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Oct7ThuReflecting on Thanksgiving in light of the history and ongoing impact of Indian residential schools. October 7, 2021 by Lieutenant Jenelle Durdle
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(Above) Lt Jenelle Durdle hikes at the Greenlink Rotary Park Trail System in Sydney, N.S., which connects her neighbourhood with Membertou First Nation, one of five Mi’kmaq communities in Cape Breton
As we approach Thanksgiving this year, I find myself reflecting a lot. Specifically, I am reflecting on the history and ongoing impact of Indian residential schools in Canada, and how truth requires personal and social change before we will ever be ready to move toward reconciliation.
I recently completed two years of training at The Salvation Army College for Officer Training in Winnipeg. It was during this time that I came to acknowledge my heritage as a settler Canadian. If the word settler is new for you, it simply means that I am not Indigenous to this land—my ancestors settled here.
I grew up and currently live in Nova Scotia on the East Coast of Canada. With deep gratitude, I acknowledge that the land I call home is Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people. Unceded means that Mi’kma’ki was not surrendered or conquered; this territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” first signed by the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) people with the British Crown in 1725.
Understanding my connection to Mi’kma’ki, knowing that I am welcomed in peace and friendship, has contributed to my sense of belonging and strengthened my sense of home. It has also strengthened my resolve to listen and learn; to seek truth about the relationship between Canada and the sovereign Indigenous nations of this land. It is from this context that I find myself reflecting on blessing, privilege and Thanksgiving. Specifically, I am reflecting on the difference between white privilege and authentic blessing from Creator God.
I have an image in my mind that represents Thanksgiving: a family sitting at a table laden with a turkey and colourful side dishes. Until recently, this image represented the blessing of Creator God in my mind and heart. But in learning more about the Indian residential school system and its impact, both historical and current, I am questioning whether this image represents blessing or privilege. It is important to clarify that I believe blessing is the favour of Creator God and privilege is unfair advantage created by an imbalance of power in society.
In the Old Testament, the blessing of the Lord is about fertility of the land, experienced as an abundance of crops, an increase in livestock and the birth of children. The blessing of the Lord secured the survival of his people through the generations. In the New Testament, Jesus provides powerful images of those who are blessed in the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted.
We can also look to Scripture to learn about privilege. The Ten Commandments give us a foundation for how to live in relationship with the Lord and others: we are to live in relationships of love, trust and fairness. Furthermore, Jesus articulates that a wholistic love for God and others is necessary to live in the kingdom of God. The teaching of Jesus gives no room for privilege and imbalance of power in the kingdom of God.
The image of a family at a table sharing food does indeed reflect blessing: food from the land; multiple generations, including elders and children; the custom of hospitality and including others around the table; and the expression of gratitude and thanks for the provision of food and community. The table is where relationships are built and sorrows are expressed. The table is where we teach our children to love and share with others.
But I find myself challenged in reconciling a national holiday that celebrates families around a table with the truth that Indigenous families were separated for forced assimilation. I am questioning whether my image of Thanksgiving is about blessing or privilege. And if it is more about privilege than blessing, what does that mean? I acknowledge there are nuances to this conversation; this is not a deep analysis, just my honest thoughts as I process and learn. I don’t have any answers—just questions.
I also acknowledge that this is an incomplete conversation, from my perspective as a white settler Canadian. I invite you to consider the images you hold in your heart and mind with me as we accept the truth and learn to change.
Lieutenant Jenelle Durdle is the community ministries officer at Sydney Community Church, N.S.