National Truth and Reconciliation Day (also known as Orange Shirt Day) is this Saturday, a day where the country focuses on the historic and ongoing injustices against Indigenous peoples. While the work of Reconciliation is not a task for one day, it is valuable to have a day that puts the issue front and centre. In this religiously plural country, some religious communities have contributed to these acts of violence while others may have historically had little presence or influence in the country’s actions but now do have a presence and a responsibility as part of the Canadian fabric. To that end, let’s take a brief look at how some religious communities in Canada are responding. We cannot survey every group but below I’ve chosen four.
The United Church played a key role in the Residential Schools, a sin for which they have apologized. As part of this apology, they have a series of efforts and initiatives including repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery (a Papal declaration that lands belonged to whatever Christian nation “discovered” them), advocating for Indigenous causes, funding the preservation of Indigenous languages (i.e. providing instruction to youth) and raising money for an initiative to combat violence against women and LGBTQ+ Indigenous peoples. There is no undoing past harms but these are meaningful initiatives.
Many of Canada’s largest Muslim organizations have called on the government to enact the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission including the Muslim Association of Canada and the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. Closer to home for Encounter, our board member, Irshad Osman started the Muslim-Indigenous Connection where Muslim youth received training on reconciliation before then learning about Indigenous spirituality and traditions from Indigenous elders, including a visit to the Six Nations reserve. The group raised money for the only dual-language immersion high school on the reserve while also preparing care packages for a women’s shelter for Indigenous women and children. Irshad has recently been chosen to be part of this year’s cohort for the Sacred Journey Fellowship sponsored by Interfaith America where he will be focusing on Muslim-Indigenous relations.
The World Sikh Organization of Canada was approached by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and asked if they would like to join in the efforts and they immediately responded yes. Sikhs are very steeped in the idea of justice and that one has a responsibility to stand up for others. The community produced a video on these issues called Why It Matters: The Legacy of Residential Schools that talks about what this issue means for Canada’s Sikhs and ties it to events in Sikh history.
Numerous Jewish organizations have drawn attention to Indigenous issues. Some Jewish organizations have noted that some Jews participated in the historic discrimination against Indigenous peoples but that the two communities also share some similarities – namely a spiritual connection to land and, most especially, the experience of persecution. This link wisely draws on Jewish traditions and key values that suit this topic so well: namely the call for Jews to work towards Tikun Olam (to repair the world); the Jewish obligation to perform Teshuvah (acts of repentance) which is the central focus of the Jewish High Holidays that just ended on Monday; and Tzedek or justice which is a key theme in Jewish scriptures. There are many resources by several organizations including a podcast by the Canadian Jewish News on Truth and Reconciliation and a second episode that offers a more personal take by profiling a Jewish-Indigenous married couple and what these themes mean to them as they raise their family and consider their children’s dual heritage.
The harm done to Indigenous communities occurred over decades and centuries and will not be repaired easily or quickly. It’s going to take a long and concerted effort and Canada’s religious communities have traditions of repentance, fundraising, volunteering and moral reflection that can contribute to the healing process. There is more happening than what is highlighted above but it gives a small example of the work being done and which will need to continue to help repair the relationship with Indigenous people.