On this Truth and Reconciliation Sunday, I too must revisit the truth of my own prejudice and privilege. Forgive me, but I cannot remember her name. Staring back through the mists of time, I can however remember the pain in her eyes. More than four decades have passed since I lived and worked in Vancouver’s East End. I was young, young and foolish, young and carefree, young and adventurous, and young and callous. In my early twenties, I was still trying to figure out who I was. So, I was in no condition to understand who she was. How could I know? None of us knew…right? We didn’t know. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.
I did know Jesus back then. Some might even say that I was obsessed with knowing Jesus. I went to church every Sunday and I hung out with church people. Not common behaviour for kids in their twenties. The God I knew and worshipped back then was the “Father.” The Father Almighty. I was young, the world was my oyster. My future stretched out before me. I knew that my work in the travel industry was only temporary; just a means to an end, a way to make money so that I could spend that money enjoying life. At the time, I was working in an unglamorous part of the wholesale travel industry packaging holidays, to Mexico and Hawaii. We used to joke that it wasn’t exactly brain surgery, just bums on seats, just filling every plane our company chartered with warm bodies so that they could get away from Vancouver’s gloomy, rain-soaked winters. Bums on seats, anybody could do the job; day in and day out filling airplanes, it was positively mind-numbing work.
The company I worked for occupied an entire three-story office building on the northern edge of Vancouver’s East Side, which at the time was one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada. Back then, the gentrification of the East-End which Expo 86 and then the 2010 Olympics brought, couldn’t even be imagined. Good upstanding middle-class people avoided the poverty of the East-end, unless of course they were young like me, and then the depravity of the neighbourhood was kind of a badge of honour. So, we braved the streets on our way to dance the night away in the clubs which sprang up on the edge of the East-End, where rents were cheap, and the cops had so much more to worry about than the kind of mischief which we got into. I lived and worked in the East-End and saved my money for the life which stretched out before me.
I wish I could remember her name. But the pain in her eyes, those dark mournful eyes, that I will never forget. I’d warned her more than once. It was against the rules. She was hired to clean our offices. She was to go about her work and make sure that she had the place spick-and span, ready in time for us when we arrived in the morning, and then she would be on her way. But time and time again, I’d find her lingering, long past the time she should have been gone, she’d still be there lingering and talking on our telephone. She was our cleaner, she had no business using our phones. Remember, back then mobile phones were the stuff of science fiction movies. I was the newly minted supervisor of the reservations department. It was to me that the staff came to complain about the untidy conditions in the staff room. If she spent as much time doing her job as she did sneaking around making phone calls, we wouldn’t have to put up with the unwashed mugs in the sink. I warned her repeatedly, but she just wouldn’t listen.
My boss told me to fire her; but I was young, and I’d never fired anyone before. Besides, I thought I knew better. I thought, wouldn’t Jesus want me to give her just one more chance. Forgive me, I thought I could save her. I wasn’t planning to save her for Jesus or anything as crass as that, oh no, I was going to save her from herself. I was going to redeem her from her lazy self and see to it that she kept her job. Forgive me, I did not see my racism for what it was. The phrase, “I didn’t know” rises in me even though truth demands that I confess, I must have known.
Back then, in my world of privilege there were no aboriginals, no indigenous people, just plain old Indians. She couldn’t have been much older than I was at the time, but her face was haggard by a life I couldn’t even begin to imagine. But I was young, and I thought, I knew it all, and I knew if she didn’t shape up, I’d have to ship her out. Out onto the streets of the East-End where she could join her sisters; she’d probably end up turning tricks like the rest of them, if I didn’t save her from herself. Forgive me, I really had no idea what I was thinking or what I was doing, or at least that’s how I like to remember it. I like to excuse what I remember by claiming that my youth was the problem. I don’t like to see my thoughts or my actions for what they were.
I took her into my office, this woman whose name I have forgotten, and I told her in no uncertain terms that she was not allowed to use the company phones for personal calls. She was there to clean and nothing more. She was very apologetic. She begged me not to fire her. She tried to explain that the phones in the rooming house where she lived were always out of order and she couldn’t afford the payphone and she only made calls that were local. I held my ground. Her excuses did not sway me. She’d just have to stop using the office phones. She had to understand that she’d lose her job if she couldn’t follow the rules. I was only trying to help her or at least that’s how I like to remember it. I never asked her who she was calling. It never occurred to me that her need might be more important than the rules. I had to be firm. I had to show my boss that his faith in me was not miss-placed. I might have been young, but I wasn’t going to let this “Indian” pull the wool over my eyes. This Indian’s eyes filled up and I sunk back into my chair, somehow undone by the thought that tears might be about to make an appearance. Remembering who I was back then, I suspect that I may have shot up a prayer to the “Father” silently asking for the strength to do my job.
