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.”