"Setting the table"

The dramatic recent events of the Residential schools provoked questions in us regarding the Indigenous communities and their needs. We propose an interview with Christine Jones who works closely with First Nation communities in BC.
Marta Zaknoun

So just to start, can you tell me a little bit about your involvement with the indigenous communities where you are? What do you do?

Well, right now I am working for the Stó:lō Treaty Association. The Stó:lō are the People of the River. We have 24 First Nations who are Stó:lō people in the Fraser Valley and I am working for six of them who are working towards a self-governing agreement.
They are going through the treaty process with BC and Canada, so they should be self-governing, fully self-governing in another year or so. They are asserting that right to self-governance, in other words: “we don't need BC and Canada's permission to be what we've always been, which is self-governing.”
So, our group of nations are taking that more assertive approach to the right to self-govern. And of course, I am connected as well by way of marriage to Jason, who is from the Dene people from Fort Nelson, northern BC. The interesting thing about the Stó:lō, the People of the River that I work for now– who are part of the Coast Salish peoples and Jason is part of the Dene Peoples–their encounter with Christianity is through the Catholic Church, not other Protestant Churches, and particularly through the Oblates. In fact, the first mention of Stó:lō in recorded historical literature is in records that the Oblates kept of their encounters with the peoples here; they call them the “People of the River.” So, there is that strong connection with the Oblates here, and I believe the same is true of the Kamloops Residential School.

So, the communities you are talking about, the People of the River, because they encountered the Oblates, did they convert to Catholicism

Yes, they were converted. And another interesting thing in my personal observation over the years, both through work, but certainly through my relationship with Jason and his family and his community, is that connection with the Church was still strong in his grandparents’ generation. That is true of all of us, as you know, in Western cultures, there is that stronger connection in the older generations and that is not necessarily the case with our millennials or Gen Z-ers. But Jason’s grandmother, right up to the day she died a few years ago, was a daily Mass goer. That connection to the Church seems to have been broken in Jason’s parents' generation. So, people who are now in their 70s, they do not seem to have the same connection with the Church that their parents had.
So that is certainly broken for a number of reasons, and now of course it is broken through this historical recollection of the trauma, which is very real, which people are still experiencing.

And so, the residential school trauma also contributed to this break in the relationship?

It has, yes. In fact, during the ceremony that we had at work on Thursday, it was a healing ceremony to remember the 215 lives that mattered as they said, the Chiefs I work for, they all gave witnesses or testimonies and each one of them was very moving because each one of them described how either a parent or an older sibling were actually as they put it, “residential school survivors,” and particularly from a residential school close-by here called St. Mary’s in Mission, which was also run by the Oblates of Mary. I was quite moved to hear them give very personal witnesses, something similar to what we do when we have an encounter or an event, when we have people talking from their experience. It was quite moving to hear how that intergenerational trauma is very real. In one of the testimonies, one of the Chiefs talked about how her father, who was at residential school at Saint Mary's, struggled with alcoholism for the rest of his life and effectively abandoned her family. And of course, all this trauma is a very common response for having been torn away from their families in many cases. I had a priest friend who was an Ojibwe from Ontario who is recently deceased. He was taken away from his family when he was five, along with his brothers, and he remembers looking, he remembered looking out through the back window of his vehicle and seeing his mother and father receding into the distance. He did not see them again for years.
I was very moved when he told me this. The way they dealt with the trauma was through alcohol because most of his family became alcoholics and many of them died because of their alcoholism.
This priest, Father Milton Maquach was his name, he also became an alcoholic, but he had a very profound conversion experience in his thirties and ended up as a Catholic priest. This was a miracle story given the trauma and the experience of the Church. But the bond with Jesus was more powerful than anything that we humans did or could do to destroy that.

It seems like we were all horrified by what was discovered in Kamloops, but it does not really come as a surprise–people have been talking and reports documented it. You already shared a bit of the testimonies you have heard, but I wanted to ask you if you could share: how was it for the indigenous community? You said you had a healing ceremony. Did you have a chance to have personal conversations with any of them?

