OTTAWA, Ontario – Last month, a landmark document was delivered to the people of Canada. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its much anticipated report summary, detailing 94 recommendations to heal the generations of conflict, racism, mistrust and misunderstanding that were created by the Indian Residential School system in Canada.Indian Residential Schools were created by the Canadian government in the late 19th century as a way to assimilate aboriginal children into the developing white Canadian society. Aboriginal children were removed, typically by force, from their families and home communities.They were taken to residential schools and forbidden to speak their own languages and were denied access to their culture. Many survivors of the residential school system report extreme cases of physical and sexual abuse, starvation and neglect at these institutions, which were co-run by the church and the state.
Accurate records of how many children were abducted do not exist, but it is estimated that at least 150,000 children were subjected to the system. It is without question that the reach of Indian Residential Schools crept into every native community in the country. We now know that more than 6,000 children died while in the care of the schools, and they were usually buried in unmarked graves. It was even common for the families to not be informed of what had happened to their kids. This is not ancient history as the last school closed as recently as 1996.
In this new environment of reconciliation, many Canadian Pagans are finding themselves thinking about how native spiritual practices have influenced their own journeys and are trying to grasp the extent to which the legacy of these institutions have shaped the attitude with which both aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians view each other. Can we learn from each other and share our practices with respect? Is there enough common ground to grow understanding? Can we honor without appropriating aboriginal culture or identity?
For some Pagans of European descent, walking the Red Road was part of a path that led to European-inspired Pagan spirituality. For Lawrence, an initiated Witch, the journey from his devotedly Mennonite background to Witchcraft was inspired by experiences with native culture:
My cultural background is ethnic Russian Mennonite. Very European, with my mother born in Russia just before the revolution. My relationship with indigenous people of Canada and US was first a matter of social justice, but spending 2 years working with AIM (American Indian Movement) people in Minneapolis and 2 years in Attawapiskat (a remote northern reservation) gave me experiences far beyond the realm of social justice, and it changed my life.
Most of those people will never know how much they influenced my path. They have been more than generous … and this against the backdrop of the appalling treatment they’ve received. From evangelical Mennonite, to a universalistic mysticism, to paganism, to witchcraft, it’s been a journey that was heavily influenced by the spiritual practices of the indigenous people I spent time with.
For Nana Du, a Canadian Witch of Scottish and English background, her journey on the Red Road came to her as part studying for her degree in social work:
During the late 90s, I was enrolled in a four-year undergraduate degree (in social work). I learned a lot about First Nations People on Turtle Island, while in university. This period of study taught me a lot about the negative impact of Church and State on the Indigenous People of this area. I started to attend sweat lodges, pow wows, as well as Sundance ceremonies to learn more experientially. Returning to the Mother’s womb (lodges) was challenging, yet rewarding. Eventually, years later I started to Sundance.The Aboriginal Traditional Ways of Healing are powerful and deserving of respect. I continue to have visions while in the sweat lodge and/or during the Sundance.
There are many Spiritual and/or Mystical paths, perhaps all leading to the Original Source: Creator, God & Goddess for example. As a professional I work with a large Aboriginal population. My teachings and practices have assisted tremendously in connecting with First Nations People. I am mindfully aware that I sit with Spirit, whenever I meet with any children, youth and/or families. A Pagan Path shares many similarities with Traditional Teachings, both honour and respect Mother Earth (Gaia), Grandmother Moon (Luna), and Father Sky, for example. Both also celebrate the solstices and equinoxes (Sabbats). Many ceremonies (circles) consider the 4 directions (East, South, West & North). Pagan, Wiccans and First Nation People are highly concerned about Climate Charge and social as well as environmental issues. I am honoured to be a Witch, returning to my Celtic Roots, my Blood Memory has been activated along the many paths that I have walked.
Many Canadians are of mixed backgrounds, both native and European. And, for those people, the blending the two cultures and spiritual practices become a part of life. Dr. Maryanne Pearce, Co-Owner of Raven’s Knoll Campground and Co-Director of Kaleidoscope Gathering is of mixed Celtic and Mohawk blood.
