National Aboriginal Day—The Elder Project

Crows come to drink

On a Sunday in August, 1876, Reverend D. J. Burrell stood in front of his congregation in Chicago, not long after the battle of the Little Bighorn, and said:

"Who shall be held responsible for this event so dark and sorrowful? The history of our dealings with these Indian tribes from the very beginning is a record of fraud, and perjury, and uninterrupted injustice. We have made treaties, binding ourselves to the most solemn promises in the name of God, intending at that very time to hold these treaties light as air whenever our convenience should require them to be broken. We have driven them each year further from their original homes and hunting-grounds. We have treated them as having absolutely no rights at all. We have made beggars of them."

In Canada we have our own trail of broken treaties—resulting in, at first, nonviolent protest, then government denial and brush-off, and eventually violent resistance. We’ve had our scenes of Aboriginal resistance. Recall the names: Batoche, Restigouche, James Bay, Bear Island, Lubicon, Temagami, Oka, lpperwash and Burnt Lake. But in all my years of church attendance I have never heard anything close to the Rev. Burrell. Consider the time, consider the ethos, the culture, and contemplate the nerve to lay this out in a sermon. Well, perhaps he had been reading the gospels close up.

But instead of recounting our pathological disregard (and here I must look in my own mirror) I want to instead focus this post on a truly positive note. While there have been too few Burrell’s, and even fewer politicians, there are some poets, musicians and artists who are diligently and vigilantly working to reverse and restore some of the personal and cultural damage done. One such poet is Wendy Morton, who incidentally is the first recipient of the Colleen Thibaudeau Outstanding Contribution Award—given by the League of Canadian Poets.

For the last few years, Wendy has been giving her talent and energy to something called The Elder Project. As she says, "The Elder Project has become my poetic focus.  I train First Nations students as poets, then their Elders arrive, tell them their stories and they turn these stories into poems.  I like to say it is the best thing I can do as a poet."

On this National Aboriginal Day you owe it to yourself to walk through at least one of these wonderful little books. There are four and counting.

Ultimately of course, the mending, the healing must come from within. Anything offered by the non-aboriginal community must come from a place of respect and humility. This is why an initiative like The Elder Project has such value, because it comes open-handed, asking for stories and then helps give form and substance to the stories. It gives voice to the tragic, but throws open a window. It sees both the street and the horizon—the present and the possible.

While there is little in common between the Reverend D. J. Burrell and Wendy Morton, what they do share, besides verve and nerve, is a keen sense of justice and human compassion.


  1. Great piece, Steve. And thanks for the reference to Wendy Morton’s work. May I add, humbly, that I have preached a sermon on the text from Luke 18:1ff where Jesus teaches that we should pray for justice. I used Stephen Harper’s apology as an illustration. I continue to think that he gave one of the historically great speeches on this subject in our parliament. I happened to be at a gathering of First Nations people on the day he gave that speech – a wonderful co-incidence for me. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was launched then continues to do its work. But I think we can go a step further. There is much we could still learn from our native neighbours – about community, family life, etc.

  2. Thanks Sam. I very much appreciated Harper’s speech. It was a good day. Before that however, he discarded the Kelowna Accord outright. Since then, the record has been spotty and the latest omnibus bill (a hypocritical move considering his stand when in opposition) with it’s changes to the environmental assessment review process, violate the federal government’s obligation to consult with First Nations and accommodate First Nation Treaty and Aboriginal rights. So, one might ask, what’s changed?

  3. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is definitely a positive step and it is important that the stories are collected and heard. However I wonder how many Canadian’s realize that the commission only came about because residential school survivors launched the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history against the government and churches. The courts ruled in their favour in 2007.

    It is rather sad that the only history lesson that most Canadian’s have about the residential schools is a result of the official apology made in 2008. It is great that Stephen Harper made the speech but frankly it would have been made at the time by any diplomatic Prime Minister. It is also extremely unfortunate that Harper chose not to work with Aboriginal leaders or residential school survivors to develop the speech.

    I think the point about Bill C-38 is definitely something that needs to be kept in everyday conversation. Aboriginal groups are most likely to be first and most affected by the changes but all of us will be impacted by the weakening of environmental standards. Also the budget cuts made directly to aboriginal health, information and community programs are quite revealing of the government’s commitment, or lack thereof, to healing and reconciliation..

  4. My main point was that we need to pray for justice. I thought the Prime Minister’s apology was an answer to that prayer. God knows we can’t stop praying. We have yet to see in Canada a government that has found the silver bullet for this problem. Why don’t governments, of any political stripe, act? The answer, I fear, lies with all of us. As Bruce Cockburn sang, we all live on stolen land. I personally “own” a very small portion of it, but I’m not interested in giving it back either. This makes me complicit. On the First Nations side is the entrenched reserve system with elected chiefs and councils, many of whom have their own vested interests to protect. But I think progress is being made – too gradually, but nevertheless. The apology was one small step, yet an essential one. And I think it was a fine moment in the time of this prime minister. Much more needs to be done to be sure. Let’s pray for more – if we pester the judge long enough (Luke 18), who knows what we might yet see.

  5. I think that not nearly enough coverage is being afforded the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Two of my colleagues, both counsellors at The Caring Place where I also work, attended these meetings, on in La Ronge, SK, and the other in Saskatoon. The number of witnesses in Saskatoon was in the 1000s, with 400 mental health workers available for consultation and debriefing. But I don’t know where and how the stories are being heard by us. Until our hearts are broken by the enormity of the atrocity of what we did in the residential schools project, our governments won’t find the moral outrage and courage in the people they govern to make any meaningful changes.

  6. Thanks Teryl. I too commend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And you’re right to point out the foot dragging and legal cowering that preceded this and the apology and continues, post apology. There was of course an apology by the Canadian government in 1998. But it wasn’t “formal.” And a year before the official one, Harper refused to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which led many Aboriginal people to believe the government’s and Harper’s heart wasn’t in it.

    Concerning Bill C-38: as you know, your cousin works closely with aboriginal groups monitoring water quality, she says there is a palpable sadness and feeling of helplessness within the communities, as a number of these initiatives have been cut by this bill.

  7. Thanks Ian. This may have been a misplaced verdict, the link to residential schools a strategy for the defence, which may have resulted in a deficient sentence. I don’t know, but if so, it’s a failure of justice for the victim and the family. But it’s also a failure and unhelpful for Aboriginals and ourselves as it allows us to more easily brush aside the tragic legacy of residential schools. We latch on to this because it’s a diversion. Perhaps we even use it in discussions to avoid facing our responsibility. It dilutes our ability to, as Sam says, have our hearts broken. And the question of our contribution to the maintenance of an unconscious racism goes away.

  8. “Until our hearts are broken by the enormity of the atrocity of what we did in the residential schools project, our governments won’t find the moral outrage and courage in the people they govern to make any meaningful changes.” Wonderfully said Sam. Certainly the onus may be laid upon us. One would hope however that a few within government, apparently our leaders, would find that moral outrage and courage on their own. The stories of heartbreak are nearby, if one looks.

  9. One would hope. Certainly there is a place for courageous leadership. But politics being what it is – “the art of the possible”; “we deserve the government we get” – means that we must hold ourselves complicit in the injustices we see.

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