Porcupine (00:00): What do a Cree Elder, a theologian and an ex- moderator of the United Church of Canada all have in common? They’re all Stan McKay, and he’s going to talk to us about what a covenant of reconciliation is and why the earth needs to be a part of it.
Porcupine: How do porcupines hug? Very carefully – and such is the story of reconciliation, at least so far. I’m Merrell-Ann Phare. I’m Michael Miltenberger. This is Porcupine. So we’d like to welcome our guest to the podcast today, Stan McKay. Our listeners will remember Stan McKay because he was an Elder that we interviewed with two other Elders on the very first episode of Porcupine in season one (Collaborative Leadership Initiative (CLD) Elders Discuss Reconciliation). And so, we’re very happy to have Stan McKay back today, and we want to talk about some specific parts of reconciliation that are directly tied to Stan McKay’s experience as a theologian. And so, I’ll just welcome Stan McKay. How are you today?
Stan McKay: I am well thank you.
Porcupine: Last time we chatted, you were talking about getting some wood and getting your wood supply in for winter. How’s that going?
Stan McKay (01:23): Pretty well. We’ve had very mild weather and so working in the woods has been very pleasant these last few days. Michael, how is your wood supply?
Tell us about your journey.
Porcupine (01:31): Well, I’m a planner, so I have about three years of supplies stacked up. I cut it green and then I season it. So I have enough regardless of when winter decides to hit. So, you haven’t always been an Elder. If you could, just tell us a bit of the journey of a young lad from Koostatak to this interview today
Stan McKay (01:53): That’s a very interesting question, Michael. We’ve been back in Fisher River on the reserve here for about three months now, after 38 years living elsewhere. So I am remembering a number of things and certainly remembering the strength of the community because of the Elders that I knew as a child. And yes, coming home at this point in my life, being called an Elder is a relatively new experience for me. And I guess I’m trying to understand what that really means.
I have been very fortunate in my connections, not only with the Elders in my own community but with many fine women and men Elders who have taught me over the years. I’ve grown up in a community where the role of Elders has been significant in my memory from the very beginning of my life. And I have been impacted by the role modeling that I’ve seen in their lives. Certainly, I am blessed with many, many teachings from my community and from Elders that I’ve encountered in other places that I think have prepared me to be engaged, at least in what reconciliation might mean.
What does reconciliation mean to you?
Porcupine (03:22): Stan McKay, I remember in one of our first meetings, you told us that your first recollection of hearing the word reconciliation was used as an accounting term many long years ago in your younger days, what does reconciliation come to mean to you today?
Stan McKay (03:39): Michael, I’ve looked at the word in the dictionary because I think it has a number of meanings and the root word is conciliation. And in some ways that carries the image of a compromise. So I’ve had some suspicion about the meaning of the word in the minds of those who use it. I think for some it may just mean a kind of patching over of history, of moving on to the next step without really dealing with our historic challenges. I’m learning day by day what reconciliation might mean. And I think it is about rediscovering relationships and starting over again. I don’t think there is a very good record in Canadian history of Indigenous peoples having a real place in society or having any contribution in the minds of the majority population that Indigenous peoples would have anything to contribute. So I think reconciliation needs to be redefined and needs to be looked at again in our context, and that its historic uses may not really help us in our present situation. It’s more helpful for me to talk about revisiting the treaties and engaging as peoples with some level of respect. It’s very challenging to start in a place that is creative and respectful.
Porcupine (04:57): So Stan McKay, as you mentioned, we want to really talk to you today about one specific call to action, it’s Call to Action 46. I’ll get into that in a minute. A very significant amount of your work is with the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre. I would love it if you could explain a little bit about what you do there, but in particular, this idea of the right relationship, because that’s another set of descriptors we have heard. Can you explain how that concept relates to this, or does it?
Stan McKay (05:28): The process of dealing with right relations and restoration of relationships takes all kinds of work. And our conversation today is I think, at least in part, framed by theological thought, spiritual thought. And for Canadian society, I think it is at times very difficult for non-Indigenous peoples to understand that Indigenous folk throughout history, throughout our existence…we’ve had a sense of spirituality, a deep feeling of spiritual connection to life, to the earth, to creation, and to each other. And having been painted in history by primarily European theologians as being people at times less than human capacity, certainly not spiritual resources for that kind of conversation. So, I think we are in a place of having to make some fundamental new beginnings, some revisiting of our relationships.