Looking back now at the young woman that I was, I can’t help wondering what the woman I am now could possibly say to that earnest young thing, to break her out of the shell she was so carefully encased in. I try to tell myself that I was a product of my culture, trapped by the prejudices of generations of imperialism. I had absolutely no idea who that woman was who toiled away as the office cleaner. Sure, I recognized her as an Indian. But back then, I didn’t know then that, native women who left the reserves lost their status as Indians and thereby forfeited their rights. I recognized that she was a woman, but I didn’t know that based on her age, she may in all likelihood have suffered the indignities of the residential school system which basically kidnapped children from their families and held them captive. The very system which afforded me such privilege, was designed to wipe any trace of their culture from the minds of indigenous children or to put it in the words of our own government, “to kill the Indian in the child.”
I recognized that she was our cleaner, who probably made less than minimum wage, but I had no idea that she was trapped in an endless cycle of poverty from which there wasn’t much possibility of escape. I did recognize that she was a human being, but in my arrogance, I believed that if only she’d pull herself up by her own bootstraps, she’d be able to keep her job and maybe one day be able to make something of herself. I was as determined to be firm but kind. It was for her own good that I warned her that unless she applied herself to the work at hand, I’d have no choice but to let her go. Forgive me but I didn’t know or at least that’s how I like to remember it. I wish I could go back and do it all differently; but that’s not how life works.
The crimes of our past haunt us, and we must learn to live with the consequences. Those deep, dark, tear-filled, eyes peer out, they peer out at me from my distant past. Today, I, we, know so very much more than we once did and still we have so very much more to learn. The horrors which continue to be revealed have exposed the deep wounds in our nation and in the nations of our indigenous sisters and brothers. We may like to remember it with rose coloured glasses, excusing ourselves by claiming ignorance, or youthful inexperience. But reconciliation requires the truth.
We settlers must confess that the foundations of our privilege include the horrors of genocide, stolen lands, residential schools, Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and the lack of safe drinking water, together with our compliance, denials, and arrogance. We settlers must learn to listen to the stories of our indigenous sisters and brothers. We settlers must learn to see all those tear-filled eyes which peer out from our past, present and futures. We must listen to and learn the truth behind those tears. We must also be prepared to confess our truth; all of it, known and as yet unknown, all of it. For without truth there can be no reconciliation.
Today, I look back on the young woman that I was, and I can forgive her for being arrogant, stupid and unknowing. I can even forgive her for her faith in the great big Father in the Sky to whom she prayed for forgiveness, trusting that He had everything under control and there was no work for her to do. We’ve all come a long way from the days when we called our sisters and brothers Indians and passed by not caring about the horrors of our history or the travesties of the present. We know that the LOVE which we call, “GOD,” lives, and breathes, and has being in, with, through, and beyond us. We know that the ONE who lies at the very heart of reality finds expression in us. We know that the deaths of our sisters are an abomination. The plight of our Indigenous sisters and brothers is Canada’s great shame. It is also the shame of each and every settler who continues to prosper as a result of the privilege we so blithely take for granted. We can turn away, or we can simply offer up a prayer to the Great Sky God, and hope that somebody somewhere does something. Or we can allow the plight of our sisters and brothers to move the SPIRIT which lives in us to find expression in our actions.
I wish I could remember her name. But I cannot remember her name. I can see her deep, dark, tear-filled eyes. Her eyes cry out to me from my past. Her eyes continue to cry out to me as I recall her truth. A few days after I told her to stay off the office telephones, I over-heard her tell one of the other women who we worked with, that she had moved to the East-End to search for her daughters. Two of her daughters were missing; vanished without a trace. She worked as our cleaner, she lived in a rooming house, she embraced the poverty of the East End in a desperate search for her daughters. Two daughters who had left their home searching for a better life in the city.
4,000 murdered and missing women and girls, and over 2,000 of those cases remain unsolved to this day. 4,000 murdered and missing women and girls. That’s a very big number. Numbers mean something; two, two, missing daughters. One is far too big a number for us to comprehend when it comes to imagining the loss of a daughter; two is a number that would destroy must of us. 4,000 Stolen Sisters is a number that is more than we can bear; more than we can tolerate, more than we can ignore, and yet we know that that number continues to grow. More than 1,300 unmarked graves at residential school sites and we know that that number is going to grow. More than 60 Indigenous communities still do not have safe drinking water. The suicide rate among Indigenous peoples is 3 times that of settlers! The truth is disturbing. And so many of us are tempted to look away. Reconciliation requires truth.
Our Indigenous Sisters and Brothers have so much to teach us. But it is not enough to leave the truth-telling to others. We must search our own hearts, our own minds, our own stories to discover our truth, to learn from our past mistakes, to discover our own complicity in the pain of our neighbours.
Today, on this Truth and Reconciliation Sunday, churches all over the world are also celebrating the Season of Creation’s theme, A Home for All. A Home for All in this “O Canada our home and stolen land.” Much needs to happen before this home we love is a safe, equitable place in which all people may thrive. We must begin with the truth about our home. We must confess the truth of our past and present so that the future ushers in justice and peace for ALL in this home we share.
May the ONE who is LOVE, find expression in with through and beyond us, so that we can become LOVE in the world, LOVE in our communities, LOVE in our lands, LOVE in right relationship with ALL our sisters and brothers. Let it be so. Let it be so among us and beyond us. Let it be so now and always. Amen.
View the full Truth & Reconciliation Worship Video below