First Nations – The Courage to Meet Face to Face

Posted 2018-03-02

At L’Arche, we are all experimenting with what it means to find “the courage to truly meet difference.” We are on this journey whether we’re encountering a new person, or group, or any culture other than our own.

On May 30 and 31, 2017, a meeting was held to bring together First Nations and “immigrant” people (everyone else). One of this year’s many meetings, the gathering took place at the Notre-Dame-du-Cap sanctuary in Trois-Rivières in Quebec. We wanted to provide you with an overview of the event in honour of International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, which is celebrated on August 9 of each year.

We might ask ourselves, what is the link between First Nations people and L’Arche communities? Meeting organizer and long-term member of L’Arche, Bernard Ménard responded without hesitation. He believes that “the feeling of belonging to a greater entity than the family unit is very strong, both at L’Arche and among Aboriginal people. So too is their fight for dignity.” Bernard Ménard adds that compassion for marginalized people is not enough. As a community, we share the responsibility to integrate them into society.

The contemporary individualistic lifestyle tends to make us believe that through donations, funding, assistance programs and other forms of generosity, society is taking responsibility for a certain portion of the population. But unless we go beyond charity and funding programs, marginalized people will never find a space where they can truly thrive and feel well integrated. To begin, we must meet each person face-to-face. We must transcend our preconceived ideas and judgment, and recognize that we have a great deal to learn from each person.

Every day at L’Arche, we fully experience this meeting with difference, as well as the significant contribution of each person, whatever their condition. This phenomenon is embedded in the culture of our community life.

The meeting of May 30 to 31 at Notre-Dame-du-Cap brought together 250 First Nations People and 100 immigrants. The First Nations people came from 11 different communities, some travelling from as far as Schefferville and Natashquan on the North Coast. Each person had the courage to meet one another face-to-face. As we so often see at L’Arche, participants were able to fully embody the experience of living with, rather than simply remaining at the level of words and talking.

Clearly emerging from this two-day assembly was the unique and exceptional quality of listening inherent in First Nations culture. The workshops were held in a space of complete respect for each speaker, regardless of the length of the speeches or any communication challenges. The gathering of First Nations people showed absolutely no sign of impatience. It is evident that within First Nations culture, each person has their place, and everyone wholly possesses the right to speak.  

Another common point between L’Arche communities and First Nations is the importance of Speaking Circles. Our modern-day “democracy” still has an enormous amount to learn about the act of true mutual listening, a practice that surpasses all forms of hierarchy.

The Importance of Listening without Judgement

A space of sharing and support, for each Speaking Circle, an essential starting point is to learn how to “listen without judgment.” This is easier said than done. Listening without judgment helps create an atmosphere of trust, inclusion, communion and healing.

From the beginning, the process assumes an acknowledgment of our profound interdependence, stemming from the fact that each person is unique and each person contributes fully to the harmony of their environment.  Fueled by competitiveness and personal success, contemporary culture has become increasingly centered on individualism. In contrast, First Nations cultures recognize that the whole of living beings are profoundly interconnected and responsible for one another.

In just a few words, the Wasauksing First Nations chief Shane Tabobondung expresses this idea beautifully. To him, “our vision of the world holds a wealth of teaching on responsibility, a responsibility that’s deeper than the one we hold toward ourselves, a responsibility for everyone, and even beyond that, a responsibility toward life. Love is what draws us together the most. When we pull back, we’re left with a hole, an emptiness in our chests.”

As we mentioned earlier, this sense of responsibility goes much further than the level of intellect or good deeds. To get to the place where we wake up to this social co-responsibility, the Speaking Circle serves as much more than a space of sharing our viewpoints.  

Françoise Lathoud is a University of Ottawa professor who has used the Speaking Circle many times within the school system. She cites Attikamek Elder Roger Echaquan who describes the Circle as the practice of “speaking with one’s heart. We must not have doubt, for doubt pushes away the spirit.” Roger Echaquan speaks of “being fully present,” of “clearing oneself out,” and of making the circle but “one entity,” to “arrive at a place beyond words.”

These days, the ancestral Speaking Circle has been integrated into new management systems. The circle is used to avoid prejudice and abuse of power within a hierarchical system, thereby promoting a consensual decision making process.

The Unique Journey of Marginalized People and Community Life

Our organizer of this First Nations’ meeting, Bernard Ménard has also contributed to the growth of L’Arche in Canada. For seven years, Bernard lived in L’Arche La Caravane, located in the small town of Green Valley, close to Alexandria, Ontario. (Now part of L’Arche Ottawa.) Additionally, Bernard has organized a number of retreats for L’Arche communities in both official languages.

Passionate about the community trend that arose in the 1970’s, he found himself at Berkelely where he embarked upon a doctoral thesis on the topic. His thesis entailed visiting over 153 communities spread out over seven different countries. In the wake of this research, Bernard chose to commit to L’Arche.

Just like many people who have lived in L’Arche communities, he discovered that when people have physical or intellectual disabilities, in truth, their main disability stems from the way society views them. Now 84 years old, his call out for a “greater solidarity with marginalized people” possesses the same deep fervour. He claims that society has “just begun to discover” these people’s deep value.

Beyond his involvement with people with disabilities and environmental causes, he has contributed to several other endeavours including the creation of an online event to promote a change in the way society views homosexuals.

Ménard was well aware that First Nations communities often encounter isolation due to the current reserve systems. He wondered if it would be possible to organize a meeting so that First Nations communities could get to know one another, and so that we could learn from them. As our modern society faces its walls and new forms of division, Bernard Ménard sees these sorts of actions of solidarity as a path to mutual understanding that brings hope to the world.

His goal was accomplished! This first meeting was a great success and participants clearly expressed their desire for the adventure to continue. The next edition has been scheduled for May 31 to June 1, 2018. If you missed the event this year, be sure to treat yourself to getting there next time.

Photos: Speaking Circles on ecology, justice and reconciliation, spirituality, and the depossession of land during the “Meeting between First Nations and immigrant peoples.”

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