Our histories have marred how we see one another, have influenced our thoughts of each other.
And the work that Dr. Jessie Saulteaux Centre, where, Francis Sandy Centre now, where I worked for a number of years, we were primarily building up a sense of confidence within the Indigenous people who came to spend time at the Centre in their own capacity to do theology, to think spiritual thoughts that are valid, to revalidate Indigenous culture and theology without having to simply embrace concepts that were brought to us from other places. Revisiting through our languages and through our stories, what the meanings of various truths might be in our culture. So that’s a very liberating process. It was painful at times, but at the end of the day, it was always joyful because we began to hear each other and see each other as Indigenous Peoples with more confidence, with valuing of our own stories and our own experiences spiritually, and in real life, day-to-day life, how we are gifted as peoples with a sense of Creator.
How could an Indigenous person embrace Western theology if you’ve lived through residential schools?
Porcupine (07:43): This is an opportunity to ask questions that I think are hard to ask or that betray some ignorance. But I think on people’s minds switches when we think of reconciliation and the TRC recommendations that came out of the truth and reconciliation process, which was largely focused on residential schools, which had a religious element… it was the Canadian government and the churches working to make these schools happen. I think there’s a question about how does a continuing connection to Western religious tradition fit in with reconciliation? I think people who are not close to that issue would see it potentially as incompatible. How could an Indigenous person embrace or be interested in Western theology if you’ve lived through that process? And what does it mean on a go-forward basis?
Stan McKay (08:41): It’s probably more complex than I make it. I know it’s worthy of many days of conversation, many stories to get at the question you’re asking Merrell-Ann. I am grateful that you have raised the Call to Action 46. As I re-read it in preparation for this conversation, I can see the complexity of it, how vast, how demanding it is, because it’s really calling the churches as parties to this truth and reconciliation process to be real, to be engaged. And it deals with the doctrine of discovery. It deals with the very idea that, I think, Indigenous peoples are less than – that we are creatures more than humans. And I think that concept is still very much in the minds of many of us in our society. And I think it has been propagated for so long, has been sort of the modus operandi of residential schools and of all the educational systems in our country, in our history.
And I think that it has come to a point that many who are Indigenous, many of us have come to believe that it is true. The evaluation of us as Indigenous, really was the right evaluation. So we’re having to regain our own dignity, our own sense of worth. And so we can now call on the churches and all of the society to be engaged in a difficult process. That process requires a fundamental new beginning. It certainly demands, I think , more engagement between Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous, and developing understanding.
I believe this is somewhat urgent.
The prime minister has said in recent months, it’s the top priority of his government. I see very little indication that that’s true in policy, but it certainly is in the words that he is speaking. I think we need to get at it at a point where we deal with the matters that are spiritual; that we deal with matters that are critical in terms of economics and opportunities within society.
I think at every level of our shared life, we need to revisit and look at what justice and what peace might be like in our society.
If we really arrived at a place of shared respect, I think I’ve said to you, a number of times in other conversations, that much of the TRC Calls to Action are really in my mind, a call to revisit the treaties, but the treaties are not just legal documents. They’re much more spiritual relationship documents that invite us to share life in a good way.
What is a Covenant of Reconciliation?
Porcupine (11:15): This is the part where I’m really looking for some clarity. The Call to Action 46, it’s called the Covenant of Reconciliation. It’s calling upon all the parties who signed the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement to develop and sign a covenant of reconciliation. It gives some direction as to what the covenant would be, but it’s really about identifying principles for working together to advance reconciliation. I’m really interested in: why do they call it a covenant? I mean, it could just be an agreement. You know, an agreement on reconciliation between those parties, but they chose the word covenant. And I’m wondering what is a covenant and why do you think they chose that word?