I was raised Christian, with indigenous spirituality as a “common-sense” type background. It was this that I gravitated to. Through feminism and environmentalism, I also discovered Paganism. It reminded me of elements of my background that I so treasured. I purposely began to research and experience more elements of indigenous cultural and religious practice. Eventually, after many years, I have found that I am most comfortable describing my religious practice as I do my ethnic background. I am a mixture, and I practice both. For example, it was my Pagan friends who assisted me in creating a huge dreamcatcher, in the shape of the Triple Goddess, as a memorial to the missing and murdered Indigenous women that I documented in my doctoral work. It was raised at our campground as a memorial.
Dr. Pearce made newspaper headlines across Canada in 2013 when she released her Ph.D. thesis entitled “An Awkward Silence: Missing and Murdered Vulnerable Women and the Canadian Justice System.” This paper drives home the need for a public inquiry into the epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls. This point was also part of TRC’s recommendations.
Anne-Marie Greymoon, organizer of Wic-Can Fest and Harvest Fest, is Metis, a distinct culture of French and Aboriginal blending. She grew up with the all too common experience of not being told the truth about having aboriginal ancestors. Denial, a form of racism, is no longer accepted by a growing number of people as they proudly reclaim their heritage:
I always danced in the rain and loved it when my relatives called me a savage, a term I loved! My grandpa told me about my ancestry when I was a little kid, my mom said it was a lie to make me happy!! Now I know and, yes, my cousins look WAY more native or Inuit than I do. There is a book on the custom of “passing” as in “passing for white” written by someone who discovered she had black ancestors. It’s really interesting as it is in great part what happens here with people of indigenous ancestry … Metis people. My family insists they are all white and all from France! There are so many of us who are strangely dissociated from our roots because of colonial life! How do you repair a people, hundreds of years after the fact?
It is becoming more common to see Aboriginal spirituality being represented at Pagan events. Christian Dennis, an artist from Aamjiwnaang First Nation, a community of Chippewa in southern Ontario, shares his aboriginal teachings with Pagans at Wic-Can Fest each year by leading a traditional sweat lodge:
the crisis of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls; funding for the National Centre for Truth & Reconciliation; a commitment to eliminate the over representation of aboriginal people in the prison system, and the list goes on.
I feel non-aboriginal people exploring our path is a positive as long there is some sense of a spiritual respect from the beginning. Those that have not the respect for each other seem to create chaotic energy or energy of ignorance. When people come to a place of respect to begin with, they are open to understanding… I am grateful to the pagan community for [their] openness to embrace me as well as I them. I have healed so much in their midst and of considered them as my family… It is my hope that the sweat lodge, or Inipii, will spiritually inform and create awareness to all who visit and experience The Lodge. The Lodge is a Sacred Ceremony where we come together to recreate, heal, and celebrate the remembering of ourselves as ONE
Lawrence sees this as an opportunity to effect a change and build understanding:
At no time in our history have we had a more clear opportunity to respond to the genocide of the residential schools. Though knowledge of the residential school horrors is not new, we now have the clearest, most complete picture we will ever have of the deliberate and callous actions against the aboriginal people of Canada. And this despite the Government of Canada’s refusal to hand over millions of documents still held in secret. So there is no better time than now for our relationship to take a new turn, and start the long road to truly just relationships. We are not called to act unilaterally. We must do this as a relationship.
Dr. Maryanne Pearce observes that this is a call to action and understanding for all of us living in Canada:
I do not think many people found much of what the TRC recommended to be unexpected. All Canadians should be grateful to Justice Sinclair and all of his commissioners and staff for the long years of heart breaking work. But mostly, grateful to the survivors and their families for being so incredibly brave as to expose their hearts and souls by telling their stories. I believe that those who listen, and read not only the tales of what happened, but its aftermath on individuals and generations that followed those students, may have a better understanding of the situation of Indigenous people today – and understand that it is the responsibility of everyone, not just governments, to make the future one built on trust, acceptance and reconciliation.