Reconciling the Past, Identifying a Pathway Forward

by Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg

(Canada) – I am a proud Canadian. There are countless attributes and accomplishments of my “home and native land” for which I feel pride. As with any country, there are also historic wrongs, which we are called to reflect upon. For the past year, I have been engaged in deep reflection over my responsibility as a Canadian and proud Jew in addressing the horrors committed against Indigenous peoples. As a nation, we have been pursuing reconciliation, the ongoing process through which Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government work cooperatively to establish and maintain a mutually respectful framework for living together, with a view to fostering strong, healthy, and sustainable Indigenous nations within a strong Canada.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights shares, “From the 1880s to the 1990s, over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were torn from their families and sent to Indian residential schools, often located far from their homes. Many students suffered neglect and abuse. Thousands of children died. More than 100 Indian residential schools were established across Canada, in almost every province and territory. The Government of Canada used the schools, run by Catholic and Protestant churches, to remove children from the influence of their families and communities, language, culture and beliefs. The deliberate, forcible removal of children from their families with the intent to destroy Indigenous culture and identity constitutes a genocide.”

We recently passed the one-year anniversary of discovering the first mass grave site at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The scientific discovery affirmed what Indigenous communities have long suspected. Since spring 2021, more than 1,100 additional grave sites have been documented, where hundreds of Indigenous children were likely buried in these makeshift anonymous cemeteries adjacent to residential schools. As a nation, we deeply mourn the dehumanization of these Indigenous children that led to their abuse, neglect, and death. For a year, on the individual and communal level, Canadian flags were at half-mast, and we engaged in important conversations about healing and responsibility.

There are no adequate words to express our sorrow, guilt, and responsibility. We are called to carry this horrific history with us as we reflect on our Canadian narratives. Such tragic events demand our attention. How can this have happened on our soil? Have we addressed the root causes so we can avoid any parallels today? How do we offer support to the bereaved? I wish there were easy answers to these questions. It’s important that we take time to address them to the best of our abilities.

The mass grave findings reminded me of my journeys to Poland on the March of the Living. The itinerary included a visit to the forest outside the town of the once-thriving Jewish shtetl of Tichochen. At first glance, it is a beautiful sight – there are countless lush trees, and there, one is separated from the traffic, noise, and construction. It’s a quiet place – but not in a comforting way. Beneath the soil rests hundreds of our brethren, gathered one ghastly night and murdered as a collective. To walk through that Polish forest is to accompany these lost souls, forever stolen from the fabric of our people. Upon visiting this site, our group shared words, prayer, and songs, aspiring to provide comfort to one another and to bring the legacy of the lost to the forefront. To walk these trails is to witness humanity at its worst. I am shocked to now know that such places exist in my home.

Indigenous residential schools are a stain on the collective Canadian narrative. Emerging from our shock, appreciating the deep pain of this period, there are actions we must take:

  • The Reform Jewish Community of Canada and its Tikkun Olam Steering Committee, was recently awarded a grant of $10,000 USD to create a series of Shabbatons across Canada for the purpose of education allyship and creating a “road map to reconciliation” through a Jewish lens. They will take place in 2023.
  • Several Canadian congregations have recently adopted Land Acknowledgements. In my community of Temple Israel in Ottawa, we have an active taskforce exploring ways to further build connections with Indigenous Canadians. This taskforce works to recognize and honor Indigenous Canadians’ origins on the land we now also call home, their essential contributions to our society, and aid in healing. A member of our community is collaborating with an Indigenous artist to create an installation to be featured at Temple Israel representing our shared traditions and values.
  • Our Canadian Reform movement has made a public call for action on the discovery of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children. This includes a demand that our various levels of government work in the framework to follow through on commitments from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • Our Indigenous friends are grieving. We understand such grief all too well. This is the time to reach out and show our support.

During my time in Toronto, I made a special connection with an Indigenous elder, Kim Wheatley. Our friendship evolved during our interfaith work. During our time together, we held many shared events such as an Indigenous Tu BiShvat seder and a Fall Water Walk along Lake Ontario. Each year, Kim addressed my 10th grade Confirmation students. The idea was to help young adults explore various Jewish and Canadian identities. I never knew where the conversation would go. One year, I ended up reflecting on the story of my maternal grandparents, both Holocaust survivors. They spoke very little about their youth, as it was too difficult to share. Everything was robbed from them; they became a number. Kim was unusually silent and then she spoke about her grandmother, a residential school survivor. She, too, had her name stolen, replaced by a number…

We often share “Kol Israel aravim zeh l’zeh” – all Israel is responsible for one another. Let us expand, “Kol Canada aravim zeh l’zeh” – all Canadians are responsible for one another. And we stand as one.

We have work to do. In silence and with words, in action and with haste.

Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg serves as chair of the Reform Rabbis of Canada. 

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