attention to what’s happening in the world,” he said. “The Theatre for Living has a long history of working with indigenous communities throughout Canada and the reconciliation issue has gained a lot of prominence in the last couple of years. It feels important to ask these serious questions about reconciliation at a time when a lot of people are questioning whether the process in Canada is even valid.”
The issue of reconciliation has many layers, he added. “Sometimes people want to imagine there’s a solution – but, of course, there isn’t one, there are millions of smaller things that need to happen, that make up larger solutions. We have a lot of conversations to have internally about legacy, colonialism and the reality of the country we live in. Some of those conversations are internal to indigenous communities and only then can we get to the conversations in between communities. All of that has to occur in order for reconciliation to be an honourable, honest and real thing.”
Diamond has been involved in the subject of reconciliation for decades. “I’ve been very privileged and honoured to be invited into conversations on issues that arise out of colonialism and to work with indigenous communities,” he said. “The best thing a production like this can do is ask real and challenging questions, questions that we legitimately don’t have answers to. And then, because the theatre is interactive at every performance, to navigate a very deep conversation every night, that helps transform people’s relationship to the issues.”
Theatre for Living is collaborating with Journeys Around the Circle Society for this production, which began with a workshop and creation process on Jan. 30. It’s the same procedure Diamond has followed for many of his larger shows over the past few decades. Diamond strives to produce interactive theatre that challenges perceptions and creates social change, and this performance will consist of life-based stories woven together, as well as challenges to the audience to make reconciliation respectful and real.
Ryan Bellerose, left, in Jerusalem with Michael Dickson of Stand With Us. (photo from Ryan Bellerose)
Ryan Bellerose is not the first Métis to stand with Israel, though he might end being one of the most influential, as he works to increase B’nai Brith Canada’s presence and advocacy voice in Alberta and British Columbia.
Based in Calgary, Bellerose became BBC’s advocacy coordinator for Western Canada just over four months ago. Like many Métis of his generation, he was raised Roman Catholic but, later in life, found his way back to indigenous spirituality and decided that Catholicism was not for him.
“I try to worship the creator the way Cree people do, rather than the way white people do,” he told the Independent.
Growing up, Bellerose read about Israel and felt a kinship with Israelis insofar as the struggles they have endured concerning their ancestral land and rights. The Métis here in Canada have had less success with similar struggles, he said.
That’s how his connection to Israel started, said Bellerose. “On top of that, on my mother’s side, my great-grandmother was really pro-Israel. She grew up in Norway during WWII. She was very pro-Israel, because she was very anti-Nazi Germany.
“She would drink Manischewitz wine everyday at 4 p.m. As a kid, I asked her one time why she drinks it, because she’d always make a face when drinking it. She told me, ‘I drink this because it shows the world that the Jews didn’t die and that the Nazis lost.’”
It would not be until Bellerose was in university that it became clear in his mind why he, himself, was pro-Israel. A Jewish friend at the University of Alberta helped him see just how similar the Métis and Jewish narratives are.
“I didn’t realize she was Jewish and I used to hang out with her a lot,” recalled Bellerose. “She’d always invite me over for dinner at her house on Friday. They weren’t super-observant Jews, but they still lit candles and had Shabbat dinner. They didn’t eat meat on Friday … all things that my family did, too. So, I just thought that they were super-Catholics, and I told my grandma that my friend is totally super-Catholic and that she’d love this girl.”
What Bellerose did not yet realize at the time was that his friend was being bullied at the U of A to a degree he had never seen before. Growing up in northern Alberta, Bellerose had experienced a lot of racism and prejudice, but nothing, he said, like these verbal attacks on his friend.
“What was a shock to me was this girl – blond-haired, blue-eyed, who played on sports teams and was super-smart academically – was being bullied to the point that she was considering suicide,” said Bellerose. “We’d be walking across the quad at the U of A and someone would yell, ‘Baby killer!’ I just always assumed they must be yelling at someone else or maybe even yelling at me, because there’s no way they would be yelling at her.”
This occurred a few times before Bellerose learned that his friend had participated in several pro-Israel events and that it was some very anti-Israel U of A students who were shouting such slurs at her.
“It’s one of those things that … it’s very difficult for a rational, moral human being to even wrap their heads around…. I think that’s why a lot of Canadians don’t understand the depth of this,” said Bellerose.
“It’s simply because she used to wear an IDF T-shirt and she was Jewish. So, I mean, the excuse would be anti-Zionism, but the truth is that it is antisemitism.
