July 2, 2017
Melanie Delva Deuteronomy 8:6-14, Psalm 24, Colossians 3 :12-17, John 15 :12-17
“Creator we give you thanks for all you are and all you bring to us for our visit within your creation…give us strength to live together with respect and commitment as we grow in your spirit – for you are God, now and forever. Amen” – A Disciple’s Prayer Book.
I would like to start by acknowledging that we are a church worshiping on unceded land – unceded meaning “stolen” - stolen land of the Coast Salish peoples – particularly the Musqueam, Squamish and Tseil-Waututh First Nations. I am profoundly grateful for their continued presence and witness to those who inhabit their lands.
My name is Melanie Delva some of you will have known me as the Archivist for the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster and Provincial Synod of BC and Yukon, a position I have held for almost 13 years. But as of June first, I am now the Reconciliation Animator for the Anglican Church of Canada. This is funny on several levels – the first is that I seem to be fated to have job titles that are completely incomprehensible to the average person. I spent 13 years explaining what an Archivist does, and now I spent a lot of time explaining what a Reconciliation Animator does. The second reason why this is funny is that – well – suffice it to say that I did not see this coming in my “life plan”! But more on that later. I was commissioned by Primate Fred Hiltz a week ago today – to help the church to stay to true to its commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples – to “animate” or bring life to the ongoing work of truth-telling, justice-seeking and reconciliation. I’d like to share with you, on this Canada Day long weekend – a bit about my road of reconciliation, and a bit about reconciliation in the context of today’s scripture readings.
I grew up in a racist family. As you can see, I am white - in fact my brothers say that I am so white I actually glow in the dark. I was raised in a very rural community in Manitoba that was near to one of the larger Metis communities, and quickly learned that "Indians" are at best lazy, unintelligent, dirty and ungrateful and at worst, sub-human and not worthy of a continued presence on the earth.
Although through so-called "higher education" and life experience I came to tidy up those beliefs to make them more presentable and palatable to the growingly politically correct world in which I found myself, my thoughts really only moved from an overt racism to what I now believe to be a much more subtle and dangerous form of racism - that is, a pity for what I saw as a hopeless and helpless sector of society filled with poverty, violence and addiction who - if we intelligent, sophisticated, educated and motivated dominant society could find time and compassion to stoop to help - would really benefit from our intervention and assistance.
I still feel residual shame as I say these words – mostly because they are very similar to the words I read in the archives of the missionaries and government officials who set up the Residential Schools.
My internal world started to shift as I began to review thousands of pages of records in our archives for transfer to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Anglican Church is a signatory to the Indian Residential Schools settlement agreement – an agreement that addressed the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian history. Other than financial obligations, the only other legal obligation the churches had under the agreement was the production of records regarding the Residential School System. That’s where the archivists came in.
I remember the first time I set eyes on a file of correspondence in our archival records regarding the death of a 7 year old boy in St. George's Indian Residential School in Lytton. The correspondence was between the principal of the school, the Indian agent, and the family of the boy. The family wanted to know what had happened - how the boy had died and what had happened to his body. The principal and the Indian agent were going back and forth trying to decide for themselves what had happened, and how or whether to present the information to the bereft and desperate family. The truth of the matter was that the boy had died of influenza and been buried in an unmarked grave on the school playground. But to my knowledge, the parents were never told this. I read the file, vomited, and sat shakily at my desk without moving for about 20 minutes. Then I put the file back in the box and took out the next one and began reading. File after file. Box after box.
This was the beginning of a journey of devastation and I believe redemption for me. In fact the only reason I have hope for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples on any level let alone a national or institutional church level is that I see my own journey of reconciliation and movement into the Light as a microcosm of what is possible when we no longer fear the light, when we lift up our heads like the Psalmist’s “gates” and allow the King of Glory to transform us.
In my time as Archivist I worked with hundreds of survivors and former students of residential schools in the last ten years. Some of the work was helping survivors and former students prove they attended the schools, as the onus was on them to do so in order to receive compensation under the settlement agreement - though the vast majority left school without so much as a name tag, let alone report cards, yearbooks or photographs that they could produce to prove that they had attended. Beyond compensation was the need to bring Truth into the light, and although the archival record can only ever tell a shard of the whole story, for many simply seeing their photo or name in the records was the piece they needed to externally validate the truth they held inside. Some of the work was searching for the missing children - ones who never came home. I took this work upon myself because of the story of the boy buried on the playground. I couldn't sleep at night and when I did, I often dreamed of the children whose names and faces I saw in the records. I refused to stop searching for them until I had exhausted every possible source I could lay hands on. I found graves for some of the missing. Some I found alive. Some I could not find at all.
For some survivors, calling me in the archives was the first contact they had had with the church since leaving residential school, and the fear, pain, and sometimes anger was infused in their voices. This was not lost on me. The work was hard on a level I am not sure I have yet accepted or processed - particularly through the pilot process of the TRC when we were involved in document discovery and the enormity of the atrocities and attempted genocide became more clear and undeniable. But the pain and difficulty was more than simply being faced with the evil that others had been capable of in some sort of distant history separate from me. It was about facing my own capacity for the evil of seeing fellow human beings as anything less than inherent and unconditional children of God – chosen, forgiven and clothed with the love to which the writer of Colossians calls us all.
