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I have taken a monthly retreat day for almost 30 years now. One of my special places for retreat since living in Abbotsford has been Fraser River Heritage Park in Mission, BC. The view to the south is spectacular: the wide Fraser River, the fertile and expansive valley, forested hills, and Mount Baker’s snow-covered peak in the distance. It is not difficult to experience the Creator’s closeness here and yet the place is also marked by spiritual pain–story boards were added a few years ago to commemorate the sad chapter of a residential school on the site. I have written numerous poems from this vantage point and this latest one illustrates a few of the layers from prehistoric times to my present that make this a sacred place.

STORY BOARDS

Coagulating story boards

Markers of days gone by

Sheltered by shade of trees with eyes

What stories could they tell?

In the distance a dormant cone

Now covered all with snow

A deep rainforest lies below

A river flowing by

Teeming large with salmon plenteous

Ancient home of STO:LO

Hemlock and fir and cedar grow

Gray rain and cloudy sky

Foreign explorers found their way

With alcohol and gun

Built a school: St. Mary’s Mission

Christendom is to blame

So much pain these cracked foundations

Dignity and pride like mist

What can anyone say to this?

We hang our heads in shame

Now there’s a new and winding path

Nearer to death than birth

Will something fresh ever come forth?

Or does one pause to rest?

Coagulating story boards

From ancient fire till now

List! Listen to the leaves and bow

Your story may be next

 

As a mini-series within my summer series of Canadiana blogs, I want to write about some “sacred places” in Canada. What makes a place sacred? In some ways I believe there is no such thing as one place on earth that is any more sacred than the rest. Divine encounter transcends political boundaries, religious temples, and geographical barriers. The ancient people of Israel learned this in their wilderness wanderings and even “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The mission of Jesus, God incarnate, was to bring together heaven and earth for whomever and whenever and wherever. Yet sometimes places become sacred because of repeated divine encounters there. In the Bible a pile of stones was often set up to mark a divine encounter and so the place itself took on spiritual significance—it became a holy place. More recently, the ancient Celts believed that there were “thin places” where the line between things of earth and things of heaven was a bit “thinner” than elsewhere. One of these places that I have visited is the Isle of Iona; and indeed, I experienced it as a thin place where I encountered God in a new way. Is it perhaps that it is remote, stark, barren, and away from the distractions of centres of power and commerce?

In a world of rapid mobility and human displacement, there is new interest in the importance of place [See Leonard Hjalmarson’s No Home Like Place]. Perhaps this is especially true for Europeans who are known for global exploration and colonialization, and even truer for my ancestors, the Dutch Mennonites, who moved from the northwestern lowlands of Europe to the Danzig delta of Poland to the steppes of Ukraine to the plains of North America. What is a sacred place for people on the move? We are learning the importance of place from the indigenous people of North America who became displaced due to the occupation of their land by European conquerors and settlers.

Are there sacred places in Canada? My blogs will focus primarily on places that have become sacred for me because of my experience there but often my experience is only one layer of many spiritual experiences of generations before me. I was reminded of that this summer as we celebrated 100 years of my wife’s family farming the same piece of land in the Red River Valley. The place has fed and sheltered—with the planting of trees—five generations of Penner families. It has become sacred space for them as they have depended on God and the weather for their sustenance: from the first Penner who lost his wife at 46 and farmed the land as a widower with ten children to the present generation who face huge debts in uncertain economic times. Yet it was sacred space long before it was divided into English style section, township, and range which now define the farm. It is Treaty 1 territory, the home of Dakota and Ojibway nations who hunted bison here for thousands of years before a European plow carved up the land. They also depended on the land for food—and also had to shelter themselves from the cruel winds of a prairie winter.

In the spirit of this connection to the land, to place, and to the recognition of God’s often mysterious work in those places, I will present most of my blogs in the form of poetry written while at a place, about a place, and experiencing God in that place—a geography of the Canadian soul, so to speak. After all, poetry is heart language; it is language that uses metaphor: something that is known, tangible, and sensual to speak about something that is less known, intangible, and often mysterious.

