Working Among Ourselves

Kerry Saner-Harvey is coordinator for MCC Manitoba’s Indigenous Neighbours program and attends the Aberdeen EMC in Winnipeg, Man.

We are talking today about how we, those of us who are white Canadians, work among ourselves to process what we have been hearing over the years about residential schools, and particularly since the unmarked graves were identified near so many of these former schools.

GT:         Thank you for joining me today, Kerry.

K S-H:    I’m happy to be here.

GT:         To start with, can you tell us a little about what your work with the Indigenous Neighbours Program is about?

K S-H:    Often the way I’ll refer to the work, even though we’re called Indigenous Neighbours is I’ll say Indigenous/settler relations or Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations because I think that’s really what it’s about. We’re part of this equation.

One of the areas where MCC’s been involved for a long time and I continue to work with is in hydro-impacted communities in the North. In Manitoba there has been a long history of hydro affecting Northern communities as many of us know.

You mentioned working among ourselves and I think that that’s a really important question and important part of what I try to do. It’s important to look at things like residential schools and especially now that that’s in the news and taking a step back and seeing how it was part of a bigger trajectory and how we as churches are part of that history whether we would like to believe that or not and how do we unpack that.           

It’s a long, slow process really and every congregation and every individual is at a different place on that. I think that personally taking it slow and figuring out rather than jumping in and saying “Wow, this is terrible” (which it is) “but how do we make it right? How do we fix it right away?”—sort of resisting that impulse and first just kind of acknowledging that this is a part of our history and who we are and then trying to unpack what can our response be in terms of listening and learning. Sometimes that leads to really interesting conversations. Sometimes it leads to tough conversations.

I’m really glad for the EMC as a denomination to be engaging with this question more and I think it’s really, really significant for us to have these conversations.

GT:         What are the particular questions or things that you’ve addressed since the graves were found—has finding them changed the conversation in any way?

K S-H:    It’s interesting that it has caught the attention so much of the Canadian public. I mean certainly for First Nations communities this isn’t new, right? This is the kind of thing that they’ve known for a long time and it reflects where we are as a country that many folks are referring to this as a discovery. I think that it’s really interesting for us to step back and ask why have we not been engaged with this more, and not necessarily to dwell on that—to say “Okay, well, this is where we are.” We need to continue to do more education among ourselves. I think that it’s good for us as Mennonites to acknowledge that we were a part of that history as well. Mennonites were engaged with residential schools as well. That doesn’t necessarily say we’re bad people. That means that we were part of a bigger system that did a lot of harm and damage that we can now acknowledge and say “Okay, this is something that we can work at uncovering for ourselves.”

GT:         I think we feel helpless. I mean a thing has been done and it’s behind us and there’s no chance to rectify it and yes, there’s a lot to learn and we can do that, but there’s a feeling of helplessness in how do you move forward. Do you see that?

K S-H:    I definitely see that. I think that that is probably a natural response between feeling helpless and almost paralyzed because, how do you respond to something like this and especially in a good way without sort of making more harm, and then on the other side wanting to jump in and fix the problems which also can be just as dangerous if it’s coming from a place of wanting to assuage the guilt, if you will, or making us feel better rather than really wanting to see mutual transformation. I think that’s partly why going slow is important. Building connections and relationships.

When I was in Labrador the first couple years I really jumped into one really quickly. I saw something that “Oh, we could do something about this.” I wanted to jump in really quickly, saying “We can fix this—we can make some change here.” Not all of that’s bad, obviously. We want to put our efforts there but at the same time there are times when I, figuratively, got my wrist slapped a bit. I had to step back and realize, okay, maybe I need to slow down and I don’t really understand the bigger picture.

I think there are things we can do even when one feels helpless. One of those things is praying, and praying together is really significant. Especially a time like this one we’re acknowledging death and acknowledging the hurt that this was, particularly on unmarked graves, to do that in a collective way.

I think that acknowledgement is more important than we realize because it helps shift our way of being with Indigenous people if we can come with the sense of humility, a sense of acknowledging “I don’t know the answer. I know this harm was done. I don’t know how best to respond but I’m here and I’m wanting to be present.”

Acknowledging our shortcomings doesn’t mean we need to feel paralyzed in guilt. Colonialism is something that we have been a part of, but collectively, and it doesn’t mean that we as individuals have to feel so much remorse and heaviness that we can’t also just be human with each other, right? So that’s also really important.