“I’m supposed to be one of her close friends and, yet, I had absolutely no idea what she was going through. I should be more sensitive than that as a Métis person who has experienced that kind of thing. It really bothered me that I didn’t see it. That was when I decided that I’m not going to stand there and be quiet when this kind of stuff happens.”
Soon after, in 2002, Bellerose was on his way to his football locker when he encountered an “apartheid wall” in his way. It was made out of papier-mâché and cardboard, and had bloody handprints on it. As the wall was blocking his way, Bellerose asked politely if they could move it. A female student responded to him, “Now, you understand the persecution the Palestinians deal with on a daily basis.”
Bellerose said, “I looked at her and said that my [Métis] people were still allowed to be killed in 1939 in Canada … that nobody will do anything about that … so don’t lecture me about oppression. I lost my cool with her and said that they should either move the wall or I would. They didn’t, so I walked over and ripped it down. I was angry, so I flipped their table over. They had a bucket of propaganda and I kicked that over.”
Fast-forward about 10 years, and Bellerose has joined Calgary United with Israel. He began his involvement helping organize events on a volunteer basis, while working full-time. During his spare time, he would argue with antisemites in comment sections of published articles, but eventually realized that he would be able to get his message out a lot more quickly if he educated influential people instead, on both sides of the conflict.
Bellerose said many people in the world, out of ignorance, believe that the Palestinians are on the side of complete right in the conflict, painting Jews as occupiers as opposed to people returning to their homeland.
“That’s literally how this whole idea that the Palestinians are the native people and the Jews are the white European colonizers came about…. That’s how it was spread so easily,” said Bellerose. “Arabs flipped that narrative…. If I allowed the argument that the Arabs are indigenous to the land of Israel, then I might as well turn around and say that white people are now indigenous to Canada. A lot of native people don’t understand that until you literally put it into those terms.”
Bellerose has a fairly significant following on social media, partly because he used to play football and partly because he is a sometimes controversial personality who makes people uncomfortable. B’nai Brith Canada began following Bellerose, too, and was especially impressed with his imploring Jews to be proactive in their advocacy and unapologetic.
“I firmly believe that the biggest part of this problem is that, a lot of times, until recently, Jewish advocates were kind of taught not to talk about the settlements,” said Bellerose. “I’m here to talk about the good things about Israel. Of course, the truth is there’s a lot to criticize – but there’s so much more to be proud of.”
When BBC hired Bellerose, he could hardly believe he would be paid to do what he loves doing and would do anyway.
“I tell people that I’m going to be more professional, swear a little less,” he quipped regarding his role with BBC. But, he added, B’nai Brith itself has become “less apologetic, more proactive … a little more in your face.”
Bellerose especially likes working with young adults, as he strongly believes there are many young people who are not connected with their identity because they don’t really understand it.
Bellerose is also working hard to build bridges between aboriginals and Jews. “I think that, by building these bridges, eventually we can help you and you can help us, and it will make the world a better place,” he said. “This is best done through what I call ‘relationship advocacy.’ Instead of going out and telling everyone how wonderful Israel is and how wonderful Jews are, I think it works much better when Jewish people invite somebody for Shabbat. The moment they see you as a human being and not an abstract concept, you build a relationship with that person. And, when that person has a relationship with you, they are way more likely to stand up for you, way more likely to actually get involved.”
I was recently in Australia, where I presented at Limmud Oz, a Jewish festival of learning. One thing – among many – that struck me about the community was that, on more than one occasion, Limmud sessions or other parlor meetings opened with a public acknowledgment of the elders of the Gadigal people (in Sydney) and the Boonwurrung people of the Kulin Nation (in Melbourne).
Similar acknowledgments are becoming more common in locales across Canada – references to the Métis Nation at events in Winnipeg; the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh in Vancouver; the Wendat, Anishewabe and Massasagua in Toronto; the Algonquin in Ottawa. But I have only heard this done once in a Jewish context – at a Jewish Voices for Peace event in Ottawa.
Ittay Flescher, a Jewish educator at Mount Scopus Memorial College, a day school in Melbourne, has been one of many educators to call for his school assemblies to open with a similar acknowledgment, and feature signs on classroom walls “acknowledging country,” in Australian parlance. His shul, Shira Hadasha, a partnership minyan, also incorporates such a statement in its Prayer for Australia.
Flescher has gone deeper in raising awareness, having introduced a Grade 9 aboriginal studies course. These students were in kindergarten when the government issued its historic 2007 apology for the Stolen Generations policies, whereby aboriginal children were taken from their parents to be raised by whites – Australia’s version of Canada’s terrible Sixties Scoop.