Stan McKay (12:02): It’s an interesting use of words because it is a theological term—covenant. You know, we sometimes refer to it in arrangements between partners and forming a life-long partnership. They will make a covenant with each other. And so it’s as simple as that in terms of commitment to each other, but covenant is really a spiritual concern. It’s an attempt, I think, to capture what was failed in understanding what treaties meant. So treaties for me are covenant, and it moves beyond sort of a legal arrangement. It moves to a place of life shared together. It’s at the level of the mental, physical, and spiritual relationship, and it can’t be covered by law. We talked in our previous conversation, Merrell-Ann about the spirit and intent of treaties. Covenant helps us get to that place in terms of its use in this call to action. It’s not surprising that it’s there because the churches were engaged at least in part in the TRC. And so the idea of covenant, I think is potentially a helpful term. Potentially, because I think to develop relationships, develop a reconciliation, we need to go at that question with many levels, and covenant…biblically it was used as a relationship between the Creator and the peoples. The covenant is between the Creator and the peoples.
The very earliest biblical covenants are very inclusive. They’re inclusive of all peoples, of all animals, and of all creation.
But as history moves through a biblical record, they gradually become exclusive until covenants are just a relationship between the people of Israel and the Creator. And I don’t think that was ever the intent of the term covenant. And so, as we talked about in light of the TRC, I think it is a small attempt to get back to the full meaning of covenant—which for me is the full meaning of people in treaty relationships that are life-long—that are inclusive of all peoples, inclusive of all creation. And I think that’s the aspect of the TRC that for me, is probably the most exciting because it requires us to engage entirely as peoples to bring our lives together, on reconciliation that is not simply about some legal relationship—it is about a commitment to each other. Covenant is a theological term, but I think in practical ways, it is about a life shared in a good way.
How can we participate in reconciliation in daily life?
Porcupine (14:43): Stan McKay, could I ask you a practical question? You have terms like Merrell-Ann said, and then you said words matter, reconciliation relationships, conciliation. It’s discussed at high levels in law, in religion and politics, in academia, but when we all go out the door into our regular lives, how do you translate that so that it makes sense to people at their kitchen tables and in their daily lives as they try to do the right things?
Stan McKay (15:13): I think it’s a good time to ponder what you were raising in that question. People talk regularly in relation to the pandemic with some thought of returning to normal. For many peoples the world returning to normal really isn’t a good option. I think returning is not a helpful idea; trying to move back to a place where we have control and we’re safe and we’re not threatened. I think what reconciliation engages in is a project of re-establishing our humanity. Beginning in new ways to be people together on the earth.
One of the things that we’re forgetting, certainly in these days with the pandemic, is our relationship to the earth.
Almost all the conversations about ecology, of the safeness of the land and the water, almost all of that has been sidelined by our anxieties about economics and the real needs of the world that have to be addressed, but we have an imbalanced approach. And it’s also interesting that conversation about reconciliation is also somewhat on the sidelines of the conversation.
I think when we’re all vulnerable, when we’re in this all together, that it’s really a wonderful opportunity to consider reconciliation between peoples, and with all of creation.
And that’s the aspect I think Indigenous spiritual leaders have been pointing at throughout our history, we must care for each other, but we must also care for the earth. And that’s how fullness of life is maintained. We’re actually awaiting some magic medicine, a vaccine that will take away our problems, but in fact, all it will do is give us a little more time to address our problems. I think our relationships are altered by this pandemic.
And those of us who are on the margins of society, the Indigenous community, we’re very vulnerable in this time, but the earth also is very vulnerable. And, as I speak with you today in mid-December, it’s about one degree in my village. It’s very unnatural. Life is not the way it was. And so I think we’re in a time, as I say, we must ponder more holistically what reconciliation means.
Porcupine: So this is a really fascinating piece of this puzzle Stan McKay because I’m involved a little bit in some of the work on trying to address Call to Action 46, trying to write up this covenant. I can say that this idea of the covenant, including our relationship with the earth as part of the inclusiveness, is not really part of the conversation right now.
Stan McKay (18:03): Yeah. We talk, during these times of the tremendous financial costs living with the pandemic, but what I’m noting within the village here are the tremendous costs of relationships between peoples within my family. I’ve been home for three months. I haven’t shaken anyone’s hand. I haven’t been able to embrace my friends in a hug these days. So we’re being impacted as humans, but the impact on the earth also is significant. And I’m returning to my village after many years away. And I’m very, very much impacted by the absence of songbirds. This society here has developed into a much more modern community than we were when I last lived in the community. In terms of physical space at home, but also the natural environment, it needs attention here.