You know the interesting thing, the thing that always strikes me, is that I read everything I could about the situation in the mainstream media and any alternative media and what strikes me is that when you are working with the people, there is no acrimony. There is no resentment. I would say there's not even anger. I did not hear anyone getting up and talking negatively about the Church or Christianity, and certainly not Jesus, whom I am assuming many of them still believe in, even if they are not in any way formally connected to the Church.
But they just express the pain. It just unlocks the trauma again because for many of these people–we had one survivor from the residential school at our ceremony on Thursday, and she was honoured in a particular way–the only thing that really comes across prominently is the pain of that experience. It is not even a question of blaming people or scapegoating people; it is just a question of what kind of effect that trauma had on them and on their families that re-emerges in a situation like this.
I mean, I have not even heard people speculating about [it]; I mean, we still do not know for sure how these children died, and I have not even heard people speculating about that. I have not heard anything like that. All I have heard is the trauma that has been unlocked again that re-emerges at times.

At times, it seems like we have much more the problem of laying the blame instead of understanding, delving into facts, taking ownership of acts and responsibilities.
There are many interesting statements and articles that express deep, sincere sorrow and disappointment and pain for this history. At the same time, perhaps as Catholics we need to be more challenged and address and look at this on a deeper level, especially when thinking about an apology.
based on your experience of sharing life with the indigenous communities, what is a truthful way of living and sharing their pain?

Yes, I have been giving this question a lot of thought. These last couple of weeks and then, particularly since you reached out, I was really struck by the question about the apology, for example Archbishop Miller did the right thing in issuing an apology to First Nations governments and Indigenous communities. I am grateful he did this. As far as I am aware, he is one of the few bishops to have done so. But, as a good friend of mine pointed out to me, the only problem with formal apologies such as these is that they seem to be addressed more to the media than to the First Nations governments and indigenous communities who are the formal addressees. A lot of the First Nations peoples themselves do not have any idea when apologies such as these have been given. They are not wrapped up in bureaucracy and officialdom the way many of us are. The letter outlines “five steps,” as though following those bureaucratically devised “five steps” will do the work of healing.
I think the gesture would be more effective if those issuing apologies delivered the apology in person to the people or the representatives of the people the apology is addressed to. This attention to people is important when we are trying to build bridges with indigenous people. They care about meaningful human gestures. Their cultural practices are all about “setting the table” to resolve conflict or remove tensions, and face-to-face encounters are particularly important.

I mean, I think the Pope should apologize. I think that we should apologize. Why can't we apologize? But the thing about the apology, it is symptomatic of our approach more generally, it goes to the media.
I have been talking to people at work, and nobody knows about that apology and for me this is significant because we cannot apologize in that kind of very “Western bureaucratized way.”
We just tend to think very, for lack of a better word, rationalistically about these issues: “OK, it is going to be solved if we follow these five steps towards healing.” It is very simple from my experiences working with First Nations peoples and then through Jason's family and extended family: they really appreciate the personal human connection. It is vital. In fact, I think any formal apology, that is just an official apology that is more designed for the media and as a press release, will not have any effect.
Because the people through their own cultural practices really value what they call “Setting the table.” Together with the people I work with, if you have an issue with somebody, if you have an argument with somebody, if there's tension at work, we “set the table” and you sit down with the person, and you have a face-to-face and very human encounter. That is what we are missing. This is what we need to do, because we can have all sorts of official apologies and outline the steps to healing, but we cannot pre-program what those steps are, particularly when the first and most vital thing is really having a human relationship. As with any of us, if we were traumatized by someone, or even by the institution of the Church, it is really on that personal level that we first begin to have healing.

I was talking to Grand Chief Stevens Point who is a very respected elder in our community and I know that his family was historically Catholic. I do not know what kind of relationship they may or may not have with the Catholic Church now. But when I spoke to him, I was really struck by his very simple, heartfelt response when he said: “we cannot have apologies and we cannot even have the truth and reconciliation that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for, unless we have that human desire to speak the truth.”
We cannot have reconciliation, in other words, without the truth, so we do not have to fear the truth or telling the truth, because for all of us, we have the same heart. We need the truth to have reconciliation, even if it is something that we grasp at or do not fully understand. I mean, truth is something. Sometimes we need to spend time really trying to uncover, but we have to do that. We have to be prepared to tell the truth, to speak it, to get to that point of healing and reconciliation. From [the Grand Chief's point of view] point of view he was talking about the truth that we need to get from the historical records, from the Oblates or whatever religious orders in the different residential schools kept records. So, there is that, that sense of urgency we need to understand the truth of what happened.