Named Yorta Yorta Beyachad (beyachad means “together” in Hebrew), the course is anchored in a little-known event that bound Australia’s Jewish community in Shepparton to William Cooper of the Yorta Yorta tribe. Having been one of the first to launch an aboriginal civil rights movement, in 1938, Cooper – a person with no status, no voting rights and no formal citizenship, as was the case among aboriginals in Australia at the time – turned his sights to another oppressed people. Appalled by the events of Kristallnacht, Cooper marched to the German consulate in Melbourne to present a petition denouncing “the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany,” an act of protest that stayed virtually hidden until it was discovered by a Melbourne archivist in 2002.
Each year, Flescher takes his students to Yorta Yorta country in partnership with the Australian Jewish social justice organization Stand Up. For three days, they meet with elders, learn traditional dances, discuss issues around identity, and deepen their understanding of aboriginal history. They visit Cummergunja, one of the Catholic missions where aboriginals were forcibly placed in 1889. They even visited Cooper’s grave where they recited Kaddish for the victims of the Shoah. “It was an incredibly moving and humbling experience,” Flescher said.
The Canadian Jewish community is beginning to tackle the issue as well. The CJN reported in May on a Jewish teen cultural exchange to the Nipissing First Nation Reserve. And, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, several Jewish groups, including Ve’ahavta, the Toronto Board of Rabbis, the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism and CIJA, signed a “statement of solidarity and action.” Bernie Farber, former head of Canadian Jewish Congress and now head of Mosaic Institute, has been at the forefront of moves to advance deep and thoughtful discussion about the fate of the First Nations.
These are all encouraging. And, like the dancing of the hands before reciting the Shabbat candle blessing or the kissing of the mezuzah before entering a room, there is something powerful about a ritual-like statement at the beginning of a Jewish gathering to acknowledge who came before us and how we can help repair the wrongs inflicted – even if most of us, or our ancestors, were fleeing our own private horrors when we arrived at the shores of this great country.
Mira Sucharovis an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She is a columnist for Canadian Jewish News and contributes to Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other publications. This article was originally published in the CJN.
Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond speaks at the fourth session of “How to Love a Child,” the Janusz Korczak Lecture Series. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
“Rights are paper tigers, just pieces of paper, unless there are people courageous enough to defend them, and unless there are mechanisms to enforce them and compel them. The child who has a right to be heard but no one listens to, and disappears without ever being heard, never really had a right to be heard,” warned B.C. representative for children and youth Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond at the fourth session of “How to Love a Child,” the Janusz Korczak Lecture Series.
The Jan. 21 lecture at the University of British Columbia, which is part of a six-part series co-organized by the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada and UBC’s faculty of education, focused on The Human Rights of Aboriginal Children. Also speaking was Dr. Mike DeGagné, president and vice-chancellor of Nipissing University, who was the executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF), which was established in 1998 with a grant from the federal government and wound down its work in 2014. Its mandate was “to encourage and support, through research and funding contributions, community-based aboriginal-directed healing initiatives which address the legacy of physical and sexual abuse suffered in Canada’s Indian residential school system, including inter-generational impacts.”
Dr. Grant Charles, associate professor at UBC School of Social Work, acted as moderator, and Janusz Korczak Association president Jerry Nussbaum also spoke, explaining briefly who was Janusz Korczak. The educator, writer and orphanage director – after whose book How to Love a Child the lecture series is named – not only wrote about his theories, but lived and died by them. When the Nazis created the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, Korczak’s orphanage was forced to move there, and Korczak went with the children. In 1942, he and the almost 200 children in his care were taken to Treblinka, where they were murdered.
Nussbaum reminded the audience of Korzak’s philosophies on the rights of children and their direct influence on the content of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Korczak believed that every child has a right to love, said Nussbaum, and that “children offered love and care will reciprocate with love and care.” Children have a right to be taken seriously, to education, to protest an injustice, among other rights. Nussbaum explained that Korczak believed that the health of a society could be gauged by the health of its children.
Despite protection under the UN convention, there are many children and youth who are marginalized and, in Canada, First Nations children are among those who are the most at risk. Dr. Jo-Ann Archibald, associate dean for indigenous education at UBC, gave an example of one of the research programs at the university’s faculty of education that is trying to ameliorate this situation. Called Awakening the Spirit, “it’s about revitalizing canoeing at Musqueam,” she explained. There is cooperation among different faculties and some students are involved, “but the most important part is the Musqueam communities that partner in this research. They are the ones who determined this particular project because they felt that they wanted to have something positive in their community for the young people, for the youth.”