Here I stand, on the Sunday of the Canada Day long weekend. And not just any Canada Day – the 150th Anniversary of Confederation – a process in which the British Colonies of what was called Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were united into one Dominion and a country was born. The Anglican Church of Canada has made great strides to address the carnage created by the IRS system. The Anglican Healing Fund has dispersed 8 million dollars’ worth of funds to grass-roots healing projects in Indigenous communities. The wider Canadian society is beginning to understand and implement the 94 Calls to Action given to us by the Commission: school boards are providing curriculum to teach children about the system and Indigenous truths in Canada, museums are repatriating stolen artefacts to Indigenous communities.
So, there are two realities which exist simultaneously for me today:
I love being Canadian. I have lived in 6 of its provinces, driven across the country 3 times. I have swum in the Atlantic, Pacific, and 3 of the Great Lakes. I have hiked the Canadian Shield, helped to bale hay on the vast prairie, looked for dinosaur bones in Drumheller and skied the Rocky Mountains…very poorly, mind you. I love this country. I am proud to be Canadian and would not want to live anywhere else.
And I feel uncomfortable celebrating this Anniversary of Confederation.
I feel uncomfortable because our country will be spending half a billion dollars in total on celebrations for Canada 150 while as of April 30, 2017, there are 107 Indigenous communities without access to clean drinking water.
I feel uncomfortable celebrating when a mere 2 years ago, the TRC Final Report concluded that this country engaged in cultural genocide.
I feel uncomfortable because we live in a country whose Human Rights Tribunal ruled just last year that First Nation children were being discriminated against by underfunding child welfare services on reserve and by failing to provide health care services on par with the rest of the country.
I feel uncomfortable because the entire premise of Canada rests on the dispossession of Indigenous people of their lands.
…well, I’m just a little ray of sunshine, aren’t I?
But friends, there is Good News. Spoiler alert: Christ shows up! In my own story of transformation, Christ shows up as the residential school survivors. The very people the church I work for tried to eliminate came around me and held me up. They were gracious and patient as they helped me to understand the depth and breadth of the evil they had endured. They did not judge me when I got stuck in "white guilt" and tried all kinds of weird and unhelpful ways to un-mire myself from that. They helped me to pick up the pieces of what was left of me when this process and the reality of my own internalized racism shattered my soul. And it was the survivors who laid their hands on me and prayed for me when I broke - immobilized by the extent of the atrocity I was witnessing both in the records and in the hundreds of survivors who told me their stories – whose stories I now carry in my very cells. They have even claimed me as family through spiritual adoption into the Grizzly Clan of the Lytton Nation of the Nlaka’pamux peoples. They call be daughter, sister, Auntie.
They embodied the deceptively simple directive from today’s Gospel: the command that we love one another as God has loved us. They had every reason to hate me – to be angry with me. But they chose to love me. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to paint some false image of a “noble savage” here. There are Indigenous people who are deeply angry – and rightly so. And it is often my default to feel defensive when confronted with this anger. “But *I’m* not a bad person. Look at all *I* have done to help”. But this is not love. This is my fear of the Truth.
Love, in the shape of reconciliation, is listening to the oppressed and not making it about me and my need to appear “good”. Love is the hard work of trying desperately to hold the tension between a deep love of country, and the knowledge that the state was built on and continues to be maintained through is a system that subjugates the original People of the Land. Love is educating ourselves on issues of Indigenous justice. Love is laying down our lives of privilege and taking up lives of solidarity – in the many simple and complex forms that can take. Love is – at the very least - naming and facing the discomfort.
There is another 150 that I would like to draw your attention to. It involves some math, which is not my forte – but stick with me here. There are 94 Calls to Action given to us by the TRC as a roadmap for reconciliation. There are 46 articles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. There are 10 Principles of reconciliation that undergird the Calls to Action.
94 + 46 + 10 = 150
The OT reading in Deuteronomy talks about entering a new land – “a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing”. Doesn’t it sound amazing? The land we call Canada has many of these things, but because of our fraught humanity, they have often become the objects of possessiveness and greed. But we have an opportunity to re-enter this promised land through reconciliation with one another in Christ.
So, in our time - let reconciliation be this new land of which God speaks in Deuteronomy. Let Justice flow like the brooks and streams and springs. Let Truth be the wheat and barley and vines and fig trees. And let the bread that feeds us and will never be scarce be – as in the Eucharistic Feast – the Love to which we are called and which we are freely given.
And whatever we do, in word or deed, may we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Creator, Reconciler of all.
On Monday, April 3, 2017, The Office of the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada announced that Melanie Delva had been appointed Reconciliation Animator for the National Church effective June 1, 2017. Melanie spent several years as the Archivist at the Diocese of New Westminster and the Ecclesiastical Province of British Columbian/Yukon and was deeply involved in the 2013 Truth and Reconciliation events here in Vancouver and continues her involvement to this day.