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‘As we begin to listen to each other’s stories, things begin to change . . .’

By Mardi Tindal

Over the past five years, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has given thousands of Canadians an extraordinary opportunity to listen to one another’s stories, and things are beginning to change.

The TRC gave a national dimension to reconciliation efforts that have been under way for decades. It was almost 30 years ago when I first sat in a listening circle and began hearing the stories of former residential school students from First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.

The stories are often painful and shocking. There have been times when I’ve thought, I don’t want to hear any more. Yet we were only being asked to listen. It seemed such an impotent response — how could simple listening ever give rise to healing? I had to resist my cultural leanings to move in with comfort or, worse, problem-solving.

But listening is powerful. Listening bears witness to another’s truth, reacquaints us with our own capacity for compassion, and makes it possible for us to follow a new path together. As members of religious bodies, we too shared our stories through the TRC and received the gift of listening.

Listening changes us. Anger and fear can be softened; differing interpretations of history can be appreciated; today’s events can be understood in a new light.

By my fourth national TRC gathering, my listening was still accompanied by tears, and I was grateful that my heart hadn’t scabbed over. As Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr says, “All great spirituality is about what we do with our pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it.” The TRC put us on this path of transformation. As with all human stories, sweetness was mixed with the sadness, and gestures of reconciliation have started to open the way for a healthier future.

Jean Vanier’s words have been a steady companion: “As we begin to listen to each other’s stories, things begin to change. We begin the movement from exclusion to inclusion, from fear to trust, from closedness to openness, from judgment and prejudice to forgiveness and understanding. It is a movement of the heart.”

Vanier is a philosopher, Catholic theologian and humanitarian, and the son of Pauline and Georges, Canada’s 19th governor general. Recently, at age 86, he was honoured with the prestigious Templeton Prize for his work creating L’Arche, a network of communities for people with physical and intellectual disabilities.

In a new preface to his book Tears of Silence, republished last year, Vanier writes that we too often remain “locked into our own cultures and certitudes.” The work of the TRC offers us a key for continuing to unlock our certitudes and move actively into a new chapter of our Canadian story.

At a sacred fire ceremony at the first national event, TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair, an Ojibwa Canadian, reminded us that not long ago, conducting such a ceremony would have been illegal in Canada and cause for arrest. He spoke about the importance of prayer and how praying itself is more important than the words with which we pray. He then led us in a prayer precious to him and his family: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . .”

Some would criticize Sinclair for incorporating a prayer of the oppressor, just as some would criticize me for speaking with appreciation of the sacred fire ceremony. But when we listen to one another, we rediscover that God’s economy is wide enough for all of our stories.

We become part of a movement of the heart.

Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.  

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