- Since originally writing this article 2 days ago, it has been my distinct pleasure to reconnect with Katherine Whitecloud, a heroine in this story. She is a remarkable woman, and filled with the Creator’s grace. I think one way to honor her is to provide links for further following her work, which is remarkable! After reading this, please follow the links at the bottom of the page to her work and ideas I have included below.
I was born and raised in the municipality of Cornwallis, an area that includes Brandon, Manitoba. I am a son of a liberally educated Christian man, who was a key part of large programs to “educate” northern Manitoba teachers – in other words, indigenous people. The name Cornwallis itself is associated with the theft of land by Edward Cornwallis from Mi’kmaq people at the historical origins of what we now call Canada, in the place of its origins, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In Cornwallis municipality, I played and leisured at Curran Park, now called Turtle Crossing. On the other side of Grand Valley Road lay our community’s sins. In that space, west of 34th Street, where no respecting caucasian went (only a few people knew it even existed) was the old Brandon Indian Residential School. Most people didn’t even think that anything existed west of 34th north of the Assiniboine River. It was a black hole in local geographic awareness. The building closed one year after my birth. I was raised in a Mennonite Brethren church community that didn’t believe in ghosts, but my friends and classmates knew the building was haunted. It existed there slowly rotting, and in the ground were the unmarked graves of children who were the recipients of a most prideful and violent spirit of our European parents and grandparents.
The river which separated the often played golf course from the land of the residential school, “The Rec Centre” (now known as Wheat City Golf Club), is called the Assiniboine. At every hole along that ancient source of life in the municipality of Cornwallis there lay a threat. If a wayward shot were to land in that source of life, the ghosts of children would swallow the ball whole. You could kiss your shot goodbye; there was no point even looking. This ghost story was common among my friends and classmates.
My father was a founder of two programs to “educate” northern teachers – PENT, the program for the education of northern teachers, and BUNTEP, the Brandon University Northern Teacher Education Program. Before those programs got going, the Brandon Indian Residential School had to be closed. When I was old enough to hear it, my dad told me a story, which I can’t remember verbatim, about the closing of that school. This is the best I can remember:
“Ray, what went on at the residential school was terrible. The whole provincial education believes that Indians (“That’s okay, Dad,” I thought) can’t fend for themselves, that they are barbaric and need to be made into white people. I had to persuade, at every level of the university, that our system needed to give them the skills to be to teach themselves. How could the curriculum be forced down their throats like we were doing? They needed to have ownership of it themselves. They need to be able to teach themselves and include their own stories, and it needs to happen in their own communities. Otherwise, we just get all that violence and horror at the old school. We needed to close that place down. I even had to yell and stand between the president of the university and a class of terrified children. It is one of the few times in my life when I was ever tempted to hit someone out of anger. I would have regretted it forever, so I never hit him – but I stood between.
I am telling you this, Ray, because you know Kathy who babysat you when you were an infant, often for a few days at a time even though she was separated from her own family. She really helped us when your mother and I were too busy. You know her. She was a Godsend. With a little hospitality, she embraced you, and she would not be the collateral damage that will slowly destroy the heart of this community. Kathy Whitecloud will not be one of those who ends up drunk downtown.”
Kathy Whitecloud was her name – but she is now reverted to her more authentic name of Katherine MaypiyaSka. I think she studied in the BUNTEP program. She lived in our home when I was a baby. But I remember she came to visit us in my junior high years. But, being a teenager, I didn’t pay much attention to her or her visit, other than to know that it happened. I guess she was a survivor of the old Brandon Indian Residential School, but I can’t be sure. Kathy Whitecloud, as I knew her then, carried me when I was a baby.
My father has legacies. He was devoted to the ethnic Mennonite identity so much that some would say that racism ran deep within him, so deep that he couldn’t recognize it. But he also put himself on the line to stand between, and to do so without violence and without turning away. He took some responsibility at a time the churches and government around us were unleashing pride and violence onto the bodies, minds, and spirits of our indigenous landlords.
The unmarked graves, like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, conceal the beating hearts of persons and a people that grow ever-louder in condemnation of our present history of violence and pride in our so-called superiority. We all knew the graves were there. The rotting building, built by colonial hands that called themselves Christian, stands as a reminder.
Now, nearly fifty years after it was shut down, we call into question what does it mean to be “proud to be Canadian”? What does it mean to be Christian? I don’t have a universal answer. Yet I can rest in the fact that I was carried by Ms. Whitecloud before I could even remember – that she was a “Godsend”. I can remember the two types of responses that my non-violent father had presented: to show hospitality, or turn a blind eye while our sin eats away at the heart of our communities. If I am to show hospitality I must stand between, i.e. I must love my neighbor as myself in a spirit of non-violence. Loving my neighbors, like my father who risked his job and his standing, must be rooted not in a relationship with governmental and religious organizations, but with the living Lord.
Fifty years later, at the heart of the community of Brandon, the downtown is still rundown with the ghosts of failed capitalist projects – the Brandon Gallery and the iconic Mackenzie Seeds building. They are now the rotting reminders of a sinful colonial/capitalist program that haunts the community. But the Assiniboine River is still the source of vitality in the municipality of Cornwallis.
Thomas King writes, in The Inconvenient Indian, “Missionary work in the New World was war. Christianity, in all its varieties, has always been a stakeholder in the business of assimilation, and, in the sixteenth century, it was the initial wound in the side of Native culture… you might wish to describe Christianity as the gateway drug to supply-side capitalism.” (p.103)
To be a Christian this Canada Day is to identify what is true about this statement. To be a Christian is to reject Christianity’s capitalist and dominating tendencies, its tendency to assimilate. To be a Christian then means, rather than building the Kingdom of God, to live within it, consistently nourished by the flowing and ever-changing rivers that do not merely swallow up golf balls. On this Canada Day, in Western Canada, in typical white fashion, we will seek reprieve from a historical heatwave in air-conditioned temples of capitalism. We Christians need to again sit with the living Lord as did the Psalmist when he wrote:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23, NIV)
I was carried by a Whitecloud and played in the valley beside still waters. To be a Christian this Canada Day is to sit at the table that is prepared for us in the presence of those whom our ancestors tried to assimilate. We do not need to be afraid because we will experience prosperity in white clouds and still waters. To be a Canadian Christian is to recognize that our lives and our stories are a “sitting at the table”, belonging to a land, in which we are the recipients of Native hospitality; like Ms. Whitecloud who carried me, and the Assiniboine River that nourished me, it has been offered at great sacrifice.
LINKS: 1) Katherine Whitecloud interview on APTN – July 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bl8rB03lvtM
2) NCTR and Natural Resources Canada’s 3-Part Webinar Series on Allyship and Reconciliation. Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-74spQJXD0
(Listen especially for comments throughout on “Mother Earth” and on water as a source of life, and also the importance of “compassion” before the 10 minute mark.)
3) Reconciling Ways of Knowing, Dialogue 8: “A Conversation Across Ways of Knowing & Relating to Land”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3z4Rrkgwsw
(I encourage you to listen to the speech of Grandmother Katherine Whitecloud that meaningfully begins at 17:14)