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Reconciliation isn’t a destination; it’s an always and ongoing effort

Photo provided by Turtle Lodge

Established in 2001, Returning to Spirit (RTS) provides healing and reconciliation workshops nationwide. The organization was created to address the legacy of residential schools, holding workshops years before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was even established.

A mother, grandmother, and residential school survivor, Executive Director Lisa Raven applies her experiences and knowledge to these workshops. She says Returning to Spirit’s approach to reconciliation is somewhat backward.

“We don’t tell people what they need to do to reconcile; in fact, we go around it the opposite way. We show people what’s in front of this idea of reconciliation and what the barriers are. Once you can show people what’s in front, what’s blocking, what’s stopping, then you can do something about it.”

RTS’s approach looks to resolve the legacy of residential schools their this approach. Raven explains they separate workshop participants into an “A” and “B”. This model represents Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. The model shows participant “A” with an “X” next to them, representing a residential school or an individual’s experience around residential schools. That could have been numerous different events, says Raven, having to cut their hair, forced prayer, couldn’t use their language, or abuse, generating a wide array of feelings and thoughts. 

“We are born into this world trusting and thinking everyone is safe, thinking the world around us is amazing and is a safe place and to be explored. Then something happens, and that’s the ‘X’. Something happens that shakes our faith in ourselves, in people, and in the world. We start to create a narrative about that, and we [RTS] call that a story.”

Raven explains In this story, individuals begin to create a narrative about the “other” or life. It can degrade one’s trust in others, developing anger and resentment, a belief that these “others” are reprehensible and suspicious. It’s not just one event that causes this, says Raven. There are dozens of these events that happen throughout one’s life.

“We keep building upon that story… We make a decision, or we believe that people are this way, the world is that way, an assumption we make of the ‘other’.”

She notes that these beliefs come from a place of experience. The individual “knows” how the other people are and “knows” what will already happen. An individual will then begin doing things and act in a particular way under that “knowing”.

“Because these feelings are from experiences, they become hardwired into our bodies. So we can feel it. Every time we get “triggered’ [a response caused by a particular action, process, or situation], we can feel it in our bodies, and we get either a flight or fight type of feeling. It’s like a cycle. We’re recycling this thought pattern and those feelings, and we start to feel that’s the truth.”

A visual representaiton of RTS's workshop process

When you hold onto these feelings and experiences in this way, it changes from a point of view to you become it, says Raven. While these feelings are happening on one side, they are also happening on the other. The individuals on side “B” in this example would be the church and administrators of residential schools. The event in their past, too, could be residential schools and creates feelings of embarrassment, guilt, shame, and regret. Resentment or anger could be another feeling, says Raven, as not all were the ones causing harm or abuse, but all get painted with the same brush. These feelings become the narratives for “B”. In these situations, there is only black and white. There is no room for shades of gray.

“They take their own way of handling that, whatever that is if it’s to withdraw, isolate, or become a saviour… I’m making an assumption here, but my sense is most non-Indigenous people have a radar for when they need to be walking on eggshells when they’re in a conversation with an Indigenous person. You can feel tension in the space, and all the tension is this stuff [the ‘X’ element}].”

“B” then takes on their absolute truths and point of view. Regardless of the situation or topic, whenever there are two opposing points of view, all of those components [‘X’] are in the space, says Raven, and conversations can become emotionally charged. If you put “A” and “B” together with these opposing views, “It’s going to go up like a tinder box.”

Conversations around residential schools have been going on since the early 2000s. The discovery of 200 “probable” unmarked graves of First Nations children on what was once a residential school in Kamloops, B.C, triggered many residential school survivors and Indigenous communities. This trigger pulled the trauma, pain, and scars back to the surface. It also brought forth feelings for those who taught in the schools and the church.

“If you don’t resolve something, it comes back and recreates itself.”

For Raven, when looking at residential schools, the most hurtful part was taking children away from their families, communities, and homes. “To me, that was at the core of it.”

The last residential school closed in 1996, a system no longer in place but still within many’s memory. The residential schools’ legacy was never dealt with, and those systems are being recreated. “If you look at any Indigenous community across the country, kids are still being taken away from their families, communities, homes. Only now, it’s called the child welfare system. We’ve now created what had once disconnected us.”

If these systems aren’t resolved in the present, they will continue to show up again and again in the future. That’s what RTS does, work with people to help them move forward from what has kept them stuck in life.

“We identify what these ‘Xs’ for people are. I have a name for this, a name for that, which are particular to me. We get people to name them because you can’t let go of what you don’t own. This stuff is in my own space, and I have to own and be responsible for them. It means you’re not a victim. It’s a step beyond victimhood. You take your power back.”

In the event of a trigger, you then can retain your power instead of giving it to those who have triggered you.

Many of these workshops are in Indigenous languages, providing a reconnection to teachings where one learns to live in peace.

“Returning to Spirit brings those teachings to life in a real practical way,” says Raven. “The Ten Commandments, here are the lines you have to live by, but no one tells you how to do it. How do you love your mother and father if they were crappy? It’s the same with the Seven Teachings. There’s the love and respect, but no how. The how is the most important.”

RTS takes these teachings and develops them into tools for individuals to take back their power, address their underlying triggers and emotions, and create a path towards forgiveness. Raven says there is a misconception that letting go of resentment is condoning the actions of the past. However, resentment is an acid bubbling inside while expecting others to suffer for it. RTS brings forgiveness forward in a place of choice. You do not forgive for them; you forgive yourself because you want peace, and reconciliation means peace for yourself. That’s what RTS does, identifying those ‘X’ elements and providing you tools to move them out of the way because reconciliation isn’t a destination; it’s an always and ongoing effort.

– Ryan Funk, U Multicultural

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of U Multicultural.

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