Who Chopped Down the Family Tree?

As I stood before the withering fire of her spoken history a cavern of loneliness opened up within me. She stood eye to eye with me just beyond my reach. She detailed in searing prophetic terms a suffering only generations of pain could bring into being. Her heart bore the weight of a people’s history … her people … her tribe … her clan … her mother, her father, her brothers. Generations spoke through her: ghosts came from her mouth … perpetual songs of anguish … name s… children born, children stolen, children lost. Her tears were the tears of a people.

In all of this, she stood with pride … the pride of knowing over many generations with whom she stood. 

I had no words. 

I had only one name: the Anglican Church of Canada.

It was this name which had brought such pain upon her.

I had been asked to offer Archbishop Michael Peer’s apology to the victims of residential schools.

Like most white people, I grew up thinking the world was white. To be white was to be the world. We knew there was colour in the past but we controlled the past. We wrote the past. We knew there were other countries but they belonged to us. We knew there were other languages but we spoke English. We knew there were other ways to measure time, other ways to value things, other music, other mythologies — but our ways were better. We knew there were other religions, other ceremonies, other ways of understanding and sharing sacrament — but ours was true.

As she spoke, I realized I knew virtually nothing of my family tree. I had met one grandparent. 

As she wept, I realized that tribe, clan and the living presence of elders meant nothing to me. I had no mythology, no songs of belonging in my soul, no dance to follow. The community into which I was born was what it was — an abstract assemblage of particulars — good people but not a people. There was no tribe or clan or shared journey. We were this or that or some other.

Meeting her, hearing her was profound for me. I heard in her something of what it means to belong. I heard in her the sound and pain of belonging. I heard in her that without belonging you can never be the person you were created to be.

Now with some distance on that experience of hearing her, I realize that she has sent me back to my own ceremonies, my own rituals, my own stories — the elders of my tradition. I am speaking of my church.

An hour or so after hearing the wounded and wounding testimony, I stood stunned with a coffee in my hand a little removed from the proceedings. An indigenous woman came to speak to me — she drew close, offered words of comfort and asked if she could touch me. We stood silently together for some minutes with both her hands resting on my shoulders. Nothing needed to be said. 


The Venerable Max Woolaver is the Rector of St. Andrew’s (Grimsby) and Archdeacon of Lincoln.