David Warkentin interviews Patti Victor about the hopes and challenges of Christian and Indigenous reconciliation.

“I’m an Indigenous leader and a Pentecostal pastor.”

This is how Patti Victor introduces herself. And many find it surprising. These two roles don’t normally go together in Cascadia.

Why?

Because Cascadia’s Indigenous communities and the church have had a tenuous relationship, to say the least. In the Vancouver area, Christians often played a prominent role in the area’s settlement. Churches were active partners with the government in running residential schools. These schools forced the removal of children from their communities, stripping them of their Indigenous culture and purposefully replacing it with the dominant white, European Christian culture. As a result, Indigenous people across the region experienced the devastating loss of social identity and cultural practices, including the loss of their land. This systemic exclusion left a legacy of deep pain, and as a result, some Indigenous people still view Christianity and the church with suspicion. To identify as an Indigenous Christian, then, can be complicated and difficult. This is Patti’s context. It’s the world in which she works towards Indigenous and Christian reconciliation. I recently got to sit down with Patti to discuss her work.

How would you describe your role in this region?

I function with a foot in both worlds—in the Indigenous community as a Sto:lo member and in the broader Christian community as a pastor. I cannot separate my life as an Indigenous person and a member of the broader community. And this is the case for all Indigenous people—learning to live in multiple cultures. We are Sto:lo. But we’ve also experienced a transformation in Christ, and my husband and I have a call to pastoral ministry. People know us as Sto:lo and as Christian. Knowing our history, they can see that while we still face challenges like everyone else, we have a stabilizing factor in our lives, which is Christ. Our lives can be an example to others in our Sto:lo community as they see the presence of Christ in our lives.

Who’s going to bring the Indigenous voice to the settler community so that we can understand that each of us has a part to play in reconciliation?

As a pastor, I also have a voice in the broader Christian community. Who’s going to bring the Indigenous voice to the settler community so that we can understand that each of us has a part to play in reconciliation? What Indigenous voice will bring the settler community to a greater understanding of Indigenous history, culture and worldview?  Who are the Indigenous leaders who are raising their children to walk with God—who called us to walk in reconciliation—and who will challenge the settler Christian community to do the same?

Whether it’s pastoring with my Sto:lo community, speaking, or working in education contexts, it’s the walk of reconciliation that I find myself on and I’m inviting other Christians to join me.

What are your thoughts on the current relationships between Christianity and the Indigenous community in the Greater Vancouver area?

Apologies have come from many sources—government, churches, and individuals. But saying sorry without change is not reconciliation.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission opened a door towards reconciliation on many important levels—awareness and relationships are developing. But there is much more that can be done. Apologies have come from many sources—government, churches, and individuals. But saying sorry without change is not reconciliation. Sadly,  intolerant and judgmental attitudes of the dominant Canadian culture live on, where cultural assimilation is still expected for Indigenous people. And one of the ongoing challenges is Christian disengagement. Many churches in the area don’t engage the hard work of reconciliation. I’ve heard people say they are colorblind, as if that’s a positive—as if cultural differences don’t matter. But that’s not a helpful comment. It just reflects the lingering attitudes that the unique identity of Indigenous peoples are not worth engaging. These ongoing negative attitudes are so hurtful when people don’t acknowledge the true history of the Indigenous experience in Canada.

What is needed, then, moving forward? How can we foster greater understanding and reconciliation?

First, we need to acknowledge that the negative legacy of colonization and residential schools lives on, a legacy that impacts whole communities. Unfortunately, the way people view Indigenous people hasn’t changed. We’ve seen our grandchildren face the same negative attitudes that gave rise to residential schools. Lack of honest education led to attitudes that can take generations to change. We are still early on in truth-telling, in dealing honestly with the ramifications of Indigenous mistreatment. To start, we have to recognize there is a long way to go.

Second, we need to get rid of the attitude that everyone needs to fit into mainstream society in the same way.

Second, we need to get rid of the attitude that everyone needs to fit into mainstream society in the same way. Here, tolerance alone won’t lead to reconciliation. Rather, we need all people to be walking together in a good way. This means reconciliation is by nature relational and ongoing. This Indigenous perspective of reconciliation allows all of us to be free in who we are as individuals, but also committed to journey together. True reconciliation is the active extension of respect and dignity towards each other, which as Christians, is to be all that God has created us to be.

Lastly, as I already mentioned, people need to recognize that saying sorry isn’t enough. Reconciliation is an ongoing relationship, one that has yet to see very much change from the painful past of Indigenous people. For example, the Sto:lo people continue to face challenges related to our legal right to fish. Fishing is part of who we are, and our right by law, but it is becoming harder and harder every year as fisheries continues to be dominated by business interests and greater restrictions are placed on our rights to fish. When will this change?

In all these areas, Christians need to lead the way in reconciliation and changing minds for how we relate to Indigenous people.  God’s grace compels us to live in reconciliation. God has given us the ministry of reconciliation but what are we doing with it?

Part of the challenge you likely encounter is that for many evangelicals, Indigenous spirituality raises concerns. How have you understood the integration of Christianity and Indigenous spirituality in your own life and ministry?

First of all, Indigenous spirituality is not a religion. It embraces every area of our life and our environment, which is also what Christianity is all about.  So on many levels, there isn’t a concern to integrate Christianity with Indigenous spirituality. That said, actively engaging our culture is essential. Many times, when speaking of Indigenous culture, the settler community thinks of drums, regalia, dancing, smudging or the like.  However, when considering a definition of culture—how we relate to one another within our context, so it includes all these things and so much more—it’s ways of knowing, it’s our values, it’s our teachings and traditions, and it’s our stories that have been passed down through the generations. God has created us uniquely different from one another. Within each of our cultures, there are elements which honor God and elements which do not.  As followers of Christ, we need to wrestle with this reality and be able to discern what is good and honorable. We need to to embrace them as Indigenous people.

There is no one generic Indigenous spirituality to integrate, therefore each Indigenous community must do this hard work—working alongside Indigenous traditional leaders so that we can clearly understand the intent, the meaning and the value placed upon these traditions. And Indigenous Christian leaders need to prayerfully consider and rightly discern the Word of God with each cultural practice and teaching. My context involves discerning Sto:lo practices and how they may relate to Christian practices. This is an ongoing process of discerning integration.  This important work is not limited to Indigenous culture. Every follower of Christ must rightly discern their cultural values and teachings in the face of the Word of God.

Patti Victor is Sto:lo, living at Cheam First Nation with her husband, Gary. They are the founding pastors of a thriving First Nations Church in Chilliwack. She is an ordained minister and serves as the Section Pastor of Aboriginal Ministries in the BC-Yukon district and the Coordinator of Aboriginal Ministries with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Patti is also the University Siya:m and Co-Director, Institute of Indigenous Issues & Perspectives at Trinity Western University.