Hill­hurst Church helps bridge the di­vide

Var­i­ous pro­grams launched to pro­mote right re­la­tions with Indige­nous cul­ture


As a young woman fresh from col­lege, Sandra Hayes- Gar­diner thought she’d help save the world by work­ing in First Na­tions’ com­mu­ni­ties. She didn’t re­al­ize it back then, but it was she who needed sav­ing.

That was the start of a jour­ney of self-re­al­iza­tion last­ing al­most half a cen­tury and, even to­day at age 70, Hayes- Gar­diner knows she has more to learn about her­self and the Indige­nous peo­ple she has worked with, apol­o­gized to and joined in cel­e­bra­tion.

To­day, Hayes- Gar­diner, a trained psy­chother­a­pist, vol­un­teers at Hill­hurst United Church in Kens­ing­ton where she is in­stru­men­tal in push­ing right re­la­tions pro­grams to help bridge the di­vide be­tween white so­ci­ety and Indige­nous cul­ture.

She’s heart­ened that her own United Church was the first such re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tion in Canada to for­mally apol­o­gize for its sys­tem­atic treat­ment of Indige­nous peo­ple down the years, es­pe­cially in re­mov­ing chil­dren from re­serve life and plac­ing them in the now in­fa­mous res­i­den­tial school sys­tem.

And while she be­lieves there’s still a long way to go in heal­ing the di­vide and that some things will al­ways re­main bro­ken, she’s amazed at the at­ti­tude of those she her­self once, al­most un­con­sciously, helped abuse.

“Af­ter univer­sity, I de­cided I wanted to work in First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties, but then I came to re­al­ize I knew noth­ing. I was this young, white, so­cial worker want­ing to change the world, but I knew noth­ing of their his­tory, nor did I un­der­stand any­thing about res­i­den­tial schools.

“When I was in my early 20s, I be­gan work­ing for what was then In­dian Af­fairs, the or­gan that con­trolled the lives of all the First Na­tions peo­ple. I sadly, and now with great em­bar­rass­ment, acknowledge I was in­volved in re­mov­ing chil­dren into res­i­den­tial schools. But back then I thought it was a good idea.”

She grew up in The Pas, in north­ern Man­i­toba, and looks back at the at­ti­tudes she ab­sorbed as be­ing un­doubt­edly, if at the time un­know­ingly, racist.

“I didn’t know any In­di­ans, as they were called, when I grew up and what I did think I knew of them was that they were lazy, ig­no­rant and drunk," she said. "Once we get be­yond these myths, then peo­ple be­gin to form re­spect­ful re­la­tion­ships and learn and un­der­stand his­tory."

Af­ter work­ing for decades with Indige­nous peo­ple in Wil­liams Lake, B.C., Hayes- Gar­diner be­gan to look again at the his­tory she thought she knew in quite a dif­fer­ent man­ner. Her at­ti­tudes be­gan to change.

“I thought I was bring­ing a lot of heal­ing to these peo­ple, but I be­gan to re­al­ize that the per­son who needed heal­ing was me," she said. Hayes- Gar­diner vol­un­teered to at­tend rec­on­cil­i­a­tion meet­ings on be­half of the United Church, apol­o­giz­ing face to face to those peo­ple who had of­ten suf­fered trau­matic sex­ual and phys­i­cal abuse.

“The United Church be­came in­volved in apol­o­giz­ing for res­i­den­tial schools,” she said. “We were the first in Canada to say we were sorry.

“I would rep­re­sent the church at these hear­ings and it was, with­out doubt, the most trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of my life. You show up at a hear­ing and then the claimant tells this hor­rific story of abuse and you have to say, on be­half of your church and even though I was not in­volved, ‘I am sorry’ and then some of these claimants weep and thank me for com­ing, and yet our church abused them.”

Five years ago she and her hus­band moved to Cal­gary and Hill­hurst be­came their lo­cal church. One day, lead min­is­ter John Pent­land was preach­ing and asked the con­gre­ga­tion if there was some­thing they’d like to do to make a dif­fer­ence. She im­me­di­ately thought of her own ex­pe­ri­ence and the need to build bridges.

Last win­ter, she con­tacted all the United churches in Cal­gary and urged them to at­tend a meet­ing at Hill­hurst to talk about right re­la­tions with Indige­nous peo­ple. When about three dozen peo­ple turned up on a cold Tues­day morn­ing, she re­al­ized there was keen in­ter­est.

Work­ing with an el­der, she in­sti­gated a reg­u­lar blan­ket cer­e­mony at Hill­hurst. Al­most 50 have been held so far.

“It has been a fab­u­lous way to ed­u­cate peo­ple,” she said. “They stand on blan­kets to rep­re­sent land and we be­gin with a whole floor full and then dif­fer­ent laws get en­acted and the blan­kets get rolled up one by one be­cause we took the land that way and then we put these peo­ple onto re­serves. At the end, very few blan­kets are left. It is starkly mean­ing­ful.”

He­lena Lamb is com­mu­ni­ca­tions co-or­di­na­tor at Hill­hurst where she has helped or­ga­nize and pub­li­cize a se­ries of right re­la­tions ac­tiv­i­ties both at the church and be­yond. In the weeks ahead, there is an­other blan­ket ex­er­cise, a talk­ing stick heal­ing cer­e­mony and a Cree grand­mother’s tea cer­e­mony. There’s also a planned trip on Sept. 24, leav­ing from Hill­hurst to visit Fort Cal­gary and view the orig­i­nal Treaty 7 doc­u­ment.

“This is the first time a treaty will be shown in pub­lic, so it is a spe­cial mo­ment,” said Lamb.

“We are do­ing our best to ed­u­cate ev­ery­body. Ev­ery day there are more and more peo­ple get­ting in­volved. The more peo­ple learn, then the more they want to learn. It builds upon it­self. And I think that it will build a bet­ter Canada as well.”

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