Mutual respect opens doors to racial healing

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 25, 2005

Last week's column told the story of apology and forgiveness in the life of Bill McLean, elder and former chief of the Bearspaw Band of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, and now an ambassador for healing in a fractured world.

I wish you could read all the thoughtful responses I received. One coffee companion even said she cried when she read the column.

What I've decided to do instead is quote from one response in particular. It's from Annette Johnston, originally from Australia and now doing her part here in the Bow Valley to improve relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

As I mentioned last week, Canada's May 26 National Day of Healing and Reconciliation was inspired by Australia's Sorry Day. It is out of Annette's concern for healing between Australia's Aboriginal peoples and the wider community there that she developed an interest in the Canadian scene.

Since relocating to our area four years ago, she has met regularly with Stoney elders. She credits them with teaching her about principles of reconciliation on our own shores. Here is some of what she wrote:

TO ME, THE ELDERS exemplify the values we will need in order to succeed in this healing journey: patience, deep listening, humility, thankfulness, humor, reciprocity, acceptance, discernment, resilience, truth and compassion. They have well-developed knowledge and skills, framed in spiritual terms and the imagery of nature, and are acutely aware of any disharmony or imbalance in community. They recognize their part in their situation and yet can "find the gifts in what feels like disaster."

I think we could negotiate many of our difficulties by looking to the sustaining guidance of elders and our own heart knowledge.

Why are we in Australia and Canada still struggling with this relationship? Reacting to the present as if it were the past? Allowing any contact to remind us of past hurts? If we are "to reconcile," to be friends, we must move beyond this struggle, as Bill McLean did in your story.

Hopefully we have learned that the way out is not by control, separation, denial, confrontation or "special treatment." So too, that a heightened sense of fear, guilt or vulnerability only succeeds in rendering us incapable of sound judgment.

We will need to shift from thoughts of welfare and the resulting obligatory dependence, to ones of mutual relationship and reciprocity, ensuring that the Native voice is regularly heard, included and acted upon. We will need to shift from harmful attitudes of superiority to recognition of each culture's strengths and contributions.

As Bill McLean experienced, the true friendships are the ones that challenge us to grow – through conflict, to forgiveness and renewal.

Our task is to remove the barriers to healing and reconciliation we have set up, and permit our Native neighbors to once again be our guides and touch our lives in a transforming way. To recognize their unique skills takes nothing away from our own identity. We need to resist every thought that does not foster true friendship.

We can transform a tragic story into one of shared purpose and good relationship. We cannot change our past experiences, but we can choose to change our response to them, so that our future relationship does not become an extension of the past. We can choose to focus on our potential, rather than on our limitations and failings.

Despite all that has happened, we need to find the humility and courage to face each other again with honesty, and to walk forward together.

—Annette Johnston, Cochrane

A FURTHER NOTE on Annette's background: "I am the daughter of Hungarian Jewish parents who immigrated to Australia during the Nazi regime, after many in the family were murdered," she wrote. Her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, is her role model for forgiveness and reconciliation. "It is thanks to his influence and teachings," she said, "that I have never hated Germans."

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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