Sandra Hayes-Gardiner shares the story behind her passion for Right Relations

Sandra Hayes-Gardiner is known within her Calgary congregation as someone who is passionate about Right Relations, currently involved in many activities aiming to foster Indigenous learning and understanding. Sandra’s roots, career and volunteerism have contributed to her own shift in perspective.

Sandra at blanket exerciseSandra grew up in The Pas, a community in Northern Manitoba side-by-side with a First Nations band and surrounded by First Nations communities. Born in the late 1940s, the history of the surrounding Indigenous bands was not shared. Sandra reflects she never even questioned where the First Nations children in her community went to school.

“I think racism was alive and well in all kinds of ways without my awareness,” she says, noting there was probably a sense that white, privileged people went to school and the Indigenous people, “Indians,” did not.

After returning to The Pas from university a highly-publicized murder of a 19-year-old Indigenous woman took place in the town. Two of the four men involved in the murder attended the same school and church as Sandra. She says knowing these men, who had a similar upbringing, could do such a horrific act always haunted her.

Sandra calls herself a “recovering racist,” noting the racism Canada has lived out is deep, but she can now speak from a different perspective.

Sandra’s first social work job was with the Department of Indian Affairs in The Pas, which had a perspective that Indigenous people ‘needed their help’. The federal department controlled everything on the reserve including exit and re-entry, health, education and travel.

As a young social worker in the 1970s, Sandra says she thought she was going to “help change the world,” and yet she knew nothing about First Nations culture and wasn’t encouraged to learn. Sandra travelled to seven First Nations communities in her work, and was involved in removing children to foster homes and supporting families experiencing domestic violence and addictions.

When she witnessed children in a home with addictions and abuse it was not difficult, and in fact it felt like the right thing to do, to write a letter stating the children would be better in a residential school. This is where Sandra has the most regret. “It never occurred to me that it was brutal to take them away from their families and communities,” she says. “In the milieu of the day, it was a way to ‘help them’ and we certainly believed we knew what kind of help they needed.”

Later in life Sandra began to see Indigenous people with different eyes. When her husband, Lyall, took a job working with Tsilhqot’in people at an Aboriginal Law Centre in Williams Lake, B.C., Sandra says she started to learn –  and unlearn – about First Nations culture. They were invited to ceremonies and sweat lodges.

“We began to know them as people and friends and that was a shift that I couldn’t accomplish when I was in my early 20s and living back in my home community,” she says. “When I realized how little I knew about the Indigenous history in Canada I was embarrassed and I was shocked. I was ashamed of having been involved in the whole residential school process and I now see how racism can exist and we don’t know it or even acknowledge it.”

Sandra says she realised there “isn’t an Indian problem, there is a white problem. We as white settlers have work to do to learn and understand Canada’s history. First Nations people were compassionate to the European settlers who didn’t know how to live or eat or manage in a frigid climate.”

In the 1980’s, Sandra began to be hired directly by First Nations bands first in B.C. and later in Manitoba working as a therapist and offering training and mental health consultation. She travelled in remote areas through the B.C. interior and Northern Manitoba and loved it.

“I learned more than I ever gave the communities. I know the elders laughed at me good naturedly lots of times with my ‘white ways’ but I realized I was the recipient of their knowledge and their wisdom and a long history that I’d ignored most of my life. It is still a wonderful life-giving experience for me to continue to learn this part of Canada’s history and to be welcomed in their communities and culture.”

Now living in Calgary, Sandra says her most significant volunteer experience was acting as a witness in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement hearings as a representative of the United Church. If the claimant agreed to have a church representative at the hearing, a verbal and written apology is offered by the representative. Sandra was such a church representative and attended a dozen hearings and listened to the horrific stories of residential school abuse and cultural genocide.

The whole process and experience of giving an apology on behalf of a large institution expanded her understanding of compassion. “It changed me,” she says. “The claimants all thanked me – thanked me – that’s pretty amazing. I don’t know if I would have had such grace.”

Sandra says she has done a lot of her own soul-searching and asking questions about her racist beliefs. She is writing about what it was like to live in The Pas at the time of the murder and her own journey with racism. “It’s become a personal journey and now has translated into action. Being involved in the church and community and finding ways to follow the Calls to Action of the TRC, has been heart warming, challenging and ultimately transformative for me,” she says.

Sandra has helped facilitate, with an elder, KAIROS Blanket Exercises – a participatory workshop, covering 500 years of Canadian history – for about 40 groups, which she says is a helpful and hopeful educational tool.

To learn more about the Right Relations group at Hillhurst United Church in Calgary, visit:


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 comment

  1. Thank you for this well written piece on such an important issue, and such a powerful voice for change. We have much to learn from Sandra Hays-Gardiner and colleagues. O Canada, we are finally learning.