Bishop Chris Harper wears a purple shirt and collar and carries with him eagle feathers, sweet grass and sage. The Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Saskatoon is a man who walks in two worlds, and his invitation is to join him on that trek.
Bishop Chris, as he is called, spoke to a public gathering at St. Andrews Anglican Church on Wednesday evening, March 23. While his talk focused on his own experiences growing up as an Indigenous person on the Onion Lake First Nation and on the history of relations with settlers and their governments, his theme was clearly targeted on the future. Bishop Chris began talking about the years of the COVID pandemic ushering in a time of introspection for people. During those years came the discovery of unmarked graves in former residential school sites and the national dialogue that ensued. Through it all, churches have come under increasing scrutiny for their role in residential schools and for their responses moving forward.
The Bishop launched into a broad overview of the history of Treaty and the perspectives of those who are governed by them. He referred at several points to the refrain, “We are all treaty people,” popularized in recent years and what it means.
“We talk about Truth and Reconciliation, with the TRC findings and recommendations for all society, especially our churches and education system, to start to focus again on what it means to be as a Treaty people,” said Bishop Chris.
An understanding of the historical approach to Indigenous people, which led to the development of residential schools, is key to the conversation, according to the Bishop. He talked about early approaches by governments to address “the Indian problem” and the perceived need to assimilate Indigenous peoples into a white settlers’ culture. That philosophy continued into the late 20th century with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s White Paper of 1969 that espoused ending distinct status for Indigenous people and effectively wiping out Treaties.
Throughout his talk, Bishop Chris worked to dispel myths about Indigenous people having access to free gas or special privileges. He related the long-standing tradition of Indigenous individuals receiving the traditional sum of five dollars on Treaty Day with a ceremony that hadn’t changed since the signing of Treaties.
Bishop Chris reflected on the need for scrutiny when it comes to institutions like government and the church, but he also maintained the need to reflect the positive and well as the pitfalls through a media lens that has been clouded by negativity.
“We need to understand and start reporting on the good things the church does, the good things that the priests and nuns do, and maybe what Bishops do now and then is good too.”
In the final analysis, Bishop Chris maintains that if the conversation around Truth and Reconciliation is to be successful, it needs to start from a singular base.
“It starts with education - education, understanding, and knowledge. We live in a world where we can understand anything by just ‘googling’ it, but at the same time, we have to be able to understand exactly what that means - to be able to discern, to be able to bring it in yourself and create something you can work with.”
When it comes to an examination of the church in light of its historical place in the development of social justice, Bishop Chris maintains there are signs of change, and perhaps his appointment as Bishop is representative of that change.
“A lot of people believe that the church is unwilling to change, but I believe now is the time for change for all things within our society on how we start to come back to the values of what we were meant to be, to have forgiveness, and to understand what that means. I am just one small light in a world of change.”
During his visit, Bishop Chris will speak to various agencies in the area, to students at St. Peter’s College and to a gathering of students at St. Augustine Schools. Other visits to Humboldt and opportunities to engage in discourse on Truth and Reconciliation are in the works.