“Rabbit was in big trouble,” John Johnstone said as he shook his head gravely. “I could see Cougar hiding behind the tall grass along the fence. The next thing you know, wham! Cougar swipes out a paw and scoops him up.”
We were sitting in a coffee shop, and I had just asked John to share about his new role with C2C as First Nations Ambassador to Western Canada. In answer, John launched into what sounded like indigenous mythology. Or was it something that had actually happened on his property in Fort Langley? I was confused and having a hard time following the bunny trail, so to speak. But his storytelling skills were gripping and I did not want to interrupt.
“I watched as Cougar loped away, with Rabbit in his stomach,” John continued. “Next morning, same thing. But this time, it was my little dog, Oscar. He ran down the same path, along the same fence, and there was Cougar, waiting. And pretty soon, wham! Cougar scooped him up and ate him too.”
John paused, taking in the look on my face as I thought about poor Oscar.
After a nod, John went on, “So then Cougar kind of sits up, and crosses his paws and says to me, ‘Hey John, so – how many calories do you think were in Rabbit?’ I shake my head at him, no idea. Cougar says, ‘About four hundred and fifty. How many calories do you think Oscar was?’ I shake my head again, no idea. Cougar says, ‘About four hundred and fifty.’ Then Cougar gets up and walks away.”
“So here’s the thing,” John said as he leaned toward me across the table. “I share that story, and everybody gets all upset at poor old Oscar being eaten by Cougar. But the reality is, Oscar and Rabbit had exactly the same value. That’s what I want people to understand. We all have exactly the same value in Creator’s eyes. But over the years First Nations people have been taught that we don’t have the same value as other folk. And those lessons, well, they are hard to get over.”
As John went on to describe the gulf between First Nations and many other Canadians, it became clear that he is uniquely wired to bridge that divide with a message of reconciliation.
John explained that he was born during the infamous “Sixties Scoop”, when First Nations children were taken from their families and adopted or fostered out to primarily white middle-class families. John was himself adopted by white parents and raised with no real understanding of his ethnic roots. His adopted brother and sister were from different indigenous families, and together they all faced the challenge of being “Apple Indians” – red on the outside, white on the inside. They had a hard time of it. Both brothers coped by abusing drugs and alcohol.
Eventually, John married and he and his wife Jennifer had two small children. One day, Jen demanded to take the children to church and, grudgingly, John agreed. Maybe it would be good for them as a family, he thought, getting a little religion. It was there that he met Jesus.
“He kind of snuck up on me,” John recalled. “So, I asked him about my life, about everything that had happened to our people in history. And God said, ‘Oh, John, that wasn’t me. I love you. Always have, always will.’”
That love of God moved John to make profound changes in his life. Soon after coming to faith through the Alpha program, he knew that there was a calling on his life to reach out to First Nations people, but his deeply rooted sense of unworthiness held him back. Over the years, however, his leadership skills brought him into positions of responsibility, first within the First Nations community and then with C2C.
“I realized that my story matters,” John said. “We all need someone to listen to our stories. And not just listen to our stories, but learn to re-tell them too. Success for me would be going to the grocery store one day and hearing two settlers re-telling First People’s stories, then for us to sit together with them around a table and share a meal.”
As First Nations Ambassador, John faces significant challenges. Although his bi-cultural background makes him uniquely suited to build bridges, he often encounters walls instead. Like Moses, his adopted status can make him somewhat of an outsider to both cultures. Sharing about his Christian faith with his own people can push some painful buttons. For many of them, it was the Church that endorsed some of the injustices suffered by the First Nations people in the first place. John works to bring down those walls of anger and blame. Contrarily, when John is sharing with non-indigenous people about history from a First Nations’ perspective, he sometimes encounters defensiveness and resentment.
“Really, it’s not that complicated,” John said. “All we need to do is listen. Be witnesses to the truth. Then Creator can get in there and complete the healing, and reconcile us. Our stories – even the raw, painful ones – these are gifts that we bring to each other. They all have value. We all have value.”
Like Rabbit, I thought. Like Oscar.
John and Jen Johnstone live in Langley, BC. John is from the Leq’a:mel First Nation and is actively building relationships within local indigenous communities and seeking to bring the reconciliation and healing that he himself has experienced. He currently serves as C2C’s First Nations Ambassador for Western Canada.