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Raising the Reconciliation Pole

So, Easter is over, but it isn’t really… not if we think of Easter a verb rather than a noun; which is to say, God continues to “easter” in us and in the world.  In our lives, and in the issues of the day, we search for those moments and places where life is breaking in and through; where love shines bright; where people struggle to find a way to forgiveness and reconciliation; where the stranger and the refugee are welcomed; where the hungry are fed and the homeless housed; where the Kingdom of God becomes real, incarnate, if only for a short time.   Those are “easter moments” – where the Spirit of God is at work, and we are called to discern and participate, in joy and with commitment.

A few weeks ago one of those “easter moments” took place on the campus of UBC, another step on the journey to forge a new relationship with the Indigenous peoples of this country – the raising of a special totem pole that honoured the pain and the strength, the hurt and the resilience of those who experienced the Residential School system.  A member of our congregation, Kenny Pierce, witnessed that moment; through his words, hear what the Spirit may be saying to us as we continue on the journey of Reconciliation….


Raising the Reconciliation Pole
– by Kenny Pierce

In retrospect, one of the most positive aspects of the faith formation of my youth was the sacrament of reconciliation and penance.  Also called confession by man, or penance, In my adulthood I’ve come to understand the sacrament of reconciliation to be something much more profound and life-altering than a simple “I’m sorry” (if approached in full sincerity and with an honest heart).  Reconciliation is the ultimate gift that arises from a long process involving a thorough self-inventory and personal reflection of the harm that my actions (or inactions) inflicted on others.

This level of self-scrutiny demands a special kind of rigor and honesty.  It demands profound humility.  It demands an ready ownership of whatever roles I’ve played in the ills brought upon others.  It continues with an informed commitment and readiness to do whatever is necessary to restore that which is broken in relationship with another.  Without this necessary foundation (and the subsequent calls to atonement that will naturally follow), reconciliation is never fully realized.  Right relationships – one to another, and one to God – can never truly be restored without both total candor and a completely willing change of heart and mind. 

I was reminded in the most tangible way of all that I’ve learned about the sacrament of reconciliation and penance this past weekend.  On Saturday, April 1 at the University of British Columbia’s Main Mall, thousands of people showed up to help raise Haida Chief Richard Hart’s beautiful and enormous wood carving, the “Reconciliation Pole.”

I work at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, and the piece had been transported to a tent behind the Museum during the middle of Winter for its final preparation for this April event.  Over the past number of months, co-workers helped pound copper nails into the pole, the ones covering the rendering of the school on it.  Each nail represented one the thousands of indigenous children who perished in Canada’s residential school system over its 156 years of existence.

At the Museum, we work with many who survived the system, or children of those who survived the schools. Last year, we hosted Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s “Unceded Territories,” a show that painted a stark picture of not just what transpired in the schools for these people, but of all of the cultural references and traditions forever lost to those who descended from the survivors.

We come to work and are surrounded daily by the remnants of the indigenous past in our collection, but nothing prepared us for the emotional impact of the speeches that we heard at Saturday’s ceremony. Survivors recounted tales of childhood rape, of beatings, of starvation.  We heard accounts of one survivor’s sister, lured by ice cream and abducted from their homes and taken away to the schools.  Another survivor spoke of being regularly locked in a cell for 18 hours at a time as a child, and of his lifelong struggles with alcoholism that could be traced back to these early traumas. 

After 4 hours of standing on the grassy knoll, our backs and legs ached.  It was difficult to hear the speeches being delivered, and we were tired.  Yet people remained – thousands of them.  Those who were there became my great takeaway of the day, and that was this: People showed up.  People arrived, and they stayed in a gesture of solidarity with the survivors, present to what was unfolding in enormous numbers.

We were tired, but excited. I asked my friend from Christ Church Cathedral, who’d accompanied me that day, if he was going to see it through until the end. His answer, I believe, gave voice to what so many of us present that day felt. “I want to stay and see this through.  I want to be able to look back and say that I played a part in raising that pole.” 

His comment, I think, encapsulated something very special – indeed, something approaching the sacramental and penitential – that transpired that afternoon.  People were there not to prescribe easy remedies.  There were not there to play the role of heroic saviors or colonizing hero (the original and ill-informed intent of those who started the schools in the first place).  People were simply present to bear witness, to listen, and to say that they were connected to this new symbol of hope arising on the traditional Musqueam land upon which UBC and the Museum in which I work sit.

Like the canoes on the pole (which the artist designed to symbolize parallel forward movement), the endurance of the crowd that day spoke of a people willing to stand and walk beside the most victimized in our society.   In the words of survivor Barney Williams, what was wrought wasn’t just an indigenous problem.  It is Canada’s problem, and the thousands who gave up their free time to help bring upright this symbol of reconciliation seem to understand this.  Their presence underscored a kind of penitence, a willingness to make the hard journey back with alongside those who had suffered so many indignities, and who’d lost so much. 

When the pole finally did begin its ascent, I cheered, along with the rest of the crowd.  I cheered and remembered what the blessing of reconciliation really demands of me.  I took heart in and derived great hope from this day, and in my small part played on this long and difficult part on this path back to right relationship.

Kenny Pierce

Comments (2)

  1. Wish I’ d known about this event so I could have been there myself. As it is, I am in tears in reading Kenny’s account.

  2. Thank you Kenny for your moving words capturing the reconciliation pole raising which was such powerful and sacred space … My own experience began as I arrived on campus. …I was holding back tears of emotion when I arrived and made my way to the location where the pole would be raised and was in awe by the steady stream of people getting off buses, filling parkades, walking in groups, riding bicycles, meeting each other and hugging – all of us moving in the same direction – all of us moving in the same direction…
    Thousands of us holding space for this moment, the witnessing of Haida and Musqueam protocol, the witnessing of powerful survivor testimony…witnessing this milestone moment … all of us moving in the same direction.

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