I just finished up a four-day reconciliation workshop called Returning to Spirit. It was an interesting personal and cross-cultural experience that i will be processing for days and weeks to come.
In attendance were “leaders” from both Tla-o-qui-aht and Tofino communities. (I put “leaders” in quotes because i see everyone as both leader and follower; there’s no fixed contingent to which either word applies.)
I expressed interest in the workshop weeks ago, but only fluked into it at the last minute because somebody got suddenly sick. Maybe i was meant to be there.
I had no idea what to expect — nuts-and-bolts negotiation or touchy-feely encounter group. As it turned out there was little of the former and lots of the latter: much sharing of stories, of a deeply personal nature that i won’t go into here (or anywhere). Suffice to say that we all have events, usually from childhood, that hurt us and shaped us and still in some way, all these years later, dictate our habitual reaction to certain situations.
We all have events, yes — but the difference in magnitude between those of us who grew up white and suburban, compared to those in the group affected by residential school and a hundred years of Indian Act, was shocking. As i said more than once during the workshop, i don’t know if i would have survived. And if i did, i would surely be a more conflicted person than i am today.
Those events, whatever they are, form part of the self-generated, jealously guarded story that we each spend so much energy maintaining. The story that provides our self-definition, and that also stands between us and the people around us, between us and the things we want to become and achieve. In the workshop parlance, the story that stands in front of the spirit of who you are, almost eclipsing it.
The Returning to Spirit workshop (link below), began in 1999 as an organic partnership between aboriginals, non-aboriginals and the church. As such, it’s a mash-up of First Nations and Christian spiritualities and new-age (almost Buddhist) personal empowerment.
If there’s a three-word takeaway for me, it’s this: From the heart. When white people, especially “leaders,” come to a workshop on reconciliation, there’s an expectation that everybody is going to roll up their sleeves, whip out the pencils and legal pads, and start hashing out the details of who gets what and what both parties’ obligations are. None of that came up. My impression from these four days is that, from the process of reconciliation, First Nations people are more interested in the healing of the damage, deliberate and consequential, done to themselves, their families, their communities and their culture. And that involves freeing themselves from the stories — of victimhood, revenge, powerlessness — and taking back one’s personal power, one’s ability to speak as, act as and be an individual with a strong voice. It also involves us, the witting or unwitting oppressors, freeing ourselves from our own stories, all of which involve dysfunction and many of which involve racism, hidden or overt.
The facilitators were big on responsibility — on taking responsibility for the warping power of our own insistent (but completely self-fabricated) stories. On how it is not the job of outside agencies — governments, social workers, “leaders” — to heal a person. How, in fact, nobody can take that step but you.
Therapy takes years; transformation happens in an instant
As one of the workshop leaders said: Therapy takes years; transformation happens in an instant — the instant of deciding to step out of one’s controlling story and into a “dialogue of possibility.”
Pretty hopeful stuff! I know all 11 participants were jazzed (and tired) by the end. We’ll see what transpires, personal and inter-community and systemic, from this beginning. Kudos to Tla-o-qui-aht activist Nora Martin for getting the ball rolling on this, and the many people who worked together to make it happen.
One striking thing about the workshop is that, by the end, i was the only male in the room with 13 women. We started with three men, but two dropped out halfway through. I understood why they chose to do so. It’s a harder thing for a man to go through this process, i think, than a woman. It’s intense, revealing, embarrassing work that exposes our human weakness. We males are strongly socialized to admit to no weakness, ever, and we don’t have the rearing and role modelling to share emotion openly. Every progressive, growth-oriented group i’ve interacted with over the past few years has been mostly female, sometimes exclusively female. So i find myself wondering how we can bring men along on this journey in a way that is comfortable and doable for them. My ethos is that unless everybody is brought forward together, we are all left behind.
On the last day, we each made a declaration to the group on how to bring more authenticity into our lives. Mine was to let go of self-doubt and procrastination, and do more art-making. Hence this blog post, and my quick trip to Tonquin Beach yesterday morning with a rake and a camera for a bit of local karesansui.
It’s a relief the workshop is over — four full days is a long time in this busy world. But it was a privilege to participate, and so great to meet, really meet, all the participants. Ann, Carla, Carol, Cathy, Dar, Dorothy, Josie, Katie, Nora, Rose — and facilitators Lillian, Lorraine, Mary — thank you, and may we continue and expand our dialogue from here into the future!
[21 Jan.: small style edits; first names added]