There’s a lot of joy in building relationships and there’s a lot of fun and humour if you’ve had the opportunity to connect with Indigenous communities. I’ve been really blessed and fortunate to be able to do that with my work with MCC. There’s a lot of humour and there’s a lot of joy and a lot of possibilities for working together but I think it needs to be something that is done together because if it isn’t done that way it ends up being actually both more awkward and difficult and potentially more destructive.

GT:         I’m amazed often at the grace of First Nations people—I mean you get things like the statues being toppled, but there seems to be just a lot of grace generally among First Nations people.

K S-H:    Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that. You mentioned the toppling of the statues. I think it’s an interesting thing. I think we point to that a lot and I don’t have a comment about whether that’s good or bad and destruction is never helpful, but I think it’s also helpful to acknowledge that when anger arises that usually arises from a genuine place and the compounding of all the other atrocities are much worse than a statue or two being toppled over, but that’s something that makes our headlines.

The vast majority of my interactions—I mean yeah there’s occasionally some individuals I’ve encountered that just really don’t want to engage with me because of who I am as a white, male Mennonite person, but the vast majority of folks are wanting to work together, are wanting to see a better future. They are grateful when people are able to take an approach of humility and to acknowledge that our approaches haven’t always been that great. We, as white people, want to take up a lot of space. We want to do things right, we want to get things done, and we want to figure out the answers.

But yeah, that graciousness is really significant. I’ve definitely experienced that a lot.

GT:         Where does faith play in, because this wasn’t just Canadian government doing this. It was faith communities and here we are as Christians.  

K S-H:    Yeah absolutely, I think our faith is actually really important. I think it’s what grounds us and keeps us focused. There are many, many indigenous folks who identify as Christian and are deeply faithful people. Many of them are deeply committed to the church and so working together with those folks I think is bringing who we are into that and our faith into that is actually really important.

There’s a lot of room for healing and you know it is going to take time because there’s distrust and that’s okay I think. There are immediate concerns that need to be addressed you know like the water quality in many First Nations is really poor and MCC has been working on that kind of thing.

There are many other injustices as well, you know rights haven’t been respected in places, so there’s immediate things but then there’s the long-term healing work as well. Many First Nations talk about that it takes seven generations to get where we are and at least seven generations to heal. I think there’s truth to that—it’s that we need to be willing to be in this for the long haul.

Encouraging congregations if they’re willing to begin to talk about these questions—to acknowledge land, you know not necessarily doing a rote land acknowledgement every Sunday but, every once in a while to acknowledge this is where we are and this is the history—maybe doing something to acknowledge that this year for example is 150th anniversary of Treaty One and Two and many of our churches are there.

GT:         Can you explain what land or treaty acknowledgement is about?

K S-H:    I remember being in the circles like Thunderbird house here in Winnipeg. It was with mostly Indigenous people and some guests that had come from other places and it seemed very natural to them to come and say “I want to thank you and acknowledge those of you here on Treaty One for welcoming us into your territory.”

It’s sort of a way of acknowledging that even though we’ve been here for generations, there’s still a sense in which we are a guest, in that we weren’t the first peoples here right? In order for us to be here, agreements were signed; the treaty was signed. Some of the agreements—some of the commitments weren’t honoured, but still we didn’t just sort of land here and it was empty land for us to take. That’s part of the uncovering that history, right? Acknowledging that there was a process for us to be able to be here in a good way. And that doesn’t mean that we aren’t supposed to be here. It’s not getting into questions of private property or into questions of politics so much as a more general acknowledgment that we need to live together in a good way. So, when we do that as congregations even if there aren’t Indigenous people there, it’s a way of reminding ourselves that we’re still in that relationship and maybe keep it in the forefront.

Indigenous Neighbours Program Coordinator, MCC Manitoba
Kerry has been in his current position since August 2016. In the past, Kerry has worked with First Nations youth in Cranberry Portage, Manitoba, and done restorative justice, community-building and advocacy work for MCC Newfoundland and Labrador.

We all have many concerns that we’re dealing with, but I think this is something that’s really important for us to keep on our radar and engage with more as we continue to move forward as a congregation and as a denomination. I hope that is helpful.

GT:         Yes, it is and I want to thank you very much Kerry for speaking with us today.

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