A tough, long road ahead

I am sad to read the riposte to my previous column from Dr. Terry LeBlanc and a number of his colleagues.




I meant to illustrate how vexed the conversation in Canada can be when we speak in binary terms of one side having a corner on virtue and can’t get past the tu quoque (the “you, too!”) reply. Alas, the careful reader of the letter from Dr. LeBlanc et al encounters a fusillade of accusations—most of them true, but many beside the point—about European Christians, but only the slightest of acknowledgements that anything might have been amiss among native peoples. We’re still pretty close to “we’re the victims and you’re the villains,” all over again.

Dr. LeBlanc and his colleagues make far too many charges for me to respond to each one in a way that would interest most readers. But perhaps it will be helpful to illustrate my concern by two examples.

First, they summarize my position thus: “After all, human beings are human beings and each of us is as guilty as the next. Right?”

Well, no. It wasn’t what I said, and it would have been wrong to say so if I had. Human beings are all sinners, yes. I quoted Scripture to that effect. But to say that, “each of us is as guilty as the next,” is preposterous. So I didn’t say that.

Indeed, I had no intention of suggesting anything close to moral equivalency. The huge imbalance of power in the settlers/First Nations interaction meant that the latter were far “more sinned against than sinning.” Who credibly argues otherwise?

My point was that if people persist in looking at history in simple extremes of good guys and bad guys, we won’t get very far. And look! We haven’t gotten very far.

Second, they chastise me for using the phrase “our First Nations” as “incredibly racist,” as if I am implying that indigenous peoples are the property of white Canadians. Seriously, friends? You think that I think that?

I have to say that only someone looking for trouble would read that locution that way. Consider similar phrases: “our neighbours,” “our customers,” “our friends,” “our Olympic athletes,” “our monarch.” None of these suggest ownership. When I refer to “our First Nations,” I mean the ones with whom we Canadians have to deal, unlike the Maori in New Zealand or the Hopi in the USA. Why take such a phrase in such a spirit and then accuse me of such a horrible thing as “incredible racism”? How is this getting us closer to reconciliation?

Of course the histories of Europe, and of Canada, and of Christianity are marked by deep, dark shadows. I said as much. Anyone who knows my writing, as Dr. LeBlanc and his colleagues say they do, would know that I am constantly (some would say “too constantly”!) critical of my fellow white Canadian Christians.

I could have said more, then, but my point wasn’t to mark a scorecard. My point was that we won’t have reconciliation without truth, so let’s all do our best to acknowledge all of what happened on every side—for example, in the residential schools, which were in some respects bad, in other respects ghastly, and in some respects helpful—so that we can stand together and move forward.

Alas, it’s hard to feel solidarity with people who tell me that the hundreds and hundreds of pages of scholarly history I’ve read about settler/native encounter—in Canada, in the US, in Australia, and in New Zealand—don’t count. Likewise when I’m told that it doesn’t matter that I’ve spoken to chiefs (and to native women worried about their chiefs), to First Nations professors (and to students trying to make up their own minds), and to activists in full cry (and to ordinary native neighbours beside me on a plane, who often don’t agree with those activists).

No, I’m told that I am “simplistic,” and “racist,” and should attend one of their conferences in which, one might infer, I’ll be treated to more of the same. (Take a moment to imagine my saying the same things to my indigenous counterparts.)

Whew. This isn’t what any of us want, is it? Our exchange so far only extends the point of my column: how hard it is to talk about these things in a responsible and respectful way. Of course, I find it tempting to storm off in a self-congratulatory huff. But I do actually care about the horrible situation in which Canada remains regarding First Nations. I care about these people and about NAIITS. I’m not easily discouraged. And I’ll press on with anyone who wants to have a serious conversation.

But, Dr. LeBlanc and Co., my sisters and brothers in Christ, please be clear that not every white Canadian Christian will hang in there like I will. Many will be cowed into silence by a stormy reply such as yours. But they will also remain both unpersuaded and unsympathetic. And neither of us want that.

 

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).