Untying the Knots of Colonialism

Sr. Margaret Sadler, SEJ

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you” (Mt. 20:25). Any form of domination was totally upended by Jesus. The price he paid was his death at the hands of religious and political powers. However, through his life, death and resurrection, he established an entirely new world of ‘communion’, which St. Paul described as a reign of equal dignity for all. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Unfortunately, in Canadian history, the lording over and tyranny of colonialism ruled all too frequently and tragically marred our nation’s social fabric with gnarled and thorny tangles. These evils particularly prevailed in the colonizers’ treatment of indigenous peoples.

Among those who’ve spent their lives untying the knots of colonialism is Sr. Margaret Sadler, SEJ.

Her ministry, though seemingly a drop in the bucket, is an example of generosity and sensitivity in helping to restore the dignity of First Nations and Metis peoples whose lives and communities have been wounded by the forces of colonial domination.

Sr. Margaret was born in Saskatchwan and grew up in BC. Feeling called to consecrated life, she entered the community of the Sisters of the Child Jesus. After completing 27 years of teaching in SK and BC, she was drawn to the north to be ‘a presence of love’ in accordance with the charism of her religious congregation. For 29 years, she served in several northern missions, careful never to impose any form of domination, but ready to offer her gifts when they were wanted. She sought to be sensitive to the culture and spirituality of each community, without introducing any programs, even healing ones, that can sometimes constitute a form of colonialism. She simply wanted to befriend, learn and be in solidarity with the people. Her model was Saint Andrew, who told his brother Simon Peter, “we have found the Messiah” and then brought him to Jesus.

She decided to live with the Indigenous people and spent time listening and sharing in their way of life. To gain understanding of their culture and spirituality, she participated in fasts, sweats and rituals. She recalled that one day early on, she pulled up a weed. Seeing this, one of the locals asked, “You would just rip up something out of Mother Earth?” It was for her a moment of awakening! From then on, she grew in awareness of the sacredness of creation. Accustomed to having roles of authority, she acquired an attitude of poverty, living in simplicity and peace, with deeper trust in God’s provident care.

Soon she was called to be a ‘loving presence’ in communities where attempted suicides were common. Various groups had worked to help these communities, often at cross purposes, and then came together to develop healing programs. They learned that underneath the alcoholism, drug use, and attempted suicides, often lay the trauma of sexual abuse. Suffering from depression, anger, low self-esteem, and hopelessness, survivors were damaged emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. Their souls felt destroyed.

At healing workshops, survivors came forward and told their stories. The teams sought to engage them in a process that would help them experience their goodness, know success, build their self-esteem and give them purpose.

The leader of the network asked Sr. Margaret to meet with mothers of both abusers and survivors. Listening to their stories with sensitivity and compassion, she heard about difficult situations of deviant sexual behavior, with tentacles that reached deeply into family relationships and histories. These mothers carried wounds of helplessness, confusion and hopelessness. Serving as ‘a presence of love’, Sr. Margaret offered them and those who survived suicide attempts, caring support as they struggled to regain their sense of dignity and self-worth.

Her ministry broadened as she journeyed with others through alcoholism, marriage difficulties, illness. She sought to encourage and support, and to confront where necessary. “But I made lots of mistakes,” she said. However, her years of loyalty did yield moments of joy. One of the grandmothers of a suicide survivor stated that when she received a hug from Sr. Margaret, she felt “hugged by Jesus.”

Being a compassionate listener was far from easy. She often carried confidences and had to detach herself emotionally from the pain of others.

For example, she was sickened by the story of a girl who was impregnated by her father and then forced to have an abortion. He was tried and imprisoned. After his release, as Sr. Margaret met with father and daughter to offer support aimed at preventing a repeat offence, she found that the daughter bonded and sided with her abusive father, resisting any development of a wholesome relationship. In meeting such complex dynamics, Sr. Margaret felt helpless. All she could do was pray and “leave it up to God.”

The healing network also developed programs to keep lawbreakers out of jail. They were regarded as wounded individuals needing, not punishment, but development in positive life skills. When wrongdoers pled guilty, members of the networking team would accompany them to court and follow with them a program similar to AA. The offenders would be paroled with a restorative justice group that would involve the entire community in healing both the perpetrator and the victim by offering emotional and spiritual support. They helped offenders and victims to recognize their goodness, develop self-esteem and become respected members of the community.

Sr. Margaret’s years in this difficult ministry brought her face to face with the destructive effects of colonialism. She said, “I realized I was part of this damage.” In her efforts to untie the knots of colonialism, she sought to develop leadership skills among the people and support them in taking charge of their own concerns. For example, when called upon to prepare children for the sacraments, she taught parents how to give religious instruction to their children. She trained local parishioners to conduct liturgies and called upon the community to elect their religious leaders. Two men and 4 women were elected. At first, they refused, but eventually agreed because they’d been chosen by their community.

In speaking of Sr. Margaret’s ministry, Archbishop Murray Chatlain, Archbishop of Keewatin-The Pas stated that, given her flexible and adaptable presence, she was a “perfect fit” for ministry among First Nations. In her 29 years as a St. Andrew, she brought many to a deepened faith. Being among them as a loving presence, she strove to untie some deep knots of colonialism and help to repair the damage inflicted upon our nation.