Throughout the world, we need to address how we’re using the land and the water, and then how we’re caring for our relatives in creation.
Stan McKay (18:33): I’m hoping that the TRC process will not only expand the conversation between humans, but that we will be more and more aware of life shared on the land; life that’s lived day by day where we have to be in deep awareness of what we’re doing to the environment. We live in a time when we look to science for answers, but I’m disturbed by science that fractions knowledge into little pieces in order to understand elements in science, and seeks understanding by disassembling. I think we need a more holistic, a relational approach in our knowledge.
The relationships that come in the sharing of stories and memories, I think, is also important. I don’t think there’s a simple road, but I think we have to be on it. I think we have to get involved, and I’m hoping that we begin to implement some of our understanding with relaxation. And that’s very difficult.
Institutional racism—it’s everywhere. It’s in so many of the systems. It’s in the structure of the very governance of my village because of the history that has divided us. So I think we have a lot of work to do, but I’m encouraged because I see young families in the village here continuing to live in hopeful ways. I’ve just experienced many of the people in the village going out for commercial fishing, and the lake becomes a part of the life of the community. It enriches the community to have access to the water and renewable resources of the lake. In those small areas of opportunity, we find ways to discover our humanity. But as we move as communities within government programs, we are often led down roads of deep dependence, dependence on others for the basic needs of life. I think we can move beyond that.
Hope for the future:
Porcupine (21:26): If you look forward even five years, are you hopeful? Are we going to be able to get on the right track, to deal with entrenched institutions in religion and law and politics and in academia to change things? What’s your sense at this point?
Stan McKay (21:44): Well, Michael and Merrell-Ann, I think the work you have been doing with exploring what that might lead us to, is very helpful at getting to know each other. Peace is so important and the [Collaborative Leadership Initiative (CLI)] meetings —conversations between leaders, Indigenous and non-Indigenous—began to give me hope from the very first meeting. We are very much separated, and the way governance has been carried out, there’ve been very few opportunities for collaboration. I’ve known from my many years of working within church structures that the main difficulty seemed to be ongoing, that the non-Indigenous community had no knowledge of Indigenous Peoples, and what knowledge they did have seemed to be misdirected. And it came to a point of never expecting that Indigenous Peoples would have anything to contribute to society. I think that attitude is prevalent. I’m hopeful about any attempt that is made through the truth and reconciliation process to bring about conversations between peoples, and the fact that we have an ongoing influx of new Canadian peoples from other parts of the world.
The role of conversation in reconciliation:
I think our society can be enriched by engaging in conversation with diverse peoples; that truth and reconciliation isn’t just about Indigenous and non-Indigenous, it’s about our whole society learning to care for one another and to care for the earth.
I think it’s a fairly simple process. I have a friend in Southern Ontario who used to describe her visit with a minister. She said it was tea-ology, they’d have a cup of tea. And that conversation over a cup of tea was really for her very hopeful. It meant they were together. So I think it’s as simple as having a little tea and I think our society will be blessed by my opportunities. So, I will continue to work with the TRC process. I think I will attempt in my pitiful way to remind people that this is really a spiritual conversation. It’s not a legalistic resolution of creating new treaties, but it’s about living in the spirit and the intent of the original conversations about sharing this land and having a life together in a good way.
Porcupine (24:09): So, Stan McKay, thank you so much for the kind words. What’s interesting is your words remind me about our need to remain committed to giving time for conversation. We’re all pressured to show action and to get things done and solve the problem—all that kind of work, and not allocating enough time to continue just to talk and to build a relationship. Thank you for that very important reminder. And I was hoping you could explain that in your view, the original treaties are a covenant that are based in spirit. And you told me the story once of Treaty 4, how it was explained to you about how Treaty 4 was signed, I guess or agreed upon. Could you remind us about that?
