Some Kind of Walk

I am now a week back from walking the last third of the Northwest Mounted Police Trail. My wife and I walked about 110 km of a 300 plus km trail. The trail runs from Wood Mountain Park to Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills. It was established by the NWMP in order to keep the peace in an area frequented by “Wolvers” from south of the border in the late 19th century in what is now southern Saskatchewan. These folk were known by this name since they killed bison, poisoned the meat and then collected the hides of wolves who ate this. They ran a booze business on the side, selling to Native Americans who were in the midst of losing a way of life as the bison disappeared from the land, and as the Canadian government waited upon them to starve, until they finally agreed to sign treaties in a desperate attempt to find a way in this new reality. This patrol trail across the praire is wet with tears.

How is it that I found myself on this trail? My friend Matthew Anderson, a theologian and documentary producer invited me and my wife and we said yes. You can learn more about this at Matthew’s site. Matthew is a scholar of pilgrimage and was piqued by the observation that people who research pilgrimage often write and research European trails, but seemed little interested in North American sites. He grew up in southern Saskatchewan and so knew of this trail and of its significance. He thought it especially important to visit in light of the recent report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which speaks of the continuing need for First Nations and Settlers to work toward renewed relationships of truth, accountability, justice, and concern for the land.

I learned much on this walk. We arrived on a non-walk day. In the evening, the author Candace Savage spoke to us of the sad history of this place. I bought her book and asked her to sign it. She did and wrote “welcome home” above her signature. This was a bit odd, since I am not from Saskatchewan. I grew up in central Alberta, in what is called “parkland.” But as I walked across this bald prairie, replete with breath taking coulees, horizons that spoke of the Creator’s breadth of fierce mercy, and a sky that glistened with the stark clarity of a diamond, I found myself breathless. Every now and then I would stop, and look, and find myself with hands on my hips: just looking. It reminded me of my dad, raised on the prairies, who would do this from time to time on our farm. We would be on our way to look at the cows, or check the grain, or whatever, and he would stop – like a man with all the time in the world – and look to the horizon with hands on hips. And here I was, reprising his posture, a posture formed in his southern Alberta by like surroundings. And then Candace’s note rang true. This was a homecoming on foreign territory.

All territory is foreign to us. We experience it as a home-becoming when we walk it. Walking is a holy venture: prayer on feet trod with attention to the marvel and miracle walking is. Children who first learn to walk and people who have lost their ability to walk know so very well that walking is a wonder. Walking is wonder-ful. As I walked this trail I found myself over and over again. I saw myself in my fellow pilgrims who both looked forward to a day’s end while they wished it went on forever. I heard myself in the Swainson hawks who prayed us across the prairies. I sniffed out myself in the sweet sage that bore witness to hope on hard ground. I felt my skin as I caressed teepee ring rocks, reminders that this land that has adopted me is my elder, my mother. I tasted myself in fresh bread made by farmers who invited us in, with prairie hospitality. As an ancient sage noted: we are grains of wheat, crushed, wetted, fired and broken to become food for the hungry.

I have walked for a time. I have walked with others, with the land, and by myself. I am richer for it, and now wonder how to best invest what I have accrued from this time. I am confident that a pathway will open up, as pathways do: mysteriously.

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Thanks to Matthew Anderson for this photo!

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#time4reconciliation

The above title is one of the many hash tags being used on Twitter to promote and report on the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission event, which I am attending. The TRC works with the mandate to bear witness to the stories told by survivors of the residential schools in Canada. In sum, residential schools were established by churches under contract with the government, which had the expressed purpose of assimilating the aboriginal peoples of Canada. The TRC recorded countless instances of abuse – sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual – perpetuated on children taken by force from their parents and “raised” by an institution. A conservative estimate of the number of children (not to mention their families) affected by this atrocity is 150, 000. As can be imagined, the blunt effect of this ripples across society in generations of indigenous peoples, and will do so for some time to come. This afternoon I had occasion to participate in a march that was meant to honour the survivors of this tragic history, to mourn its victims, and to pray that reconciliation might come from the courageous truth telling that has happened over the course of the TRC.

I spoke with a few survivors during the walk. Their experiences were varied, but one gentleman, who has done some work with the process commented that all of the victims share at the very least the traumatic experience of being taken from home. Even those who had positive experiences (not common by all accounts, but not altogether absent), still faced the hardship of such a rupture and then going through trying and difficult experiences without the love of family and the support of cultural and spiritual practices that had sustained their families for generations.

I heard a survivor speak yesterday about his horrific experience. His courage in sharing a memory that must pain him in its recollection was remarkable. More remarkable still was his lack of malice directed at the church, whose symbols have now become cyphers for sexual abuse. Moreover, he even spoke of hope as he thought upon the indigenous children now reaching adulthood – children who have not grown up in residential schools, and so know the kind of love that a parent gives. This generation, he noted, are learning their ancestral languages, soaking up their culture, and practicing their ceremonies. If they are doing so well, he said, imagine how their children will shine!

I tasted something of his optimism at a Kairos conference happening alongside of the TRC, in which some young indigenous adults made presentations. I experience them as people whose minds are on fire, and whose hearts are both tender and fierce. Their presentations demonstrate that justice is dripping from their fingers and the words from their lips are seeping with respectful righteousness. They can sniff out pretension, privilege and entitlement, and have eagle eyes that spot inequality while on the fly. Some might call them idealists; I call them prophets. These will lead us into reconciliation and teach us the path of peace, if we care to listen

Eternal Springs Hope

Last Wednesday evening my GC 101 (Christianity and Global Citizenship) class went to hear two speakers dialogue on the topic of Truth and Reconciliation after TRC.  The TRC is a commission established by the government of Canada to address the horrid legacy of Indian Residential School system and began shortly after the formal apology by the Canadian government in 2008.  The commission’s mandate was extended but will soon be complete.  Many of us are asking “What next?”  The dialogue was a propos to the topic of the class that day: Where do we find hope?

I had helped organize the dialogue, and so had some hosting responsibilities after the dialogue proper.  Consequently I had one of my colleagues take over my class until the point came when I would be able to get back.  It took twenty minutes or so and she had, in the interim, written the word “Hope” on the blackboard, and then invited students to come to the board and write words to respond to the theme of hope.  You can see the results:

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When I came into the class she told me it was now up to me to make some poetry with these words, so here it goes:

How can we sing hope?

Where will we find strength to suffice?

Whence reassurance and solace for our spirit?


How can faith forge a future?

Is it possible apart from forgiveness and its revelation of revolution:

a refusal to render eye for eye?  A freedom to

love the neighbor no matter what,

no matter where?


How can we love?

Love’s continuities, love’s capabilities, love reliabilities

escape me.  I fail to love even me.  I am undone

and so only won by the One whose

promise, whose

plan place me

in the divine palm.


And there, there in the nail scars

God’s trust in me thrusts even me

into love divine,

into faith fleet of foot

into holy hope.