politics

Between a Good Story & Hard Facts

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from R.B. Nevitt’s A Winter at Fort Macleod

While I’m writing my book about our long western walks, sometimes I find myself caught between a good story and a set of hard facts. I’m writing about our treks through ranches on the edge of Cypress Hills in 2015. Remembering the cattle, the horses, and the land there, I’d like to tell the story I found in Peter Erasmus’s Buffalo Days and Nights. Erasmus was a Métis interpreter, guide (for the Palliser expedition, among others), hunter, trader, and diplomat (his account of the Treaty Six signing is invaluable, since he was actually hired by the Indigenous parties to the Treaty). He could speak four or five prairie languages, as well as English and French, and could read ancient Greek. Discussing the extinction of the bison/buffalo, and the problem of poaching, Erasmus notes: “True, I ate buffalo meat at Big Bear’s camp in the Cypress Hills…but it tasted a great deal like beef – so much so that I didn’t consider it polite to inquire too closely as to its source.”[i] The problem is, the story makes it sound as if the Cree were habitually enjoying food at the expense of white settlers – but the opposite was the case. 1881-82 was the time of the “hunger winter” (see Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood). Cree, Saulteaux and Assiniboine, facing a brutal Saskatchewan cold in tents made only of thin cotton (the hides being sold or converted to food), dressed in rags, were dying, by the hundreds, of starvation and starvation-linked diseases. Meanwhile, the government in Ottawa kept cutting its relief budget. Dewdney, closer, used the famine as a tactic to try to empty the Hills of its Indigenous population. The first ranchers in the area offered their animals at cost to relieve the famine. Dewdney refused. No one knows why, but it remains a fact that he had financial links to the American company that provided meat to the Canadian government, and accepting the offer would have undercut their – and his – profits. [ii] Plus ça change…the more things change…  There’s no simple story in remembering Settlement.

[i] Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights. Ed. Henry Thompson. Calgary: Fifth House Ltd, reprint 1999, 301.

[ii] James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013, 115.

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Scarf and Medicine Bundle

Matthew squares off with Scarf Women

On my leaving, the Finns of Montreal gave me a gift. It wasn’t a gift card, or a gold watch (do people do that anymore?) or a bottle of fancy wine. They thought about who I was to them, and who they were to me. Then nine households – nine different women, to be more precise – knitted a scarf. Together. They each, in turn, added wool from Finland, and colours from their homes that would mean something.

I’ve rarely been so touched. I wear the scarf often. I keep it in a place where I can look at it, as I’m doing now. Its colours tell me about the people who knitted it and the services and events we enjoyed together. Its heft in my hands reminds me how warmly I was embraced by the Finnish community. Although it wasn’t intended as such, the scarf turned out to be the perfect length for a stole (that priests and pastors wear over their robe as a sign of their ordination). When I got it, I told the women it would be a ritual object for me – it couldn’t help but be, because of how it was made.

In 1884 Canada’s Federal Government passed the potlach law, part of the Indian Act. It “legally” abolished all “Indian cultural practices,” the Sun Dance, the potlach, and other religious ceremonies. It also forbade Indigenous people and groups from keeping their ritual items. That provision was only repealed in the 1950s. Bob Joseph, in 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, writes that “for 71 years…almost three generations grew up deprived of the cultural fabric of their ancestors….thousands of irreplaceable ceremonial masks, robes, blankets, and other….items were lost forever to their people” (49).

When I walked into the Castle Museum here in Nottingham UK, the first thing to catch my eye was the medicine pouch you see below. The little sign says it comes from Alberta, Canada. When ceremonies – the life of a culture – were outlawed, many of the stolen objects were given to museums. That bundle belonged – STILL belongs – to someone…Blackfoot? Cree? It’s hard to imagine someone coming into my house to take my Finnish scarf, or a Bible, or a communion chalice. But that’s exactly what my government did to the Indigenous peoples. Learning this, and remembering it, is part of being ready for reconciliation.

