November 10, 2021

Truth and Reconciliation in Canada: An Elder’s Story

“Attach great importance to the indigenous population of America. For these souls may be likened unto the ancient inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula […] When the light of Muhammad shone forth in their midst…they became so radiant as to illumine the world. Likewise, these Indians, should they be educated and guided, there can be no doubt that they will become so illumined as to enlighten the whole world.”
— ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

In Louise Profeit-LeBlanc’s re-telling of an old tale, it’s a grim narrative that ends in hope. An unprepared village was lost, but the wise, wily elder survives and shares her story with others to prevent further tragedy. Ms. Profeit-LeBlanc, “Tsé Itzoh” (Beaver Woman), a member of the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation (Mayo, Yukon), used the Snowy Owl story to end her presentation to a virtual audience of over 130 in a timely episode of the Ottawa Baháʼí community’s “Big Ideas” series.

For Louise – an artist, storyteller and grandmother – the story is redemptive. The wise woman won. Balance was restored. After calamity, the people vowed to destroy the beast that had swallowed up so many. Canada finds itself at a similar turning point today, and the mounting toll of lost Indigenous children and youth is on everyone’s mind these days.

Louise first told her listeners of her Aunt Molly, one child lost to the talons of the residential school system. One day her brothers couldn’t find little Molly in the schoolyard. Some time later, they learned that she had died – with parents uninformed, her gravesite unknown, and her brother, only a child himself, burdened by guilt that it was him who had let Molly down and not the adults in charge. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard over 6,000 such testimonies from Indigenous people “raised without their parents”. How are they, and all of us, to go forward? In the words of TRC Chairman Murray Sinclair, progress occurs “one mind at a time”.

Louise remarked that, as a Baháʼí, “we are urged to be truth-seekers”. This quest for truth is often called the first principle of Baháʼu'lláh, the Faith’s Prophet-Founder. He also called justice “the best beloved of all things”, and made this profound declaration:

“The light of men is Justice. Quench it not with the contrary winds of oppression and tyranny. The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men.”

All people have suffered, including many settlers who fled to these shores. Whether our ancestors were uprooted from other continents or have endured centuries of oppression while indigenous to this one, Profeit-LeBlanc insisted, “Reconciliation is a mountain, and we all need to climb it together.”

The TRC listed 94 recommendations, most addressed to individuals and groups. The Canadian Baháʼí community acknowledges the painful truths of residential schools and advocates an approach to justice that heals and unites. Still, Louise asked, “When we have hate, how do we turn it into joy? When we have anger, how do we turn it into love?”

Compelled by the discoveries of 215 graves near the former residential school in Kamloops, Louise and her husband built a sacred fire – 215 stones, representing the lost children – were laid down in a radiating star pattern, each to the beat of a drum. This is an example of the power of ceremony.

In 2021, Baháʼís worldwide are commemorating 100 years since the 1921 passing of ʻAbdu'l-Bahá, Baháʼu'lláh’s son and the expounder of His teachings. Louise has embarked on an artistic project with many friends, creating a “coat of unity” reminiscent of the Persian cloaks worn by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, decorated with beadwork. Her gentle challenge to her hearers was to dedicate acts of reconciliation, however small, to His memory. ”

Snowy Owl’s defeat led to the resolve of communities downriver to remember and learn from tragedy. Louise is galvanized, too, by the astonishing promise of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, that should the Native peoples of North America “be educated and guided…they will become so illumined as to enlighten the whole world.” Their resilience and growing strength testify to what Baháʼu'lláh announced to the 19th-century world as European colonialism and a cancerous materialism grew ever stronger:

“Know thou, of a truth, these great oppressions that have befallen the world are preparing it for the advent of the Most Great Justice.”

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