Canoeing, she said, was a very important part of the community lifestyle, “it was a way to build family and community cohesiveness and also have fun and learn about the environment at the same time.”
The benefits of the research project, she said, “will be realized in educational materials, in the way of revitalizing important values, the Musqueam language, ensuring we have intergenerational learning.”
DeGagné has had 20 years of experience working with the repercussions of residential schools. He said his views about rights, “especially indigenous children’s rights, I color it with the history of residential schools.”
Often when there is a conversation within the community about indigenous issues, he said, it begins with the high rates of suicide, poverty, over-representation in the justice and child welfare systems, “the rosary of our grievances.” Given that indigenous children have rights, yet the grievances continue, he asked, “How can we be sure those rights are being supported and upheld?”
When AHF began, he said, grant applicants would ask, for example, whether the foundation had an approved list of elders that they could use. “We were astonished. Can you imagine in your own community … in your own spiritual context, asking if your priest was OK, if your rabbi was OK? This is the making of the colonial mind. After years of being subjected to doing it someone else’s way, even when we came along, we could not engender people doing it their way.” He described this as “a learned helplessness,” and a lack of trust in their own culture.
To move forward, it is important to talk of the past, he said. He used the metaphor of a pebble being dropped into a pond to describe the effects of the residential school system. The child’s abuse at the hands of an adult is at the centre, it is the pebble being dropped; the next ripple out is one child at a residential school abusing another child (“learned behavior”); the next is when that person leaves the school and returns to their community and starts a family in which violence takes place; then the violence between that family and another in the community. As we look at the outcome, standing on the outside, we see the high rates of suicide, family violence, neglected children, but we, as observers, “can’t see anything but the dysfunction and so infrequently do we get to examine what happened in the middle, what happened in that first instance of violence, what happened when that child’s human rights” were disregarded. “This is why we talk about history,” this is why 100 years of residential schools is important, he said.
To change the situation, he pointed to two necessities: the establishment of fairness, “the money that we spend on First Nations child welfare should be equal to the money that we spend in the rest of the population’s child welfare systems”; and transference of control to First Nations peoples of their lives, agendas and resources.
DeGagné commended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on capturing the hearts and minds of Canadians and drawing them to indigenous issues, and for talking about system reform as opposed to tweaking or just adding money to a dysfunctional system. But, among his criticisms of the commission’s recommendations is that they do not make him uncomfortable. “It turns out that, in the reconciliation between you and me, indigenous people and non-indigenous people, that 93 of the 94 recommendations require that you do something…. I’d like to feel a lot more uncomfortable reading these recommendations because reconciliation is going to require that I work and that you work, and not that you come to stand by me, but that somehow I come to stand in the middle with you. And so, I think, too often with these recommendations, and this could be a reflection of the colonized mind, we are calling upon someone else to fix the problems with our community. That’s a concern of mine.”
The TRC, he added, also describes issues as if there has been no progress in the last 20 years – by the churches, universities, governments and others – towards reconciliation. “We have much to do, but we have to start by acknowledging the good work of all us and how much progress we’ve made.”
Turpel-Lafond spoke about how long it takes to change systems. “You have to really make that investment [in change], and it takes time,” she said.
AHF “laid the groundwork for thinking about healing” and the view of storytelling and its importance in healing, she said. “Stories, particularly the stories of grievances that aboriginal adults have – and many of our parents and grandparents have – are stories that needed to be told, that needed to be heard, that needed to be listened to.” AHF “gave resources for people to validate that process of allowing individuals who had been through residential school, their personal experience and their collective experience, to be told and listened to in a very sincere way in which they were supported, but also could create that medicine toward healing.”
Turpel-Lafond’s great-great-grandparents were the first two students at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Sask. She spoke of the difficulties in sharing some of the stories with her own children. “Children are not always ready to hear those stories. I’m not trying to be over-protective, but we need to think about children’s well-being … how we tell the stories to children, when we tell stories to children, and how we can put those stories in a context.”
She then went on to speak about Korczak and the lecture theme, “How to love a child.” For her, Korczak represents what it means to love children, even “where it was extremely unpopular to love and support some children, who were considered to be less worthy, who were considered to be disposable…. And also to bring forward the idea that love is a kind of medicine with respect to our society…. We express our love for our own society and its furtherance by how we love our children because we create a vision of something we may not even be here to enjoy, that we create through that very values-based process.”
We’re not talking about creating the perfect system or bureaucracy, she said, noting that Treblinka was an attempt at a perfect system, “we’re talking about values.”