The story of Treaty 4 – treaty-making from the Indigenous perspective:
Stan McKay (24:56): By chance when I was able to travel to the Fort Qu’Appelle area in Saskatchewan, I learned when I was there that in the Fort Qu’Appelle area they have attempted to maintain something of the oral tradition, I was making of the negotiating of Treaty 4, and the story of the Treaty 4 signing has been a very important learning for me. The story is that many, many leaders came and they met with the treaty party. After they began to understand what the negotiations were going to be about, the Indigenous Peoples left the meeting for four days, and they went to do a ceremony to pray, to converse about how they would be together. Meanwhile, the treaty party was in the village frustrated, wondering why the Indigenous leaders were not present. It was about making an arrangement under the guidance and presence of the Creator. It was not simply about humans coming together to make some arrangement. I think that’s a vision of treaty-making from the perspective of the spiritual traditions of Indigenous. I don’t think that’s a vision of pagan people.
The other piece that’s important in that conversation and the story that I heard was that one of the first questions the Indigenous community asked is, ‘We have come to negotiate. Can our cousins, the Métis, be a part of this conversation?’ And they were informed by the treaty party that the Métis were not to be included. So I think there was a beginning of separation, of division, that has really impacted Western Canada and has impacted our work even around the TRC or the exclusion of the Métis from the process. I think it has been a great loss.
The Significance of the Collaborative Leadership Initiative (CLI) Medal:
Porcupine (27:26): So Stan McKay, the treaty medal and the picture on the front, the powerful picture of the chief and the officials shaking hands with the sun shining, on the land. If you were going to explain that picture versus what was actually in the treaty is that where the difference comes? The picture looks like a covenant, what would be part of a covenant—the shaking of hands, hands clasped, and the physical contract binding themselves on their words to each other.
Stan McKay (28:01): Yes. I think it’s a very important image, and it certainly is in the context of the wholeness of creation. There are many symbols, Michael, around the two who are shaking hands, many images around them that indicate this is a covenant, which includes the persons negotiating the treaty, but also all of creation. And the sharing of that medal at the Lower Fort Garry gathering is really symbolically about beginning to understand the impetus of covenant-making of treaty-making in our modern world.
If the vast majority of the planet is religious or spiritual, what if you’re a person who isn’t, is there a role for you in reconciliation?
Stan McKay (28:50): I think there is a role and there’s nothing mystical about our interdependence. There’s nothing mystical about the fact that what we do on the earth impacts other people, other parts of creation. I’m caught up in spirit, in the sense that I think there are many mysteries around us and I don’t need answers to the mysteries. I just need the sense that I’m in a relationship, and I think that is the factor—the fact that we share life on the earth, that we need to be respectful and somehow pursue justice and peace, whether we have faith or we are not spiritual… whatever is our starting point.
In the end, we share life day by day, we breathe the air, we share resources on earth, and we’re interdependent.
I think that that engages us. As I say, whatever our starting point or whatever our position and the respect for various truths is not about theological dogmatic limitation, It’s about the fact that we’re living together and how we do that is really about how we understand ourselves in relationship to others. I think for a long time now we have been engaged in societies about affirming individual rights. And even our discussions about democracy confused us in terms of what our individual rights are. But I think that reconciliation is really about community and then whatever our place in society is, we have a place in community, and Indigenous values would indicate that everyone in society has something to bring to community; everyone has a place. Faith or no faith, whatever our place is, we have contributions to make, and everyone should be respected and valued for who they are.
Porcupine (30:52): Well, thank you. It has just been so wonderful to talk to you about this and to allow us to get at some of these really complex unpackings. We really appreciate your time. I have one further question for you. We asked each of our guests a very tough question, which is:
Would you rather be a ghost or a dog?
Stan McKay: I remember having a dog. And even before that, my neighbour had a dog that I really loved. So I think, I think a dog is where I would go with that Merrell-Ann. I think that we really don’t understand the importance of dogs. If you asked me about cats, I’d have a different opinion—dogs are special.
Porcupine (31:49): That’s a doggone good answer. Oh my goodness. Well, thank you so much, Stan McKay, for spending time with us today. We really enjoyed talking to you, always do, hope to again. Thank you very much.
Stan McKay: Thank you. Michael and Merrell-Ann, thank you very much.