A Journey of Truth - Melanie Delva, Diocese Archivist

A Journey of Truth -  Melanie Delva, Diocese Archivist

Creator we give you thanks for all you are and all you bring to us for our visit within your creation…give us your strength to live together with respect and commitment as we grow in your spirit, for you are God, now and forever.  Amen. [A Disciple’s Prayer Book]

Good morning. My name is Melanie Delva and I am the Archivist for the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster and Provincial Synod of BC and Yukon, a position I have held for ten years as of last December.  I would like to start by acknowledging that we are a church worshiping on stolen land of the Coast Salish peoples - specifically the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. I am profoundly grateful for their continued presence and witness to we who inhabit their lands. 

Many of you know that for the past ten years I have been very active in the work of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I had had a vague notion of what the residential schools system was when I began my work as archivist, but I did not have a full, embodied understanding of it until I began to review our archival records for transfer to the TRC as part of the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.  The Agreement stipulated that all records in our archives pertaining to residential schools were to be copied and provided to the TRC for inclusion in the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which just opened this fall on the campus of the University of Winnipeg.

I was ambivalent - verging on resentful - of having to do the work of the document collection for the TRC. I saw it as a diversion from my "real work" as an archivist. But I figured that if I got it over with, maybe indigenous people could "get over it" and get unmired from what I saw - conditioned as I was in a Eurocentric family and culture - as a chronic failure on their part to properly integrate themselves into the dominant (and to my mind, superior) culture. 

My world crumbled the first time I set eyes on a file of correspondence in our archival records regarding the death of a 7 year old boy in St. George's Indian Residential School in Lytton. I will call him Michael.   The correspondence was between the principal of the school, the Indian agent, and Michael’s family.

He had come down with influenza in one of the epidemics, and when it became clear that he was going to die, the family requested that he be sent home so that he could die in his community.  The request was denied.  He died in the school and was buried on the school grounds.  The family wrote again to the Principal and the Indian Agent asking that Michael’s body be exhumed and returned to his community for a traditional burial.  The file of correspondence shows the principal and the Indian Agent arguing back and forth about who should cover the costs, and in the end, they wrote back to the family telling them that if they wanted their son back, they would have to pay the exhumation and transportation costs. 

I put the file back in the box, vomited in my garbage can, and took out the next one and began reading.  File after file.  Box after box.  The next 8 years were spent helping hundreds of survivors prove their attendance at residential schools so that they could apply for compensation under the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.  The next 8 years were also spent was searching for the missing children - ones who never came home. I took this work upon myself because of the story of the boy buried on the playground. I couldn't sleep at night and when I did, I often dreamed of the children whose names and faces I saw in the records. I refused to stop searching for them until I had exhausted every possible source I could lay hands on.  I found graves for some of the missing. Some I found alive.  Some I could not find at all. 

I am still searching, as the archives has adopted TRC Calls to Action 73 and 74 regarding the missing and deceased children. It would be easy to make ourselves feel better by asserting that the residential school was supported and run by monsters – people who are not like us.  But the reality is that while there were some monsters involved, most of the system was supported and run by people exactly like us.  They were family men and women, socially minded, churchgoing people.  They were you and me. Many (including the author of a recent feature article in Maclean’s magazine) have asserted that the systems of today – including the prison system and the child welfare system – are today’s residential school system.  And like the residential school system, many of us stand by and watch – blinded to the systemic racism by our cultural assumptions, ignorance, and fear.  Having been raised in a white, racist family, I am convicted of all of these, myself.  

I love today’s readings.  I really do.  They are at the same time comforting and vaguely terrifying – as I have found all holy things tend to be.  Jeremiah is one of my favourite books of the Bible – and the calling by God of Jeremiah is a call to every one of us; “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;…Do not say ‘I am only a boy’…for I am with you to deliver you” I think when it comes to difficult callings, we as individuals and as institutions all have our own versions of the “I am only a boy” line.  For me, it is often; “I am not a theologian, I am only an archivist”.  In some inter-cultural situations where I think maybe I should speak but am afraid, I will rely on; “well, I am white. I have no business speaking into this”.  I have seen the Church as an institution use; “we don’t want to offend anyone”, or “it’s not our role to get political”. 

We all have them – the lines that we hope will protect us from the potentially terrifying and vulnerable aspects of confronting evil.  But what is this new thing to which we, like Jeremiah, are called?  The writer of Hebrews tells us that it is neither concrete, nor a terrifying unknown; “[we] have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them” Instead, we are called to a place where a new covenant in Christ “…speaks a better word”; where the needs of a tormented woman become more sacred than religious law; where the self-appointed powerhouses of the system are put to shame, and a dusty, bedraggled crowd rejoice. For each in the crowd recognizes in themselves a person “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight” and is gifted with the message that healing is possible. It is to this system turned on its head that we are called.

I am often asked by parishes and individuals how they can pursue reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. I tell them I think each person and part of the system needs to find their own way in their own context and in a way that allows them to act with the highest degree of integrity possible. I always encourage people to go inward and look at their own understandings and assumptions. If non-Indigenous people act out of a place of shame or guilt or because we feel we know what it is that Indigenous people supposedly "need" from us, what we do will go awry in the same way that "good intentions" led to the residential school system.

I have learned along my journey that there is no reconciliation without relationship. We need to act and be with, not for. At the most basic level, I believe that we need to read and understand the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and constantly work to understand what it means and apply it to who we say we are and what we do. And most importantly, we need to realize at the deepest level of who we are as individuals and as a church that this is ultimately the work of the Kingdom of God – and “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks…for indeed our God is a consuming fire”.