My four days at the final national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission leave me with a thousand or more small memories that I’ll draw on when I write and communicate about Indigenous rights, the life and ministry of Indigenous Anglicans, and in all my theological thinking.
TRC Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair’s closing remarks were particularly powerful, even in a sea of particularly powerful moments. He spoke of a sweat lodge vision he had that only became meaningful in light of his work with the TRC. His lips quivered and tears filled his eyes and in that moment you could really tell how much the TRC process had both taken from and given to this courageous man. Similarly, Commissioner Marie Wilson, told survivors it was the “honour of my life” to do this work and hear their stories.
However, the moment that I think will ultimately change me the most took place in a quiet corner on Sunday afternoon. The day before, Anglican archivist extraordinaire, Nancy Hurn, said she met a survivor with a story that she thought I should hear. Nancy coordinated a meeting time and Inez Dieter entered my life.
Inez is in her early 80s and is a survivor of St. Barnabas School in Onion Lake, Saskatchewan. We found a quiet spot to chat. I dug out my recorder and asked her if it was okay that I tape our conversation. She said yes and for forty five minutes I listened. While the pictures she painted with her words were enormously sad, Inez was warm and hilarious. I heard all about her life, her family, how hungry she was in residential school, her later passion for learning the Cree language she was denied under residential school care, and so on. Her sister, Hilda, died at St. Barnabas. She was 15 years old. The word ‘cruel’ came up over and over again.
When Inez felt finished with our time together, she reached over, picked up my hand and squeezed it in both of hers and said, “Thank you so much for listening, it has been such a privilege.”
That was easily the most graced moment of my life. It took my breath away that someone could spend the better part of an hour speaking to an Anglican Church of Canada staffer about how an Anglican residential school left wounds still unhealed after 70 years, and then look up and say ‘thanks’. The clear depths of compassion and understanding Inez showed me was unlike anything I have ever encountered. For a very long time, when I need to call on an image of grace, Inez will appear.
Then she laughed and told me to be gentle on her in my story and was on her way.
Don’t worry, Inez, I will.