 

Source: Celebrating Canadian Popular Music

My Top Ten Canadian Popular Music Artists/Bands:

  1. Bruce Cockburn: He is a rare combination: profound poet, guitar instrumentalist, creative songwriter, world traveler, with both spiritual depth and political sensitivity, spanning musical genres: folk, country, jazz, rock, pop, blues… and all the while a polite and self-deprecating Canadian with French lyrics included on every album.
  2. Blue Rodeo: Again, spanning musical genres similar to Cockburn. The song-writing and harmonizing duo of Cuddy & Keelor is our version of Lennon & McCartney and they’ve stayed together like Canadians do!
  3. Gordon Lightfoot: A folk troubadour who stayed in Canada with a string of gentle but catchy songs with lots of uniquely Canadian themes, e.g. The Wreck of the Edmund Fizgerald. He is an inspiring Canadian even in his 70’s.
  4. Neil Young: He could rock with the best in the free world and could also make your heart cry with his ballads. He has lived mostly in the USA but he remains true to his roots with albums like “Prairie Wind.”
  5. Leonard Cohen: Too many cover versions of Hallelujah aside, his profoundly spiritual and romantic lyrics and unique gravelly voice make him a true Canadian icon.
  6. Joni Mitchell: Rolling Stone called her “one of the greatest song-writers ever” and I would not argue.
  7. The Guess Who: The original Canadian rock’n roll band from Winnipeg with the dynamic duo of Cummings & Bachman. They did not stay together long enough but the list of classic hits is impressive including the anti-American anthem with one of the best guitar intros!
  8. Bachman Turner Overdrive: Straight ahead rock’n roll; they knew how to take care of business—speaking of great guitar intros!
  9. Jann Arden: The ultimate Canadian crooner: sensitive, real, self-deprecating, and fun.
  10. Stompin’ Tom Connors: I had to include a country singer and his down-home Canadian themes from across the country make him a must on this list.
  11. Honourable mentions that almost made it and/or would probably make other people’s lists: Great Big Sea, Anne Murray, The Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan, Paul Brandt, Rush, The Rankin Family, KD Lang, April Wine, Diana Krall, Tom Cochrane, Ian & Sylvia Tyson, Great Lake Swimmers…Who did I miss? There are so many!

 

John A. Macdonald is known as one of the fathers of confederation in 1867, the first prime minister of Canada, and the primary political motivator behind the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1885. Why not honour him on this sesquicentennial? I have read a copy of the first volume of the “Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.” I believe this report highlights why John A. Macdonald is not a Canadian hero even if he was the primary architect of Canadian confederation.

All Canadians of European origin have something in common with our first prime minister—we are settlers on this continent. All settlers in Canada have been beneficiaries of government policies which can best be described as “cultural genocide” of indigenous people. The establishment of residential schools for Aboriginal children were a central element of this policy. These schools were not in existence to educate children, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity. In justifying the government’s residential school policy, John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons in 1883:

“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with his parent, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

Instead of distancing ourselves from quotes and policies such as this let us acknowledge the truth of this sad chapter in Canadian history. Although the British colonialists were the primary culprits, all “white men” like myself have benefitted from these cruel policies for the past 150 years. This sad chapter only closed in 1996 and we now have the opportunity to write the next chapter. Guilt on behalf of our ancestors might be our first response but I’m not sure it is particularly helpful. I think our first response should be to hear and understand the truth—this is one of the reasons I went to the commission for a day when it was held in Vancouver a few years ago and one of the reasons I read the report. Even though I feel I am reasonably educated, I am finding I still have a lot to learn before I know the whole truth. I am also finding that it is not always a pleasant truth to hear about but perhaps necessary for genuine reconciliation. Only then can we move on to the many steps of respectful reconciliation with our indigenous hosts and neighbours.

I am thankful for the privilege of living in this country where the indigenous people have welcomed settlers and refugees—including my ancestors—for hundreds of years. On this 150th birthday of our confederation I recognize that it is they who need to be honoured as fathers and mothers of our nation.

 

In recognition of Canada’s 150th anniversary as a political entity, I begin a series of Canadiana blogs this summer, including a few top ten lists! So let’s begin with politics:

My Top Ten Canadian Politicians [Yes, there are some!]

