Lisa Raven, executive director of Returning to Spirit. Photo from Returning to Spirit

Reconciliation’s two-way street: First, with yourself; then the other

  • April 12, 2024

At the Easter signing of a Sacred Covenant between the Kamloops First Nation and two Catholic bishops, Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller quoted former Chief Manny Jules: “One cannot reconcile without the other.”

It’s a core message Lisa Raven, on the far side of Western Canada in Manitoba, has been living and teaching for almost 20 years as part of the Returning to Spirit program where she is executive director. But Raven would go even a step further: One can’t fully reconcile without first reconciling with oneself.

“The distinction that is fundamental in our (Returning to Spirit’s) work is the distinction between finished and complete,” she told The Catholic Register in a March interview. “In terms of residential schools, we can say ‘they’re finished, they’re done, they’re over. The last one closed in 1996.’ 

“Two prime ministers have since apologized. The Pope was here to apologize. There’s been compensation, there’s been the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), calls to action, a lot of work on reconciliation. But if the feelings related to that story aren’t reconciled, reconciliation will not be complete. What’s needed is you have to alter your relationship to that story,” Raven added.

The Returning to Spirit workshops began in 2001 as Canada’s Indian Residential School story fully broke into public awareness. The program was designed to address the schools’ legacy through acknowledgment of tremendous damage done but also emphasizing, Raven stressed, “principles of transformation through personal responsibility and choice.”

Memories, stories, historic facts, direct experiences about the residential system fed into collective and personal belief systems for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, especially about each other, she says. But, she adds, what began with the potential for positive air clearing unwittingly lapsed into box-ticking exercises to get finished with the issue, and a contrary clinging to the narrative.

“The reason reconciliation is so difficult is because it’s individual. It is about individual relationships to reconciliation. One thing that got taken away through residential schools was choice. So many people didn’t choose to be there. They didn’t choose a lot of the things that happened to them. But they do have a choice in whether they want to continue carrying that into the future. They have a choice about how long they’re going to stay in this reaction,” she said.

Raven is crystal clear that isn’t some variation on the theme of rugged individualism. It’s not preaching a gospel of “suck it up, buttercup” stoicism. Just the opposite. In the mirror image workshops it offers for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, she notes, the goal is helping the individual develop the inner compass to find the ground of what might be called “chosen” choice.

“We’re not telling people ‘here, you need to forgive’ or ‘here, you need to let this go.’ What we’re saying is ‘here’s an alternative, there’s another way to be with it, and it’s to create peace with what is,’ ” she says.

Raven herself went through the program in 2005 when her own life was in a turbulent phase. Trained in forestry management, she landed work through a Manitoba government equity program that sought to increase the numbers of women and Indigenous. Being both, and happy for the work, she soon discovered that the best intentions to empower yielded an equal and opposite negative hardship.

“I would get into these organizations and find people were resentful of me because I had a job that 200 people with more experience and education had applied for. On paper, I was fine. Personally, I was struggling and angry.”

Having attended Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan for a year as an Anishinaabe child of Manitoba’s Hollow Water First Nation, she was also naturally attuned to the reconciliation narrative. As Raven puts it, she “selfishly” sought healing in various ways. None of them compared to the four days she spent at her first Returning to Spirit workshop.

“It altered the way I saw everything, myself included, in a way that years of counselling could never achieve. I was, like, okay, I want to keep learning more about myself.” Among the approaches that appealed — and still appeal — to her is the program’s framing of mutuality and responsibility. She casts a critical eye, for example, on the Church’s tendency in the 20 years of the reconciliation process to fail to stand up for itself, and to confuse that failure with taking responsibility. She sees that replicated in other non-Indigenous institutions as well.

“What I’ve seen on the Church side, on the non-Indigenous side, is that the way of survival in the face of Indigenous reaction is they’ve isolated, they’ve withdrawn, they’ve not communicated or corrected the record. They’re just kind of taking it,” Raven says. 

But that, she insists, misunderstands the nature of responsibility.

“In a lot of cases as Indigenous people, we hold this responsibility as a burden. On the non-Indigenous side, it’s ‘oh, we’re taking responsibility and we’ll pat ourselves on the back because we’ve taken responsibility.’ Neither is responsibility.”

The path to genuine reconciliation requires willingness to make clear there is hurt on both sides. The hurt is different, true, but nothing advances by trying to measure one hurt’s severity against another.

“Hurt is hurt,” Raven says. 

When hurt goes unheard, reconciliation is a well-intentioned exercise in box ticking. 

“Part of our work is bringing forward this understanding by showing there’s a mutuality there. Because this process is not just an Indigenous process. It’s a human process. What happens on one side, happens on the other in a different way, but it still happens. There’s still hurt and confusion.”

Raven gave witness to the practical implications following a meeting with The Catholic Register in February. She was part of an Indigenous group that raised concerns about the paper’s coverage of the book Grave Error, which seeks to debunk accounts of missing and murdered residential school pupils. Her approach reflected her Returning to Spirit wisdom.

“When I read (the article) the first time, it trigged a memory for me, all the old stuff came up. Then I set it down for a bit and came back, making sure to remove my point of view, my own being right about things, and what I found is I actually learned a couple of things. So, now, I’ve taken those two learnings and made them part of my point of view,” she says.

Again, the message is not one of discounting the criticality of beliefs. On the contrary, she attributes much of the energy, positive and negative, released by the Kamloops events in 2021 to the epiphany of Indigenous people across Canada realizing they were finally being believed.

But the next step — completion — must be individual hearts contributing to collective action by choosing to believe and also understand.

“That’s reconciliation,” Raven says. “It doesn’t mean I’m taking on someone else’s point of view. It’s still my point of view. Only now, it’s been contributed to.” 

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