Stoney elder praises power of reconciliation

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 18, 2005

Forty-seven years ago, Stoney Nakoda elder Bill McLean, of Morley, rose above his hatred toward coffee companion Jack Freebury, of Edmonton, to reconcile with him and become his lifelong friend. I've touched on Bill's story briefly before, but at the urging of another of our coffee companions, Dr. Maggie Hodgson, also of Edmonton, I'd like to return to it now.

First, however, a note about Dr. Hodgson, affectionately known simply as "Maggie." A former advisor to the Assembly of First Nations and for 15 years CEO of the Nechi Institute, Maggie currently addresses the painful legacy of the residential school system on reserves.

She is also co-founder of Canada's National Day of Healing and Reconciliation, to be celebrated May 26. Inspired by Australia's national Sorry Day, the movement is a means of healing the hurts experienced by Canada's First Nations peoples and others historically victimized by governmental and institutional policies and practices.

Which is why Maggie is so impressed by Bill's story. The 84-year-old former chief and one-time rodeo rider has become for victims of racial disrespect a bright light of hope for change.

But by Bill's own admission, the darkness of bitterness almost destroyed him personally.

When Bill was six years old and only a few weeks into Grade 1 at the Morley residential school, his teacher strapped him across the hand for not responding to her question, "What colour is a hen?" – a question that made no sense to him yet, because he spoke only Stoney, and the White teacher spoke in English.

His anger over this festered for years, finally breaking out in full-blown hatred. It attracted to itself other perceived racial slights and injustices. Wasn't the barbed-wire "concentration camp" of his reserve itself the glaring proof that the wasijubi viewed his people as nothing more than caged savages?

"I was full of bitterness and hatred at that time," Bill explained, "especially toward the White people after all they'd done to us."

This was his frame of mind when in 1958 he accompanied his father, the late Chief Walking Buffalo, to a Moral Re-Armament – now Initiatives of Change – conference on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Walking Buffalo and other First Nations attendees were there to participate in the filming of The Crowning Experience, a musical on reconciliation inspired by the life of American pioneer Black educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who herself fought the bitterness of racism for much of her life.

While at the conference, Bill shared a room with a White guy named Jack Freebury. Jack had not met Bill before and was unaware of his feelings. Nevertheless, he became a lightning rod for Bill's pent-up resentments.

At the conference, Bill said, he met others who also had much to be bitter about. But there was a difference – these people spoke about forgiveness and reconciliation. He pondered over their words, and especially over something Mary McLeod Bethune once said about the healing impact of forgiveness on her own life:

"My eyes were opened and I have seen the nations standing together regardless of race, class or colour," she'd said. "To be a part of this great uniting force of our age is the crowning experience of my life."

"I thought of my roommate," Bill said. "I thought I'd better apologize to him for hating him." In the midst of the heady busy-ness of filmmaking, Bill sat down with Jack.

"We both apologized to each other and forgave each other," Bill said. "For the first time in my life I knew who I was."

That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Jack told me. Bill's "honest sharing about his feelings, and why he had them, helped me to understand what many First Nations people feel toward White people."

Bill explains it this way: "We have to put things right for what has gone wrong in our own lives and in our own community."

Bill's story is, I think, what the National Day of Healing and Reconciliation is all about. Bill and Jack have worked closely with Maggie in planning this year's events. If you'd like to find out more, go to

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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