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Mapping a future of reconciliation

Suzanne Rumsey invites participants to step onto the map according to when their ancestors came to Canada.

June 14, 2017

By Janice Biehn

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It’s been almost two years since the completion of the historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Canadians of all stripes are coming to terms with its 94 calls to action. The Anglican Church of Canada has embraced reconciliation and is directing all undesignated gifts to its Anglican Healing Fund. Besides contributing money, how do we address and honour these calls to action and promote true change among Anglicans and beyond?

In November 2015, staff from PWRDF and the Anglican Fund for Healing and Reconciliation, presented an interactive workshop at PWRDF’s National Gathering. Since that debut, “the mapping exercise” has been workshopped and presented several times. A Facilitator’s Guide called “Mapping the Ground We Stand On” has emerged from the process and is now available, order or download.

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“As the Anglican Church of Canada develops its response to the recommendations of the TRC’s final report and PWRDF seeks to deepen its relationships with aboriginal peoples, we hope this resource will be a useful tool for learning and reflection together,” writes Suzanne Rumsey, Public Engagement Program Coordinator and author of the Guide.

The workshop takes approximately two hours. It is similar to the KAIROS blanket exercise in that it aims to enlighten and expand the knowledge of settler (non-Indigenous) people. But the experience and interactivity takes on a different form, making the two workshops quite complementary.

At a recent mapping exercise at St. Matthias Bellwoods in Toronto, a group of 17 parishioners gathered in their Parish Hall at the edges of a large map of Canada traced out in thick black marker on four strips of butcher paper. When unfurled, the rolls cover an 18 x 24 foot patch of floor.

The facilitator, in this case Rumsey, follows the script in the guide: “This is the northern part of Turtle Island, what we call Canada,” she begins, foreshadowing that we are going to learn new things today. Participants are invited to close their eyes and imagine this Turtle Island the way it was millennia ago. The names of 67 First Nations and Inuit communities are printed on sheets of paper and Rumsey says each name as volunteers place them on the map in roughly the right geographic space. The surface is soon fairly covered. “How long shall we pause to give us a sense of the millennia this land was inhabited before most of our ancestors stepped onto it?” asks Rumsey. “Let’s say one second for each millennium.” Silence falls over the room.

Next, the Guide describes the history of settlers arriving on Turtle Island, starting with Viking explorers 600 to 1,000 years ago, then British and French colonists, then United Empire Loyalists, then African-Americans (including those using the underground railroad), followed by the three immigrant waves of the 20th century. As people step onto the map when their ancestors are introduced, the script includes references to other key events in Canadian history – the first Eucharist in Canada by Robert Wolfall in 1578, the first residential school in 1820, the Chinese Head Tax in 1885. With everyone now standing on the map, the following words are projected onto the wall and spoken together: “My truth as a Settler has been one-sided, from the Settler viewpoint. The history taught in our schools does not have a First Nations, Métis or Inuit perspective. I am here to learn facts and truths I do not know.”

One of the most interesting revelations explained in the mapping exercise is the concept of terra nullius, Latin for empty land. This section of the Guide is written by Esther Wesley, Coordinator of the Anglican Fund for Healing and Recognition. “Papal Bulls of the 15th century gave explorers the right to claim lands they discovered for this Christian Monarchs,” she writes. The theory was that non-Christians were considered non-existent, and therefore any land inhabited by non-Christians was uninhabited. To our modern ears these words — the foundation of the so-called Doctrine of Discovery — sound preposterous. Yet their effect held fast and in 1823, the doctrine was referenced in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M’Intosh. It essentially set into law a sort of “squatter’s rights” for settlers to occupy Indigenous land. Courts in Australia, Canada and New Zealand soon cited the decisions in their laws.

It wasn’t until June 2014 that Canada’s Supreme Court recognized the existence of Aboriginal title on a piece of land in British Columbia, writes Wesley. In its ruling it said “the doctrine of terra nullius never applied in Canada, as stated by the Royal Proclamation of 1763.” The land treaties that had been written between the government of Canada and First Nations were a case in point: how could those treaties be legal if they were made with people who were supposedly non-existent?

But of course by then it was too late. The damage of terra nullius had been done. Wesley notes that a fundamental aspect of the Doctrine of Discovery was “its racialized, hierarchical sorting and organizing of entire populations of peoples, and the concept that natural resources can become commodities to be bought and sold.” These concepts have sunk their teeth deep into our land and its people.

The exercise wraps with reflection and a new way of thinking about how we refer to ourselves as Canadians. Many in the group noted it was a powerful reminder that we have to learn to listen to Indigenous people. “A great example is the recent discovery of the Franklin expedition ship [the HMS Terror],” says St. Matthias parishioner Anne Wingfield. “Scientists have been trying to find that ship for more than a century and finally one of the explorers listened to the story of a local Indigenous guide.” As an archeologist with first-hand experience working with Indigenous groups, Wingfield says she found the exercise presented a good opportunity to talk with other people about reconciliation.

To host a mapping exercise, you need the Facilitator’s Guide (two free copies available per parish or you can download and print), access to a large enough space for a large map of Canada (instructions and tips on how to make one are in the guide), ability to download and print PDF signs and project the Powerpoint presentations. Contact Suzanne Rumsey at 416-924-9199 ext. 267 or [email protected] for advice and suggestions in planning your event.