The love that Korczak represents for her in the context of indigenous children is an approach that does not come from a perspective of shaming, blaming, contempt or judgment. This is “a really serious problem that we continue to have for the current generation of indigenous children, which is, we want to save them but we still want to blame their parents, and that’s a very unhealthy attitude.” We need to come “from a perspective of love and understanding and context, and seeing … [how] multiple shocks … can just devastate families, not every family, but some families.”
A second lesson she takes from Korzcak’s views is “the idea that nobody owns your story, that you have to have the courage to say it.” People may relate to your story in various ways, “but the story, and telling it, the courage to do that, to talk about the difficult things, is a very important instinct related to love and, if you can’t bring that out and you don’t have enough people in your society who are courageous, then your society is doomed. And how do you build courageous people? … [I]t’s about love and acceptance and space, but it’s also about having very strong adults to allow people like kids to tell stories.” Korczak “represented that right to be heard,” she said, and he went even further, going against the mores of the day in that he wanted “no corporal punishment of children.”
She said that many indigenous children have been “raised in an environment deprived of the type of unconditional love, culture, language and the right to know who they were and where they were…. If you love people and you’re prepared to understand that grievance and suffering is not permanent, it can be redressed.”
But, adults who love children must see something in the children that the children may not see themselves because they’re mired in rejection. “There have to be positive, healthy adults who see their potential and support them to get to their potential. That’s a very important concept because, not surprisingly, guess what, some of the children who have been most abused and ill-treated can be the most challenging to engage with in terms of their emotional regulation, in terms of their contact with adults, in terms of their anger.”
The government label is that these children are “service resistant,” she said, which means, “we will leave you alone because you’re too angry for me even to listen to your story. But, if you take a page from Andrew Solomon [author of Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity] and Janusz Korczak, what would you say? I am able to rise above it and listen to this story and, if I’m a good, healthy adult that’s coming from a place of love, I can probably see what’s in the story and see how it can be a medicine for the future.”
The third lesson she takes from Korczak, her experience as an indigenous person and as an advocate for children is that “rights are an important medicine.” Rights are so important because “rights are a way to reframe incredible vulnerability and systematic disempowering … into a different context that overnight takes, for instance, that residential school experience and now makes it appalling, completely unacceptable, who would ever do that to children? Because they have a right to learn, they have a right to be safe, they have a right to be heard, they have a right to their language, [to their] culture transmitted from their parents to them, and there’s nothing threatening or harmful about that.”
In British Columbia, we have a long way to go. Of the children in care, more than 60% are indigenous children. While Turpel-Lafond said we are in a better place as a society than when she left home and went out in the world, “we are not in a place where indigenous children can in any way be guaranteed equal opportunities with other children in British Columbia. By accident of birth, they’re going to be born with significant disadvantages that will only be overcome based on what we decide to do.”
In the half-hour question and answer period that followed, one of the listeners shared her story of how her child had been abused by foster parents and, when she tried to remedy the situation, she could not find help, no matter to whom or to which government office she turned. Turpel-Lafond was at a loss to respond, other than to empathize and say we don’t have the answers, “but we’ve got to find a way to get them.”
The fifth lecture in the Korczak series takes place on Feb. 18, 7 p.m., and focuses on the topic Social Pediatrics in Canada and Vancouver. The final lecture on April 6 provides a summary of the series. To register and for more information, visit jklectures.educ.ubc.ca.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society will honor Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, on Jan. 17. (photo from Jack P. Blaney Awards, Simon Fraser University)
The release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report last year was a turning point in the relationship between Canada and its aboriginal peoples. It is part of a longer and ongoing trajectory of healing, according to Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, who is being honored this weekend as a courageous civic leader.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society was founded by members of the local Jewish and Swedish communities, including the honorary Swedish consul, to recognize individuals who help others at great risk to themselves. Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation on northern Vancouver Island, is the recipient of this year’s Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Award.
Joseph is ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, an organization intended to “revitalize the relationships among indigenous peoples and all Canadians,” and a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council.
“At significant personal risk and after facing severe oppression, Chief Dr. Robert Joseph courageously stood up against social injustice to help others,” notes the award citation. “As a residential school survivor, he courageously chose to publicly share his story and the consequences of the abuse and trauma he had endured. This was at a time when the indigenous community was conflicted about bringing the experiences in the residential schools to light and when the larger community was in denial about what happened. Chief Dr. Robert Joseph chose to turn his experience into a vehicle for healing through reconciliation and a will to make sure that this would never happen again.”
In an interview with the Independent, Joseph discussed the progress toward healing his community has made in recent decades.
