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Healing Canada's fractured relationship

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"BY far the most timely, provocative and insightful book I’ve read this summer."

That's what Tom Harpur, the former religion editor at the Toronto Star, says about Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry, a new book of essays collected by Winnipegger Steve Heinrichs about the fractured relationship between aboriginal people and other Canadians today.

"This book is intended for all who are interested in healing historical wounds of racism, stolen land and cultural exploitation," Harpur, now a columnist for Sun Media, goes on to say.

"If you care about the environment, if you are disturbed by current disclosures of cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing of our native peoples by past government policies, if you want to understand how our indigenous people think about that past, about their hopes for the future, and if you are prepared to face some shocking truths about all of this -- and more --this book is a must-read for you, too."

The book, which features 18 essays by aboriginal and non-aboriginal writers, was created by Heinrichs, the director of indigenous relations for the Mennonite Church Canada. His goal was to start a conversation between aboriginal people and Christians -- or "settlers," as the book describes them.

The book begins with the story of Jonah from the Bible. In the usual telling, it's about a man sent by God to a heathen nation to call them to repentance.

But, writes Heinrichs, "that totally misses the point. Nineveh was the centre of a colonial superpower, and Jonah came from the oppressed margins."

In this re-reading, aboriginal people are like Jonah, coming "out from the shadows of the rez and urban occupied territories to confront the privileged powerful," including the "churches of Winnipeg."

The book, he goes on to say, "is a Jonah text," bringing together aboriginals and non-aboriginals to "speak a word to, against, and for the dominant settler-colonial culture in North America."

Although the writers don't agree with each other, they have a common warning: "The controlling culture is violently sick, devastating peoples and lands. The need is urgent: Repent, resist, do something."

Last month, I had coffee with Heinrichs. I wanted to know how the book came to be, what prompted him to create it. He told me his interest came from three things.

One reason, he said, is his work with the Mennonite Church, where he tries to help people in that denomination learn more about, and develop friendships with, aboriginal people.

It also comes out of his previous work as a pastor in northern B.C., where he lived in a small community near a First Nation. "Living there made me aware of the issues facing aboriginal people today," he says.

But the turning point came in 2011, when he attended the Atlantic Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools in Halifax.

During that event, he heard a Mi'kmaq elder declare that "what we really need in this country is two-eyed seeing! Indigenous and western knowledges teaching together. We haven't had that. But that's the pathway to reconciliation."

Moved by his words, Heinrichs decided to create a "two-eyed" resource where aboriginal and non-aboriginal people could wrestle over issues dividing the two communities.

Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry is the result. Heinrichs, who attends Hope Mennonite Church in the city, hopes it will cause readers to "think much differently and perhaps more critically" about the state of relations between aboriginals and non-aboriginals in Canada today.

"We are not living into the treaty relationships with aboriginal people," he says. "We need to cultivate relationships of mutuality and respect."

For non-aboriginal people, it starts with "becoming aware that we live in a colonial reality," he says. "We need to ask ourselves: 'What does it mean to live with the host peoples? What does it mean to live in treaty territory?' Most of us have no idea what that means."

It also means "coming to grips" with the history of residential schools and other abuses, he adds.

None of this will be easy, he acknowledges. But he hopes the book can help. "I have high expectations that the church can step up," he says. "It's hard, but the spirit is calling us to do this together. Let's take a risk and try."

Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry is available from Herald Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2013 D15

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