LOOKING BACK 50 YEARS ! !
By Paul MacLean – Former Volunteer who worked on First Project in Split Lake, Manitoba, 1964
It’s 50 years ago that I participated in the summer work camp at Split Lake Manitoba, the first project of Operation Beaver. I remember seeing the notice on my college bulletin board just at the time when I was wondering what to do with my summer. No pay, hard construction work, northern Manitoba … but it sounded like an adventure.
Why do we do these things? Looking back 50 years, I’m still not sure. What I can say is that summer adventure had a lasting influence on my life.
First, I went to Split Lake a somewhat insular Anglican, and I returned an ecumaniac. We were all Christians in the work group, but from many countries and denominations. There’s something about living in tents together for a month that tests one’s theological prejudices. Never again would I assume that my particular brand of Anglicanism was the superior form of religion. More important, I discovered how my own spiritual development was enriched and challenged by interaction with people of diverse faith traditions and experiences.
And so I look back over 50 years of continued interactions, learning and spiritual growth through local ecumenical ventures, the Canadian Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, consulting and teaching work with churches of many denominations, and now an interfaith refugee settlement committee with Jewish friends.
Back to Split Lake. One African in our group, Marshall Malepu, emerged from our frigid tent one particularly frosty morning and shouted triumphantly, ‘Many are cold, but few are frozen.’ I’ve never been able to read Matt 22.14 (‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’) since, without a nervous thought for the temperature outside.
Second, I have a deeper appreciation for First Nations people. As a young boy I lived on Walpole Island, an Indian Reservation in the mouth of the St. Clair river, for two years. Split Lake was very different. The adults spoke little or no English. The living conditions were primitive. Most of the contact was with the teenagers who hung around our group and had learned English from their residential school.
How to understand this people and culture that had been in existence long before Europeans ever came to Canada? Our group had a number of First Nations young people who helped us form tentative relationships across the language and cultural divide. I remember the meals of fish and bannock, the baseball games, the incomprehensible church services, and most of all the community dances for all ages – beginning at midnight and continuing until dawn.
It was the beginning for me of real encounters with First Nations people. I hope as a result of that beginning I am more open to understanding their history in this country, the effects of European colonization, the present challenges. I try to listen to
Back L to R: Former Volunteers on First Operation Beaver Project, Richard James and Bruce Edwards, Split Lake Manitoba 1964
the stories with deeper understanding and accept some responsibility for the residential schools. I think back to Split Lake and remember the real people who live there, and all those I’ve met and learned from since, and I try to avoid the trap of romanticizing the reality of First Nations cultures and spiritualities. And, all too rare, I enjoy the fish and bannock and conversation with fellow human beings who were here long before my ancestors came.
Finally, the enduring memories of the northern lights swirling across the sky in mesmerizing vortices, gathering into a whirlpool, then shooting off again, so close that I felt I could be snatched from the earth. That summer uniquely revealed something of the soul of our country, a power that nourishes the imagination and inspires the adventurous spirit.