It is interesting what you are saying. I was listening to an interview with Cardinal Czerny, who is from Edmonton, and he was saying that if we want to apologize, it needs to be in the proper manner and time, and we need to be ready to “walk the walk,” not just talk.
So what you are saying also about us rationalizing and thinking out our apologies in our terms instead of the terms of the people that need them–from their perspective, their language, their experience, their trauma.

Exactly, which is a very human tendency and is understandable. That is what strikes me when I am reading the different news stories or even the apology letters, which I am grateful for, but you know for the steps to make we need to ask ourselves: was there a discussion with the indigenous communities who were affected? A discussion with them about the steps that they would like to go through? I do not think there was. Working with the Stó:lō people, I understood that we really do need to find out what would be their desire to move forward with an apology and uncovering the truth of what has happened. It's very important for indigenous peoples to have a healing or talking circle. Or, setting the table and these ceremonies, and we reach out and we ask them: “Can we participate in something like that with you?” “What would you like us to do?” “How would you like us to begin this work that we need to do to help the healing process?” I think we would get very different answers than from a press release to the mainstream media.

Having in mind my experience of the Movement, this is something that does strike me working with the indigenous people. This is the closest I have ever come to really experiencing the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity, where you have local government or government at the most local level, and you know you solve political problems first at the most local level in the community.
We see an attempt to address the needs of the community, you know, someone in the community has a particular need at the local level. It is incredible working for First Nations communities that are working towards self-government because everything devolves to the community, to take responsibility. For example, Child and Family Services. That is the first jurisdiction that we are really looking very carefully at. How can we assume full responsibility for children? You know that so many indigenous children are in the foster care system. I mean statistics that you could look at and that I could find and more accurately quote for you. But indigenous men make up 4-5% of the population but they are approximately 30% of those who are incarcerated in our prison systems. It is the same thing with things like street prostitution in Vancouver. 40% of the women who are street prostitutes in Vancouver are indigenous, but they make up 4-5% of the population.

This is also the reason I am so passionate and committed about helping and doing my little part in this work of the Treaty process or moving towards self-government. It is the local level of community where I think these problems can most effectively be solved, and that always involves a real attention to persons and to their specific needs. So, we need to approach those questions at that same level of the most local face-to-face encounters.

For some people, the trauma of residential schools has engendered a cycle of problems; alcoholism and drugs are part of this cycle and that requires a long healing process. How can people break out of that cycle of intergenerational trauma?

That is my experience even looking at that kind of intergenerational trauma in Jason's family. I mean sin is always personal first and foremost. It is what we do, things that we do, but it does become what Saint John Paul II called “structural.” There are structures of sin. And you cannot really deny it when you look at things like the statistics concerning how many indigenous men are incarcerated in Canada and how many indigenous women are missing and murdered, who are also involved in the cycle of drug addiction and prostitution. Many of them ran away from abusive families, and so there is the abuse that is experienced. I know of many people, so many people who have been abused sexually by priests and in the indigenous communities and in older generations, who then of course have the way of masking the pain with drugs or alcohol addiction, and then of course all the trauma that that causes within the family.

I do think it is a huge problem to overcome this kind of intergenerational trauma. I see it now in my work here in the Stó:lō communities. I have staff members who I love very much. I love all the people I work with. All of them are suffering from the very common effect of suicide in their families. It is a very big problem and one of my colleagues has suffered a few suicides in her family just in the last two years. So this is a terrible wound, an example of intergenerational trauma, and again, I do not have all the answers as to how we can help solve these things. I know that the people themselves are conscious of needing to say, “OK, it stops here with us. It stops with this generation.” But that is a big work to do, and it needs a lot of support. So for me that is really one of the things that makes my work so meaningful, is that we can look at Nations across Canada who are post-treaty nations, in other words that are now self-governing. For example, here in BC you can look at something like the Canadian government’s Community Well-being Index, and we can demonstrate that when people can take control of determining their own lives and governing within their own communities according to their traditional practices and ways–for example, in education, in the salary per household, in the living conditions (how many rooms in the house), and that sort of that sort of thing–all these things improve on the Community Well-being Index over the years post-treaty, or when these nations become self-governing. That is not to say that there are no problems or challenges. Of course, there are, but it really helps the people that have that to regain that self-respect.
And of course, if [you] have in mind historically the Indian Act and the terrible colonial discriminatory practices that really had huge effects on how their form of life was affected, it is a good first step. Those things are concrete and do help.