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Truth in a time of Disinformation

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Truth. You will know it. That’s what Jesus says. You’ll be able to sniff it out. Somewhere between the meandering, hateful, mysogynistic, racist late-night tweets and the tap-tap-tapping of thousands of trolls putting out fake social media posts from St. Petersburg and Tehran, and robocalls whispering to us here in Quebec that elections have been cancelled under mysterious circumstances, and Saudi Arabia murdering a journalist and then saying he died in a fistfight and a Trump supporter sending pipe bombs by courier but many Republicans listening to talk-shows that tell them the Democrats set up the whole thing, because, after all, no one got killed, and, well: God knows what else.  If you continue in my word, says Jesus – THE word, not all these dissimulations – then you are truly my disciples, and you will know, NOT the lies. Not the innuendo. Not the most reasonable inferences, based on the latest poll results. The TRUTH.  And that will set you free. So often we focus on that one noun, “truth.” Too often we overlook the very important verb before that, the verb “to know”. It might be a truth that a grizzly bear and her cubs are on the path ahead of me. But if I don’t KNOW it, it won’t help. Indigenous writers tell us that knowing always depends on one thing: relationship. What twitter has taught us is that what people call truth is relative. But the relationships under real truth – love and forgiveness, and grace that reaches through our brokenness and heals us – those things never change. When we face the disinformation and the hurtful lies, the way through is asking: of all the so-called options, what keeps us in right relationship with our Creator and each other? THAT is the truth we must cling to. Then, even in times of trouble, even should the world fall apart and the mountains crumble into the centre of the sea, that truth is our safety and stronghold. Our mighty fortress. Truly.

Jonah of Lac-Mégantic

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Friday, all three former railway employees involved in the terrible tragedy at Lac-Mégantic were acquitted. Most locals didn’t want them convicted. Even though the three men have admitted they bear some responsibility in the loss of 47 lives, everyone knows the fault lies higher up, with what the Bible calls the ‘principalities and powers’. If there was a Jonah for Lac-Mégantic, the prophet wouldn’t be in that little village. Jonah would be walking through parliament, in an Ottawa whose successive governments, Liberal and Conservative, let regulation go slack, and through Wall Street, or wherever the now bankrupt MMA Railway’s shareholders and executives live and work. Those are the people who should hear the call to repent. Some of those people might – actually – be you and me. We think ethical investment is an option. Is it, really? In light of Lac-Mégantic? Would Jonah have a word for us when we too, value financial returns over human life?

 

Freedom from Fear

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If we were really free, then fear and desire would not be so powerful. Jesus said: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. And when we really take a moment to look closely, the ideas that imprison us are lies.That the clothes make the woman or man. That we can solve an unhappiness inside with some form of success, that winning the lottery can make anyone happy, that the busier we are, the more important we are. That we need to be afraid of those different from us. That we can survive without love, or others. Lies, one and all. 500 years ago, Martin Luther’s great insight was that all that we need, we’ve ALREADY been given.We do not need to buy what is already ours, free. We human beings are not perfect. True. But we don’t need to be. And the people who say we should be, are playing games.  Follow them and we’re buying into a cycle that will keep us forever trapped. Luther said that, thanks to our Creator, love is free. Not only that, but it’s also freeING. There’s a side-effect: the more we realize  we don’t have to prove anything, the more we’re free to work for love and justice, for others. We’re not just free from. We’re free for. We’re free to make the world a better place by standing up against injustice and intolerance. Intolerance always plays on that same fear. If Jesus taught us not to be afraid, we don’t need to be fearful. We can break the control that others – especially politicians, these days, in the United States but also here in Quebec – try to have over us, using our fears.