“Our First Nations people were absolutely in deep despair, not understanding what had happened to us over the course of all that time that residential schools existed,” he said. “But, in the last 20 years, we’ve made remarkable, remarkable progress. And one of the breakthroughs in all of that was survivors like myself began to feel confident enough to tell our stories. We had been walking around in deep shame and despair and brokenness and suddenly we found a way to begin to tell our story.”
A crucial first step, he said, was the federal government’s 1998 Statement of Reconciliation. Though the statement itself was equivocal and not universally appreciated, Joseph said, it was accompanied by funds for survivors and resources for the affected communities.
“I was part of the movement because I was executive director for the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, which was the only organization of its kind at the time,” he said. “So, we began to hold meetings and circles where circles of survivors began to tell their stories and it was deeply, deeply liberating.”
The process expanded, he said, to include representatives of the churches who were complicit in the schools system and later the government and other Canadians.
“We began to recognize that indeed there is a common humanity that exists between all of us and if we can’t harness that common humanity, we’re going to always have these atrocities going on around the world,” he said. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a culmination of that progress and Joseph is uplifted by the response of Canadians since the report’s release last year.
“We’ve had a tremendous interest and response from many Canadians about their desire to reconcile,” he said. Even so, the impact of the report was double-edged, he said.
“When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report was submitted in June, it said that because of a whole number of initiatives and policies, Canada had created, impacted, effected a cultural genocide against the aboriginal people of this country,” he explained. “For me, even as I sat and listened to that, it was sort of a bittersweet report. On the one hand, all of our suffering had been acknowledged and identified in this report. But, on the other hand, as a country together, you and I and everyone who are Canadians were told that genocide was a part of our history.”
He added that he is humbled to receive the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Award, which is named in honor of Raoul Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara, diplomats who, during the Second World War, risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis.
“I’m really moved by the idea that people who suffered huge indignities, human suffering, who have been through it all like no one else has before, are thinking that somebody as little as I am can be acknowledged by them,” Joseph said.
As he prepares to receive his award, the chief said he is optimistic that Canada is at a crossroad.
“We are so blessed in this country,” he said. “We have all of the rainbow and color of the human race here and we have a chance to engage with each other, to nurture our relationships, to embrace our differences and indeed celebrate them.… But it calls us to our highest order as Canadians to be all that we can be in treating each other with respect and dignity because there is nothing more important than respect and dignity. I think that we are on the right path.”
Joseph will receive his award at an event on Sunday, Jan. 17, at 1:30 p.m., in the Wosk Auditorium at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. The ceremony will be followed by the screening of the film Carl Lutz: The Forgotten Hero, about a Swiss diplomat in Budapest who saved tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazis.
On a logging road near Smithers, B.C., the Unist’ot’en people occupy their traditional land in order to stop work on the 11 pipeline projects that would run through the area. Located beside Wedjin Kwa (Morice River), the camp is one of the only places left in the world where it is safe to drink directly from a natural body of water. Add to this the rustling trees, abundant huckleberries, countless wildlife and more, and it is clear why it is worth fighting for this land.
The Unist’ot’en maintain a checkpoint where all visitors must answer a series of questions posed by a member of the clan to assess the level of support for the clan’s action before being allowed into the territory. Supporters and allies have been allowed into the camp, as well as loggers with preexisting contracts; however, pipeline workers and helicopter crews arrive often and are reminded that they have not followed the appropriate channels to be permitted to do work on the land.
During my visit, the camp was on high alert after a tip that police planned to raid and demolish the camp, and arrest people living there. Stories around the campfire included many accounts of police misinformation and aggressiveness from veterans of the land defence struggle since the Oka crisis in 1990. There were also accounts of police following members of the camp when they went in to town, and of helicopters and surveillance drones flying overhead more than six times a day.
As those telling stories began to reminisce about siblings and parents in the residential school system, I saw the patterns of trauma visible in my own family and community emerge. The way that pain is passed through generations reveals an eerie overlap. I see remnants of the Holocaust in the way my grandparents raised my parents, my family’s relationship with food and eating, and the way they remember and guard their identity because someone once tried to take it away. With new research into genetics and epigenetics, we now know that trauma during a person’s lifetime can be passed to their children through their genes. This means that both habits and practices built during a lifetime, as well as genetic responses to stress, can be passed on.
