“Come back to who you are”

WINNIPEG, MB—Twenty-one-year-old Sarah Koi used to bleach her long dark hair, wear blue contact lenses and lie about her race. Born Cree, she was adopted and raised by a Finnish family in Vancouver.

"I grew up Christian, but I was still very afraid. I didn't embrace my identity," says Koi. "I was very ashamed of myself. I didn't want anything to do with drums or anything."

As she tells her story, standing in the Circle of Life Thunderbird House, a circle of drummers are thrumming a drum and singing. About a year ago a group of First Nations elders prayed over Koi. "Come back to who you are," she heard them say.

"I can honestly say that in that hour God changed my heart," she says. "I said, 'I accept who I am. I'm proud to be Cree'…I was accepting who Jesus Christ made me to be with my brown eyes and my brown skin."

Today Koi is the youth ambassador among a group of First Nations, Metis and Inuit church leaders who are crossing Canada with an invitation for their people—an invitation to forgive.

The "Forgiven" tour is a response to the apology Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered in the House of Commons almost two years ago for the suffering and loss of identity inflicted on Canada's first people through residential schools and policies of assimilation.

Kenny Blacksmith, formerly a Cree chief in Quebec and founder of Gathering Nations International, is leading the tour. The project began as a series of visits by Blacksmith and other leaders to help people respond to the federal government's apology, says Blacksmith. But as he listened to stories and saw how deep the hurts ran, a vision began to form in his mind of a cross-Canada tour culminating in a mighty summit in Ottawa where Canada's first people would publicly voice their forgiveness.

"We're dealing with 140 years of offense from residential school programs and 500 years of colonization and the impacts of that," says Blacksmith. "We began to realize this shouldn't just be a reaction to a negative past. There are so many people who need healing. There are broken relationships. It's not just our people.

"I think what God is doing is bringing all of the Church of Canada in its various expressions to a place where' there's healing and reconciliation."

Sage advice

Inside the Thunderbird House, prayers, burning sage, drumming and dance performances set the stage for Blacksmith's message of forgiveness delivered to a crowded auditorium.

Forgiveness is a thing of the spirit, said Blacksmith, who suffered abuse at a residential school himself.

"If ever I was going to be free, I had to learn to forgive those who hurt me. Forgiveness cannot be achieved on political issues. We cannot achieve true forgiveness through the courts. The healing that we're looking at is spiritual."

James Arreak, an Inuit businessman and church leader from Iqaluit, believes forgiveness is a step his people need to take if they want to take charge of their own future.

"There are people who laid the groundwork for residential schools who will never apologize—some have died," Arreak points out.

"We can't be people of freedom unless we go through this process of painfully going through our experiences and step by step processing these things in our own heart and forgiving people who haven't even apologized."

There's another important reason why Arreak feels forgiveness is urgent. "I'm doing it for my own good, but also for the welfare of my children who get impacted because of the pain in my life," says Arreak, who remembers helplessly watching his own parents disrespected by those in power.

Arreak grew up under a government policy of assimilation that aimed to wipe out the Inuit identity. "Nobody should have to lose their self-mage, self-respect just for the sake of an education," he says.

It's a legacy he's still healing from, and one he doesn't want to bequeath on his own children. "They're forced to live with a person who's in incredible pain. It gets passed down to generations. I want to stop this pain of rejection at me."

Arreak says the next step for his people on the road to healing will be to take a more active role in their own governance and their own future. "Money we've received from the government for programs won't hit the mark if we're not part of it," he says. "We need to be included in the government process."

Winnipeg was stop number 17 on a tour that has already visited Vancouver, Iqaluit, Quebec City and Montreal.

Everyone is invited to come to Ottawa for the Forgiven summit June 11 to 13—exactly two years after Harper's apology. The Prime Minister has been invited to the event. "We hope he will be there," says Blacksmith.

More ChristianWeek coverage:

First Nations Christians ready to forgive past abuses (click here)

Residential school survivors welcome federal apology (click here)

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