Triumphalism

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Triumphalism is gloating. It’s me going by you on the highway, seeing you have a flat tire and saying to someone: “they deserve that.” We Canadians are more than a touch smug right now. Justin Trudeau may not be perfect. But he’s not Donald Trump. The world loves us, not so much for who we are, but for who we’re NOT. And we lap up the credit. Or triumphalism is those of us who are Euro-Canadian saying that we tend to live a richer and healthier life than many First Nations people because we somehow are smarter, or work harder, or something. When in fact, the truth is that people like me get an education and a good diet and many of these breaks because we are living off the ill-gotten gains of land that was  stolen from the First Nations to give to our ancestors. And we have the gall to give ourselves credit. The same is true of this Gospel, written after the destruction of the Temple. Therefore, Jesus says to the Chief Priests and Elders, because of how you’ve treated the Son, I tell you this: the Kingdom of heaven will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces fruit. It’s been two thousand years since this supercessionist – and awful – text was written. In that time, has the official, institutional Church done any better than ancient Judea? No! The opposite: have we crucified those who were only seeking freedom? Yes. Have we stood idly by while the innocent suffered? You bet. Have we rejected love? Constantly. Reading this text shouldn’t make us smug. Christians are NOT God’s replacement for the Jews. What we are, is extremely fortunate we’re included in the family. And that, right there, seems the best way to eliminate self-righteousness. This is a perfect reading for a Thanksgiving weekend. The moment you and I take the time to think about how unbelievably fortunate we are, is the same moment smugness disappears. Happy Thanksgiving.

Estonians, the Red Army, and Unsettlement

Red Army Tank

When I read Enn Raudsepp’s book Vändra, it was eye opening. The novel makes it very clear that Estonians have rarely been able to live on their own land. In the Middle Ages, German landowners came and took over everything, making the Estonians serfs and peasants. Then the Soviets came, again and again. Today is “Red Army Sunday”. If anyone knows about strangers taking over land, it should be Estonians. They know, as do the First Nations here in Canada, what it is to have foreigners pushing you out. Estonians know what an injustice that is. Estonians should, then, also know that the right thing, the loving and just thing, is to name that injustice for what it is, even here and now in Canada. So you, mortal, says Ezekial, you I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you should give a warning. I guess we who are Christians are not quite over the “should” stage. We should identify injustice, not just at the end of the Second World War, but also now. We SHOULD develop solidarity and empathy for people who are not like us. In that way, the reign of justice, of our God, begins already, in a very small way, here and now.

 

The Churches and the Clearing of the Plains

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Consider this: when we think of the participation of  Canadian churches in the decimation of the First Nations, we repent of residential schools and the 60s scoop. But it started even earlier. Christian missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, were among those who urged the Saulteaux, the Cree, the Blackfoot, the Assiniboine and others to make treaty with Ottawa, right around that 150-years-ago date Canadians are celebrating this year. “Christian Indians” (as they were called), influenced by their priests and ministers who attended the negotiations, urged their traditionalist brothers and sisters such as Mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear) to take treaty. Since Christians were so crucial in brokering the numbered treaties, shouldn’t Christians have a special responsibility, now, in making sure they’re upheld? (with others, I will be walking the Battleford Trail in August 2017 to draw attention to an often forgotten part of Saskatchewan, and Canadian, history. For more info, see shfs.ca)

why the 16th century is still important

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The more things change, the more they’re the same. Some of us tend to idolize Luther. But scholars point out he’s only important because he came at a kind of tipping-point. Despite the significant, obvious differences, we live in a similar time. There is again, as there was during the European Reformation, a revolution happening in social media. There is again, as there was in the 16th century, a kind of apocalyptic feeling in the air, a shock-wave of anxiety at the rapid pace of change. There are again various forms of political uprisings and revolts among the disadvantaged. Remarkably, there is a similar fear of the Muslim world’s influence on Europe, a fear stoked for political reasons by leaders in the West. There is, again, an important wing of Christianity (this time found on television and online) that offers to the gullible and the afraid, salvation in exchange for money. Cities are still the crucibles of social, economic and technological transformation. And there is again, as at the time of the Reformation, a church caught in the middle, and unsure of the way forward.