Sara Stratton writes that the path to true reconciliation and understanding requires an honest confrontation of the past.

Published On: January 29, 2021

In a recent United Church online conversation about reparations and slavery, several people noted that descendants of enslaved people needed to “get over it.” This is a very common response from White people, but it is very painful for racialized people. 

In my work as Reconciliation and Indigenous Justice Animator for the national church, I hear that and similar phrases often. Sometimes it’s “That happened years ago and has nothing to do with me,” or “My ancestors were also treated poorly and suffered.” Reflecting on the church’s work over the past thirty years, people also say “We’ve already apologized,” or “Didn’t the Truth and Reconciliation Commission deal with that? Time to move on.”  

There are commonalities behind these expressions: not just the sense that the past is over and we need to move on, but also a deep misunderstanding of history and our place in it, and a framing of White fragility.  

The thing is, the past is never just the past. It ripples though time into the present and, unless we start to confront—really confront—the way we address it, the past will ripple into the future as well, and our oft-stated commitments to confront racism and practice reconciliation will be for nought.  

As I approach my work of supporting the non-Indigenous church in living out its apologies to Indigenous peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action, I have tried to encourage this confrontation in three ways.  

The first is to emphasize the reconciling and reparative nature of Jesus’ ministry, noting that this work is ongoing, and that we are called to it as disciples of Christ. This is reflected in the United Church statement adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and a video we made to accompany it called “Haven’t We Done That?”  

Second, we need to understand that colonialism is not simply history. It is ongoing. Residential schools no longer exist but the colonial principles which framed them do, and Indigenous peoples are still subject to colonial laws such as the Indian Act. Many of the conditions that Canada imposes on Indigenous peoples (such lack of clean drinking water and underfunding of services on reserves) are direct results of this. If colonialism continues, so does the trauma it has engendered. This did not end when residential schools were closed, or when the TRC report was issued. Trauma reverberates through generations. 

Finally, I think that White people need to understand and address their own ongoing role in settler colonialism. Métis writer Chelsea Vowel defines settler colonials as people of European descent who continue to benefit from colonization. Settler colonials benefit from the systems set up by forebears, and help to perpetuate those systems and the dispossession of Indigenous and other racialized peoples in the present. I earned my university degrees in institutions built on Indigenous lands. I work for a church built on Indigenous lands. And my beautiful little piece of property in east end Toronto is Indigenous land. As David Moscrop writes in his article, “What Makes Me A Canadian Settler,” even if I have struggled to find work, I still have an “in” that the colonized don’t—and I need to acknowledge this. 

This became clear to me several years ago, when I began to take part in a reflective process called “Decolonizing Discipleship.” Strongly influenced by the work of Ched Myers and Elaine Enns at the Bartimaeus Institute, this involves a deep dive into family history, teasing out the challenging connections between our personal histories and colonization. In my own work, I uncovered that what I always (mis)understood as a family history of rising out of Newfoundland’s exploitative fishing economy through sheer hard work was much more complicated than that, directly intersecting with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the extinction of the Beothuk people. 

This is what my privilege rests on. This is my past, which continues to shape the present and the future. It cannot be “gotten over.” It has to be confronted if we want to move forward. 

If you are interested in decolonizing discipleship, check out the latest book by Elaine Enns and Ched Myers: Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization

Sara Stratton serves The United Church of Canada as Reconciliation and Indigenous Justice Animator, and is a member of the church’s “common table” on anti-racism. This is her personal reflection. 

The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.