Magazines 2018 Mar - Apr The FT Interview: With Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo

The FT Interview: With Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo

31 March 2018

JONATHAN HAMILTON-DIABO is director of Indigenous initiatives at the University of Toronto, working to support reconciliation between the university and Indigenous Peoples and communities. Hamilton-Diabo previously worked with Toronto Urban Native Ministry and grew up in Kahnawake, Que. (Mohawk Nation). He spoke to Faith Today about how Canadians can engage in reconciliation and how listening is essential.

Faith Today: It’s been two years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report. Where are we now with reconciliation in Canada?

Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo: There has been a lot of momentum. There have been people who seem to be getting themselves more educated on the issues in terms of what is going on with the Indigenous community. I think it is on more people’s radar. The one thing people are realizing, when it comes to this work, is that there is still a lot of learning to do. Reconciliation comes when people have an understanding of what has happened. They know what communities have been dealing with, or who the communities are, and that piece is still needed. Some of that still needs to be done, and there is a lot of work to be done on that end.

Now people are moving very quickly and maybe a little too quickly. There is not maybe the full understanding yet, and people want to get to the reconciliation part right away. I think reconciliation will not be achieved if the truth part is not even looked at. The key piece that needs to be done is the listening part. What needs to happen is more listening. That’s not to say everything has to stop because there is work going on. People have to be willing to listen and to understand what the issues are, what the needs are, and who the people are, to even get to that stage of building that relationship.

FT: Where does someone begin to learn, if they haven’t already?

JD: There are so many different ways. Where do I start? People are saying, "We’ve got to do something." I’ve told people, "Listening is doing." That’s a key piece. That is part of the process. There are different ways people can learn. One way is to look at what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said, read the summary reports and read up on the websites.

But also, don’t just look at it solely through that lens. Try to understand the culture of the people when there are opportunities to take part in something. For example, go to a community that is putting on a powwow. Get a sense of that community and some of what is going on. Be a part of that. At a university there are ample opportunities, whether with guest speakers or events on campus. Start reading things put out by Indigenous Peoples, even something basic like history.

Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian [Penguin Random House Canada, 2012, reviewed in the previous issue of Faith Today] gives you a fairly good introduction to relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada and the U.S. He tackles some really difficult situations and things that have happened, but I appreciate how he does it. He has this way of humour, and humour is a really big part of our community. Even in intense situations humour comes in. It makes it easier to absorb the information.

It gives you at least a glimpse, and then you start building from there. There are also community centres and friendship centres that provide opportunities as well. It’s engaged learning that is needed. It’s not just book learning.

FT: One thing that can surprise people to learn is the generational impact of residential schools. Can you speak to that?

JD: The multigenerational impact is real. I did not go to residential school. However, one of my grandparents did. For me [it was amazing] just to learn about his experience, what his life was like very early on, what it meant to be disconnected from his community, the loss of language and family ties, and how much he had to build that back up.

You wonder what things get passed on from generation to generation. It’s very real. Loss of language is huge. Parenting. They didn’t know how to parent because of what they were exposed to. And those who lost family members, those who didn’t make it home.

When I’ve heard stories of survivors, it was just really how that hurt had framed their life. How they didn’t talk about it. They didn’t talk about it, but of course it then altered the relationships they had with their own families.

And there are the other elements of substance abuse as well. That is a big one where again it impacts the family, but this is how people have tended to cope. It impacted how Indigenous traditional knowledge was passed on. In some cases it wasn’t passed on in certain communities and families. That is big.

One of the biggest things that has been spoken about is language. When the language is missing, a big part of the culture is missing. It is all tied in together.

One of the things we’re seeing is a focal point on bringing back languages. Certain communities have been doing this for a long time. There are other communities in danger of it being extinct. There is a big concentration on that. How do we then offer these languages back into the community so they can be taken up again and preserved, but also grow? In urban centres you have many nations of people. It’s not just one people, it is multiple languages. It will take time, but also resources to build that. This is broadly needed.

FT: What can churches specifically do to help with reconciliation?

JD: We’ve been seeing apologies, we’ve been seeing a move to be part of the reconciliation process. But I think a big part of it is also more than just the apology, but saying, "This is what we did." To put forward the historical component and admit it was done. In some ways, though, some churches are willing to move on to the reconciliation component right away, maybe too quickly.

The big thing is, when you look within the churches, mainly the mainstream, and you look at the leadership, again you still have leadership that does not reflect the Indigenous community.