An authority that once promised to keep them safe has betrayed both my ancestors and the people at the camp. When one elder spoke about watching as his siblings and childhood friends disappeared at the residential school, it echoed the blank pages that are so many Jewish family trees since the 1930s. I also see similarities between the Holocaust and the genocide of First Nations peoples through the reserves and the residential school system, the devastation caused by smallpox and alcoholism, much of which was propagated by the state. Not to mention continued racism.
I understand that the situations are not identical but there is enough commonality that it warrants a deeper look. I do not understand why peoples who have gone through cultural and physical genocide don’t come together in dialogue and support for each other’s survival. Throughout the last 70 years, we have promised repeatedly to “never forget,” but First Nations peoples still suffer discrimination, and this should command our attention. When there is injustice for some, there is no justice for anyone, and who better to stand in support of equal rights and freedoms, than a people who also has a long history of being oppressed and having to fight for survival.
Ariel Martz-Oberlanderis a theatre artist, activist and poet living in Vancouver, Coast Salish territories. She is grateful every day for the people who work to make the world a more lovely place to be.
Tonight, the Canada Palestine Association, BDS Vancouver, Canadian Boat to Gaza, Independent Jewish Voices and a few other groups will come together to address the topic Stolen Land: First Nations and Palestinians at the Frontline of Resistance. The obvious intention is to equate the history of colonial settlement in North America, Canada in particular, with the actions of Israel toward Palestinians.
The concept is flawed at its core, of course, because, as the Palestinian narrative often does, it portrays the Jews as colonial occupiers of Arab land, while denying the legitimacy of ancient and modern claims to the Jewish homeland. The logical failure here is that such a narrative recognizes the legitimacy of a 200-year-old land claim, but not a 2,000-year-old land claim, which seems like an arbitrary position.
Nevertheless, there is a larger issue here. The anti-Israel movement insists on appropriating the historical experience of other people and using it in an attempt to fortify their narrative. The most obvious example is the apartheid libel, which tries to paint Israel as the ideological descendant of South African racism. This is offensive not only to Israelis. It debases the experience of black South Africans who suffered from genuine apartheid.
Even more egregiously, the anti-Israel movement routinely uses the imagery of Nazism and the Holocaust against Israel, attempting to equate the victims of the Third Reich with its perpetrators. This deliberate rubbing of salt in Jewish historical wounds is common and, as we discussed in this space last week, the objective is clearly to inflict pain rather than to resolve grievances.
This is a deliberate strategy of the anti-Israel movement, which apparently finds its difficult to make a legitimate case of their own and, therefore, co-opts the historical experiences of others. As another example, last summer, when people in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere in the United States were protesting police shootings of young African-Americans, the “pro-Palestinian” movement attempted to infiltrate that movement as well, trying to portray Israeli soldiers and police in the same light as American killer cops.
The event this week has a similar purpose. Not satisfied to let Canada’s First Nations people tell their stories and have their experiences validated, the “pro-Palestinian” activists want to elbow their way in and demand that Palestine get equal time (at least).
An infinitely more constructive approach can be seen in the remarkable story of a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who traveled across Canada as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, sharing his story of survival and accomplishment after tragedy. (See the story “Survivors helps others.”)
There are ways to positively advance First Nations experiences, the Palestinian experience and the Jewish experience in order to create a more understanding and tolerant world. The organizers of this week’s event – and the anti-Israel movement more broadly – do not seem interested in that sort of progress, in that sort of world.
Earlier this month, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released the summary of its compendious report on the history and legacy of the Indian residential schools system. As the testimony of more than 6,750 witnesses to the commission demonstrated, that dark history, which lasted more than a century, has had catastrophic impacts on individuals and communities across the country.
There has been some controversy over the commission’s use of the term “cultural genocide” to describe the process by which the schools intended to eradicate the vestiges of First Nations culture from the children. However, as the summary document notes, “the central goals of Canada’s aboriginal policy were to eliminate aboriginal governments; ignore aboriginal rights; terminate the treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada.”
There were 3,201 registered deaths of children in residential schools, but estimates are that nearly twice that many died – a proportion, the commission notes, that about equals the fatality rates of Canadian soldiers in the Second World War. Only half of registered deaths cited a cause, most commonly tuberculosis. Pneumonia, influenza, fire and suicide were also too-common causes of death among the children.
Over more than 100 years, an estimated 150,000 children were confined to the constellation of 139 schools, most of which were run by churches acting on behalf of the federal government. There are about 80,000 living survivors.
Traditional clothes were removed and discarded, native languages generally forbidden. Physical, sexual and psychological abuse permeated the schools, as witnesses recounted harrowing experiences at the hands of white authority figures.
Even the ostensible purpose of the schools – education – was usually sublimated to forced labor, in which children were used to run the facilities that incarcerated them.
