Last month, St. George’s Anglican Church was privileged to host local politician and aboriginal activist Lewis Cardinal after Sunday Eucharist. What I found striking about his talk was the way he narrated the history of Edmonton. He began not with Anthony Henday’s explorations on behalf of the Hudson Bay Company, nor with the establishment of Fort Edmonton in 1795, nor with the arrival of the CP Railway in 1885, nor with the creation and consolidation of new settlements in the first half of the 20th century. Rather, he told the story of a place of encounter, trading goods and sharing stories on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River dating back many centuries, long before the arrival of Europeans.
It was a powerful way of framing the history of our city, and the encounters of peoples here. It also rendered stark the place of aboriginal peoples in today’s metropolis. For aboriginal peoples, the encounter with Europeans has meant deprivation.
Listening to Cardinal, my mind returned to another address I’d heard half a world (and a long time) away. On a sunny autumn day in 1994, I stood on Cape Town’s Grand Parade. The crowd then was not in the dozens, but in the hundreds of thousands, representing a veritable rainbow of colours, creeds and classes.
The newly proclaimed President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was standing on the same spot where he had given his first public address after being released from 27 years of imprisonment (including 18 on the notorious Robben Island). That day, four years earlier, he had stood before the people of Cape Town, saying,
“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands. On this day of my release, I extend my sincere and warmest gratitude to the millions of my compatriots and those in every corner of the globe who have campaigned tirelessly for my release. I send special greetings to the people of Cape Town, this city which has been my home for three decades.”
There was no irony in his voice. Cape Town had been his “home,” not his prison. The special significance of this home was evoked that day in 1994.
Perhaps it was history that ordained that it be here, at the Cape of Good Hope where we should lay the foundation stone of our new nation. For it was here at this Cape, over three countries ago, that there began the fateful convergence of the peoples of Africa, Europe and Asia on these shores. When we look out across Table Bay, the horizon is dominated by Robben Island, whose infamy as a dungeon built to stifle the spirit of freedom is as old as colonialism in South Africa. For three centuries that island was seen as a place to which outcasts could be banished. The names of those who were incarcerated on Robben Island is a roll call of resistance fighters and democrats spanning over three centuries. If indeed this is a Cape of Good Hope, that hope owes much to the spirit of that legion of fighters and others of their calibre.
Mandela thus re-narrated South Africa’s story, starting with a “fateful convergence” between Africa, Asia, and Europe. Things had gone horribly wrong and that convergence was not a mutual enrichment but the beginnings of colonial hierarchy. It did not need to be so; it could have been different. Three hundred years later, a new beginning was being proffered, even though as he would go on to say the disparities continued. Addressing those disparities was now his pledge, not so that the old oppressors could get their desserts as newly oppressed, but so that all peoples who called South Africa home could find new relationships in a new nation.
Mandela was also linking South Africa’s story to the world’s story. This is why it was more than appropriate that so many from Africa, Asia, Europe (and now the Americas and Australasia) converged on Johannesburg for the remarkable memorial at FNB Stadium this week. The story of the prisoner-become-president has for two decades captured the imaginations of people across the world. Going to prison as an angry freedom fighter, Mandela emerged 27 years later determined also to leave the prison of justifiable resentment at the injustices he suffered. In the time between his incarceration and release, Mandela’s vision had enlarged remarkably: including not only Asian and racially mixed South Africans, but even Afrikaners, the very people who had imposed the pernicious system of apartheid. Though it would be strained, he pledged his faith in apartheid’s last president as a man of integrity He visited the prosecutor who tried to have him hanged and the widow of the architect of the infamous bantustan system. He transformed the hated Springbok—a symbol of white domination in sports—into a symbol of a new South African identity. He insisted on the racial and gender diversity of the South African people being reflected in his own office, welcoming an Afrikaans woman as personal assistant and having Afrikaners as part of his security detachment. He was a living embodiment of the society he dreamed of.
Mandela’s story remains a powerful parable of possibility—even in light of the failures of his successors. Theologian Charles Mathewes has coined the phrase “during the world” to speak of our time between the times of Christ’s ascension and his return. During the world there is no final consummation (hence the flip side of during the world is our “endurance” of the time of the world); but there can be new beginnings, new songs to sing and new relationships to enjoy.
But while there are new beginnings, during the world they are always “in the middle” of the story of the world. The idea that forgiveness entails forgetfulness is almost gnostic in its temptations—imagining that we exist in islands entirely of our own making. New beginnings start from the inequities of the present, but move toward a time when difference becomes gift for the enrichment of the whole, rather than the few. Inequities are re-framed, not as inevitable, but as the product of historical choices. They invoke lament, because it might have been different. They invoke hope, because it might yet be different. We can “sing to the Lord a new song,” but that new song is composed of old words deployed in new ways. This is why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was so important to South Africa. A new beginning in the middle could not be found in pretending inequalities didn’t exist, that atrocities had not been committed, that fears were not tangible. Launched two years after Mandela’s inauguration, the TRC was the moment of truth, when South African faced their situation full in the face. Only when that happened could the movement toward a different relationship take place in reality. Only when that happened could a different society be lived into.
Even as South Africans are remembering the life of Mandela and rededicating themselves to the society his life made possible, in the new beginning Mandela announced we also in the rest of the world are challenged to seek our own new beginnings. This includes the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which ends next year at that ancient place of encounter we call “Edmonton.”
Part of the mandate of South Africa’s TRC was to create a narrative account of South Africa which was expansive enough to be owned by all, regardless of race, ideology, or origin. But it also had to be a story grounded in *truth*, in the multiple stories of those silenced over the years, heard by those formerly (or willfully) ignorant of that truth. Likewise the Canadian TRC is an opportunity to begin again, to hear stories of pain and struggle and overcoming, and to incorporate them into the story of Canada. Even more: it is to reimagine Canada as Mandeal reimagined South Africa. While it begin as part of the settlement over residential schools, part of the original vision of Canada’s TRC was to create a new basis for the relationship between Canada’s first peoples and those who came from elsewhere, but who now have nowhere else to call “home.” It is to revisit that site where hundreds of years ago a newer, paler people came to the place of encounter, and to ask how they might be welcomed into that long and rich history.
The example of Nelson Mandela thus links in profound ways to the process Canada is undergoing. One would imagine that the many who are posting quotes and images from his life on social media sites would get this connection. And yet Canada’s TRC is seen not as a new beginning, but as a sop to “move on” with the story. This is the problem: the story of Canada’s (and Canadians’) relation with first nations needs neither “closure,” nor pacification. It needs to begin again—even if that new beginning is in the middle of the time during the world. It is incumbent that those of us who are of European origin see this, and act on it. For the events in Edmonton next year may be our last chance to begin again.
-Stephen W. Martin
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