The danger has always been, "What can we do for you?" as opposed to, "How can we work together?" It’s a national Church. What Church leaders sometimes want and say is very different than what happens on the congregational level. There is a disconnect.

In theological schools you are training people, but there is still not enough Indigenous content, faculty members or students. The majority of people who are either becoming ministers or getting their training to work in these kinds of organizations are still not getting the kind of education needed in order to help move this along. There are schools going to efforts to incorporate it but, on the whole, it is limited.

FT: How about churches or organizations doing mission work or development work within Indigenous communities? What do they need to know?

JD: In the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to do work with the Mennonite Church Canada. This had taken time to build, but they built a strong relationship and a network with Indigenous communities that provided the opportunity for the Mennonite Church and the communities they were working with to do things jointly. In building the relationships it’s not going to be, "Now what do you want us to do?" You don’t just show up. It’s learning about each other. What has to happen first is a level of trust. If the trust isn’t there, then nothing will proceed. There will be no reconciliation. It will really slow down to a halt.

People get frustrated. It gets back to rushing. From an Indigenous standpoint we’re thinking, "You want to do this now, but is this short-term for you?" Because that’s what has been happening. There are the best intentions. Right now the spotlight is on this and has been for a while, but I’m worried about the new shiny thing that will take that spotlight away. They will think, "We’re all good now."

It’s going to take so much more time for reconciliation to happen. It will happen at different rates too. It will happen so differently in different communities. But all you need is a change in government and a lot of things can just stop, depending on what kind of priority they put on it. Come an election, that could change.

There is hesitation from communities. They don’t want someone showing up for a short period of time, and then when it’s not big to do it anymore, they go away. The Indigenous community is still trying to work with what they would see as empty promises. They want to know the partners coming in. Are they going to continue to be there long-term no matter what other shiny object shows up? Will this remain a priority? Those are the things that need to be considered.

There are organizations who have created good relations. There is something to learn from that too. What goes a long way is if there is a trusted partner who brings in another group and says, "We believe in this organization to help." That goes a long way.

There won’t be a uniform road map. How they interact with people in cities and in rural areas will change. There is not this one way of doing things. There will be principles, but the actual way of how they do it may differ from community to community.

Churches do have a particular role, but churches have to listen and be willing to also implement structural changes. This is the piece that people struggle with. The goal is to try and get Indigenous people to a level that is fair and at an equal level as other people in Canada, to remove gaps and disadvantages. But the structures that are in place, the way people do business, sometimes contributes to those gaps.

For the gaps to move, there have to be things that change within the organization for this to even come close to being achieved. They may have to give up something. The group that is higher has to lose something. That changes the discussion. It’s not about, "We will bring them to our level." It’s understanding that for that gap to disappear, something has to come down. What do we lose, as opposed to what do they gain? That is the conversation people are not so willing to jump on board with.

FT: It becomes an issue of the human heart.

JD: It’s a reality. I remember when the new federal government came on board, the proclamation was that we are going to do all the calls to action. A speaker on a panel I was moderating addressed the audience and said, "That’s great, but they don’t know what they are talking about," meaning they don’t understand the issues well enough to understand what has to change in order for these things to happen. You made a bold promise without backing it up. This is kind of the crux of what has always happened. There are these bold initiatives that never get fulfilled. Over time communities just stop believing. Best intentions don’t always lead to something better for the people. That is something that needs to be understood. If you don’t understand the issues, how can you help the people you don’t know?

FT: You are a person of faith. How does that impact your work?

JD: Yes, I was raised Catholic. I’ve been Christian all my life. It impacts how I work with people. I’ve tried to separate in my mind the difference between the faith and the teachings versus the organizations and the human side of religion. This was a lesson that stuck with me from an elder I worked with who told me, "You are doing ministry." He explained that to minister is to serve. It doesn’t matter what my role is. My role is to help others. I keep that with me at all times. I’m someone who serves, whether I’m called the director or not. My role is to help people in a respectful manner, and I think that is how I incorporate my beliefs into that. But I also keep myself very open. I’m not there to judge. I grew up Catholic, married in a Baptist church, went to a United church, now I’m at a Bible chapel. So I’ve been all over the place.

We surround ourselves in communities that we believe we can thrive in and serve in. Looking at how that community works is an important part of my faith. We do this in the Indigenous community all the time. We have this notion of giving back. So I’m doing that. I’m serving.

FT: Thank you, Jonathan.