Last Saturday I went looking for the Sacred Fire.
I had been listening hard all morning, feeling again the enormity of 150,000 aboriginal children taken away from their homes and placed in residential schools across the country — more children than there are people in the city of Abbotsford where I live — children who were taken from their families, brothers and sisters separated, forbidden to speak their language, their names replaced with numbers, too many physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and sexually broken and abused.
“Great harms were done and indeed crimes were committed,” said Dr. Marie Wilson, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). “We carry immense sorrow for having contributed to this tragedy,” said a member of the Catholic women religious. My own church community also made a statement of reconciliation; even though the Mennonite Church in BC did not run residential schools, we too have benefited from the dispossession and marginalization of indigenous people:
- “We confess that we have failed in our love and care toward our Indigenous neighbours.
- We commit to working towards reconciliation as we follow the example of Jesus whose life and mission modeled reconciliation, peacemaking and bringing justice.
- We commit to growing in our understanding of your history and culture, your attachment to and care for the land, and to educating those with misconceptions in our communities.
- We commit to growing in mutual relationships of trust and respect.”
As I went looking for the Sacred Fire, I carried with me everything that I had heard and witnessed. After so much emotional work and hard listening, it was a relief to leave the main TRC building and walk silently toward the centre of the site where the Sacred Fire had been burning day and night.
The Sacred Fire of the TRC was first lit in June 2010 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to begin the first National Event. At the conclusion, ashes were taken by the Indian Residential School Survivor Committee to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, where they were added to the Sacred Fire that burned throughout the second National Event. From there, ashes were taken in turn to each of the TRC National Events in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; Montreal, Quebec; and then brought to Vancouver, British Columbia. From here, ashes are again being carefully saved to be added to the Sacred Fire for the final TRC National Event planned for Edmonton, Alberta, March 27-30, 2014.
On the TRC site in Vancouver, a large tepee marked the location of the Sacred Fire that had been lit in the open air in front of it. Three men stood singing and drumming at the Sacred Fire, and the rest of us sat on the few wooden benches that had been placed around it or stood behind the benches as I did. Beside me an aboriginal woman in a wheelchair brought out her drum and began to add its voice to the others. Behind us there were more people standing to one side, and more benches placed further away where others sat alone or in small groups.
In the book of Exodus, as the Hebrew people made their way through the wilderness, they were led by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire during the night (Exodus 13:21-22). Both were signs of God’s presence and guidance on their journey. At the TRC, I also understood the Sacred Fire as a sign of God’s presence and leading for the wilderness journey toward reconciliation.
We gathered around the Sacred Fire with respect, each with our own thoughts and experiences. I thought how the smoke smelled sweet in contrast to the bitter past of the residential school system. I heard the voices of the drummers rise and fall and grow silent for a moment as if in prayer. I saw how the wind swirled the smoke and ash together and blew them upward, and with the wind and the drummers, I also lifted up all the pain and hope of the TRC in my own silent prayer, gathered up all of the pain and hope around that Sacred Fire and offered it to God.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.