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the Canadian government’s role in residential schools, but the commission explicitly urges the country to move from “apology to action.”
There are 94 recommendations in the TRC’s report, including that the government should acknowledge that the state of aboriginal health today is a result of previous government policies. On education, the report urges legislation on aboriginal education that would protect languages and cultures and close the education gap experienced by First Nations peoples. It calls for a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls. It asks for a national council for reconciliation to report on reconciliation progress and an annual State of Aboriginal Peoples report to be delivered by the prime minister. A statutory holiday should be created, the report says, to honor survivors, their families and communities, and memorials, community events and museums should be funded.
“We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you a path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing,” Judge Murray Sinclair, the commission chair, said in releasing the report.
The commission’s recommendations are a call to action not only for the government but for Canadian citizens. We must ensure that we as individuals and collectively as Canadians take seriously the commission’s findings and that our governments act in ways that respect this history and ameliorate its impacts as much as possible.
Six Jewish organizations – Ve’ahavta, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism, Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto, the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus and the Toronto Board of Rabbis – issued a statement of solidarity and action acknowledging the residential schools experience and its contemporary consequences.
As Jewish Canadians, we have devoted ourselves to remembering and educating about our own history and it is heartening to see our communal organizations acknowledging and standing up for the experiences of other communities. We, too, can join in the reconciliation process in many ways, beginning with the very small act of signing the solidarity pact, which can be found at statementofsolidarity.com.
The pact’s call to action includes a commitment “to meaningful public education in the Jewish community and beyond, and outreach to indigenous communities to guide us to help improve the quality of life of indigenous peoples.” At press time, its events/initiatives section asked visitors to “stay posted,” but it is up to all of us to make sure that we act in solidarity, not merely voice it.
All Canadians have an interest in making sure our government and society is held accountable for our past and that we do everything possible to ensure a better future for aboriginal Canadians. Because of our own history, Jewish Canadians have perhaps a special role in seeing this process through.
Ve’ahavta and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) were among the Jewish organizations participating in the ceremonies supporting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), an independent commission whose mandate is to acknowledge experiences, impacts and consequences of Indian residential school (IRS) experiences. The TRC promotes awareness and public education, while working to complete an historical record of the 150-year history of the IRS system and its impacts. The TRC also works to encourage and guide a process of reconciliation and renewed relationships with all Canadians.
Ve’ahavta and CIJA presented a public statement of solidarity and action on behalf of six Jewish organizations – Ve’ahavta, CIJA, Canadian Council for Reform Judaism, Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto, Canadian Rabbinic Caucus and Toronto Board of Rabbis – which formally acknowledges the residential school experiences, impacts and consequences, as well as the inequalities faced by aboriginal (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) communities today. The statement reads:
“The pursuit of a just society is a fundamental concept at the core of Judaism. We, the signees, are motivated by the Jewish values of compassion, sharing, repairing the world and working towards justice for all. We, therefore, commit to a high level of meaningful action in partnership and solidarity with the indigenous peoples of Canada….
“The shared experiences between Jewish and indigenous communities offer a foundation of mutual understanding and unity. Our common histories include persecution, intimidation, forced assimilation and discrimination. These realities bind our two communities. We believe that our mutual values of family, language, culture, elders, and spiritual and ritual preservation – along with the connections to self-determination, kinship and homeland – bring our voices and communities together….
“Historically, indigenous peoples experienced traumatic social change, institutional violence and prolonged attempts to forcibly assimilate them into the Canadian whole. Today, indigenous peoples face disproportionately lower socio-economic conditions as compared to non-indigenous Canadians. There are dramatic disparities in the areas of education, health and well-being, life expectancy, employment, housing, living conditions, average income and access to social services, and over-representation in the justice and social assistance systems. It is important to bring to light an understanding of the history and legacy of these policies, including the residential school system, in order to achieve a just society….
“We believe that partnership and relationship-building must be based on mutual respect, cooperation and understanding. On both the community and individual level, we commit to develop partnerships as a means of celebrating diversity and learning from our respective cultures, unique heritage and traditional knowledge. Through patient and respectful dialogue, we will build capacity in our community for collective participation in promoting social justice together with indigenous peoples….
“We, the signees, commit ourselves to meaningful public education in the Jewish community and beyond and outreach to indigenous communities to guide us to help improve the quality of life of indigenous peoples. We encourage all Jews to build bridges and explore the similarities that bind all humanity, accepting and rejoicing in the differences that make us unique and in the diversity that enriches us all.”