    1. Tommy Douglas: My favourite by a southern Saskatchewan mile and voted greatest Canadian in a CBC poll a few years ago. I agree with the poll. A small-town Baptist preacher who became the father of universal health care, a true servant of the people.
    2. Lester B. Pierson: Although he only had a minority government, he introduced universal health care, student loans, the Canada Pension Plan, the Order of Canada, the Maple Leaf flag, bilingualism and biculturalism, kept Canada out of the Vietnam War, abolished capital punishment, and won the Nobel Peace prize.
    3. Louis Riel: Read some of my other blogs and you’ll know why. The Canadian government of 1885 killed him and the government more than a century later needs to exonerate him. https://you.leadnow.ca/petitions/exonerate-louis-riel-2
    4. Nellie McClung: Also see previous posts.
    5. Bill Blaikie: He was the faithful M.P. in Transcona [Winnipeg] for 30 years. We lived in his riding for 6 years and he even accepted an invitation to talk to our church youth group about faith and politics, about which he later wrote a fine book.
    6. Joe Clarke: He always seemed awkward publicly and only served as PM for a few months but he was a solid and respected international diplomat in later governments.
    7. Jack Layton: A true social democrat who spoke out on behalf of the marginalized and brought new energy to his party and to federal politics, all while fighting a personal battle with cancer.
    8. Agnes McPhail: The first woman to be elected to Canadian parliament.
    9. Wilfred Laurier and
    10. William Lyon Mackenzie King for being the longest serving PM’s. Anyone who sacrifices decades of life to public service leading a democratic nation has my admiration.

 

Notice that John A. Macdonald is not on the list. I will tell you why on the next post.

On this Father’s Day I remember and honour my father. He was a simple peasant on what today might be not much more than a hobby farm yet with that piece of land he was able to feed six children and provide endless adventures—greater than any theme park!

I remember that there were occasional unclarified boundaries between farms when fences were made or land was cleared yet my father, even though he was not a socialite, always had good relations with the farmers whose land bordered ours. They lived side by side with dignity and respect. Now, in retirement there is no land to be worked and dad finds more time to “talk across the fence” at the local coffee shop.

Neighbourly relations are not something to be taken for granted; it has not always been so and it is not so in all places of the world. But our powerful leaders of nations can learn something from simple peasants.

The Protestant Reformation occurred in a time of spiritual, economic, political, and social upheaval. Along with fresh winds of the Spirit blowing during this time, there was also unfortunately a lot of unnecessary blood spilled. Various jurisdictions in central Europe proclaimed their territories as either Protestant [Reformed or Lutheran] or Roman Catholic, and it seemed that the only way they could think of to resolve differences was to take up arms.

In June of 1529 the Catholic canton of Zug and the Reformed canton of Zurich lined up for battle in the beautiful pastoral countryside of Kappel in northern Switzerland. As the neighbouring peasants who were conscripted into the army squared off, it seems some of them began to recognize those on the other side as fellow human beings—neighbours. They began to wonder, “Why are we killing each other? We farm next to each other… why can’t we all just get along?” They decided to have a peace treaty signed with a meal. The Catholics from Zug brought the “milchsuppe” [milk soup] and the Protestants brought the bread; they ate together and went back to their farms. A marker stands there today on that spot to mark this occasion.

Unfortunately, two years later the leaders on both sides became antagonistic once again. There were accusations and killings and war was again declared. The great reformer and leader in Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli, was killed in the second battle of Kappel. Also unfortunately, rivalries between Catholics and Protestants have continued in the centuries since then.

How are we doing today? There have been some historic meetings in the last few decades where apologies have been made, forgiveness granted, and reconciliation has begun, involving Catholics, Protestants, and Anabaptists. Some of the old animosities and rifts between Christians are indeed melting away. As a peace activist has said, “Let the Christians of the world at least agree not to kill each other.” And as Jesus said, “They will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” Sigfried Bartel, a WW2 veteran turned peace activist, said, “It’s impossible to love someone while you’re pointing a gun at them.” Instead, let us eat and drink together; it’s a good way to build a relationship and maybe even avert a war. That gracious conversation at the coffee shop between retired farmers may be more profound than we realize. Happy Father’s Day, dad!