On a more personal level I guess, as part of the Catholic Church, it is easy also for us as individual Catholics to just say, “the Church should apologize,” as an institution, we should formally apologize. But then we feel sorrow for what happened, although it is remote in time from us, and there is a question about how as Catholics, as lay people in our daily lives, can we stay in front of these facts?

This is a profound question and for me I think, like you, it is coming from my own faith. It is just to always–even given our own shortcomings or sinfulness– it is just to always try again to seek what is true and to not really have my defenses up. There was a time when I would have felt very defensive. I would hear all the churches being strongly criticized and I would default to the position, “Ok, well there were so many good men and women who did good work, what about them?” Well now that is all true, but I do not really have to try to defend the Church. I mean we are the Church. The Church is not something outside of us, extrinsic to us. It is us. So, do we have anything to defend if we are in front of someone who says you hurt me? Well, sometimes we do, that is our default position to try and defend ourselves. But we can breakthrough that and say, “well, you know, I do not have anything to defend” and have that real conversation with someone, with Christ in front of us. Knowing he is the locus, he is the Truth, he is the way, so we can disarm ourselves and just try to have those conversations, however imperfectly we do. And we always fail. But we can pick ourselves up and we can try.

Then we can learn through our experience that something was not as sensitive as it should have been, or we were not considering all the factors at play. I mean, that is something that makes me think of
Giussani in The Religious Sense, when he says that you need to look at the totality of the factors. It is not always easy to do that, but as you try to do that, more and more becomes clear. You can see more of the factors that are at play, as we try striving towards that fuller understanding or consciousness of what these issues are with a sincere heart.
I think you will find when you are talking to people like David Frank, it is certainly my experience really, they are people like us. They have the same heart, they just want us to be their friends. They want us to listen to them. They want to tell their story. When you tell a story, you want someone to listen to your story, to really try to understand it and understand your experience and then to learn from you.

Interesting your point on disarming ourselves. Christ saves everything, so we can look at things with no fear.

So true, and [it] makes me think again of Father Milton who died just four years ago.
He was an Ojibwe priest. He was the priest who performed the wedding ceremony for me and Jason. When [I think] of what happened to him(being pulled away from his family, the devastation in his family, the alcoholism that most of his siblings died from) and that he then had this incredible conversion experience in his thirties and became a priest; some people just found his story incomprehensible.
How can you be a priest in the Church that did all of this to you? But his story itself is incredible, a testimony of what you have just said, that it is not us. I mean all we have to do is be disposed to trying to see every day what Christ is proposing, because it is not us who is healing the Church. He will do that with us as his arms and legs and eyes.

In the face of every social problem, but especially the conversations around this very painful matter, it is very easy to get dragged into predominant political positions or currents. How can we address this issue without having to merely align ourselves with a preset idea or story? When we need to understand the truth and pay attention to indigenous communities, where should we be looking? Who should we be listening to?

That is a great question. I think that again from the point of view, as far as I understand it, of the First Nations, people like the ones I work with, it does matter to them that there are these attempts politically like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or something like UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). So there is hopefully a way in which good that can be found in those attempts. The starting point is to see how, and they are important to the indigenous peoples who are working towards self-government, those political gestures that they are themselves involved in and interested in advancing.
But it is always just a starting point and I think there always has to be this flexibility of seeing what works for the people that we’re working with, because the needs are different everywhere as well. And always where it is possible to have just that simple face-to-face encounter. I mean we think always that these things have to be solved with some large policy, [but] a personal encounter and relationship are essential.