Confronting the fear of our history

By Charity Nonkes

“Yet we Christians have also been called to take a good hard look at ourselves. To reflect on our Christian beliefs, to scrutinize our missional practices. And to decolonize. It’s not that Christianity is inherently colonial, but for generations the Church and its faith have been used – wittingly, unwittingly, and far too often – as instruments of dispossession in the settler colonial arsenal. Indigenous peoples are asking the Church to our own work, to beat our colonial swords into peaceable ploughshares.” – pg. xvi Unsettling the word

This is a quote taken from Unsettling the Word: Biblical experiments in decolonization. The book is a collection of Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors re-examining Biblical stories in order to reclaim the Bible as a tool for peacemaking from an instrument of dispossession. It was created by the Mennonite Church Canada’s Indigenous-Settler Relations program.

In the process of truth and reconciliation there is a great need for us all to critically analyze the forces that favoured Christian Europeans and their descendants over others. This work brings up hard questions concerning our identity and our justification for being on the land. When I look to my upbringing, Christianity was not perceived as an instrument of dispossession. Christianity brought community and belonging, but I was coming from a place of privilege and European ancestry.

In the early settlement of Canada, the government claimed it had the authority over the land to sell or grant it to settlers. The Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius are concepts that the European powers used to justify the claim that land was theirs. These concepts provided a framework that said that North America was open to be ‘discovered’ because the indigenous population wasn’t Christian and therefore did not rightly own the land. Theology was used to create a narrative that the land was empty and therefore open for foreign powers to come and claim possession, leading to genocide and exploitation.

For the healing of others and ourselves, it is absolutely paramount for us all to understand the entire story of how Canada was established and the role of Christianity in it. In my experience destruction caused by Christianity is often ignored or hidden because of fear. This fear may be rooted in what these truths mean for who we are as a people – for our identity. This becomes especially difficult when our own histories are mingled with stories of fleeing persecution, hunger, and violence to find freedom in Canada. How do we reconcile it within ourselves that we have freedom in Canada but at the expense of Indigenous peoples? How can we do reconciliation work if we don’t address the truth of our history?

KAIROS banket exercise photo (002)

MCC Photo/Leona Lortie. University of Saskatchewan students participating in a KAIROS Blanket Exercise in 2015.

A part of this journey is to thoroughly examine the residential school system and the role of Mennonites. Mennonite Residential Schools in Northwestern Ontario were part of the larger residential school system that sought to eliminate Indigenous ways of life and ensure assimilation to Christian European practices. I have often heard the point that the Mennonites running these schools had good intentions but were misguided.

Good intentions are often clouded by privilege and ignorance of how oppression is engrained into society for the benefit of some over others. Anthony Siegrist, pastor at Ottawa Mennonite Church, has researched and written about Mennonite involvement in the residential school system.

Siegrist writes, “They (Mennonites) seemed sincere in their attempts to “improve” the lives of their Indigenous students. Many staff sacrificed comfort and pay to serve as they did. And yet they were complicit. Probably naïve, but still complicit. If you know anything about Mennonite Christians, you may know that historically ours is a minority tradition, a tradition rooted in martyrdom. We do not always realize the power of our own cultural connections or the power of skin color.”

The call for decolonization and a critical analysis of the role of Christianity in colonial history is a door that is often bolted shut because we fear what it will reveal about ourselves. However, this self-reflection is a healing process for us and everyone living on this land. Christianity has been used for destruction. Faith can also invite us towards reconciliation, as we learn new ways of reading the Bible.

The Church played an instrumental role in colonization and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples – no matter what the intentions were– we all must work to decolonize. The Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action challenges us to do this. Action 49 – We call upon all religious denominations and faith groups who have not already done so to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.

It is time for us to recognize the colonial swords that we all carry and beat them into peaceable ploughshares to till fields of truth and reconciliation.

Creator of this beautiful land,
What is truth and reconciliation
When truth is clouded by ideology and religion
Where there is seldom peace to reconcile back to

God of my ancestors,
You nurtured them when they fled persecution, hunger, and violence
They found peace and wealth in this land while others were removed from it
How do we reconcile with this?

God of truth,
What is truth when the Bible was used to justify the murder of Indigenous peoples
“…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wherever placed”1
“Kill the Indian and save the man”2 – “take the Indian out of the child”3

God of reconciliation
Where do we go from here?
When divisions are like chasms
When hate and fear fuels public debates

God of the oppressed,
How can we be rooted to land that was stolen
How do we reach across the divides that were built to make exploitation easier
How do we decolonize ourselves, communities, and nations?

The TRC also calls us to adopt and comply with the principles, norms, and standards of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a framework for reconciliation (Action 48). Please join us in urging the Canadian government to fulfill its commitment to reconciliation and adopting UNDRIP by supporting the passage of Bill C-262 through the Senate. Send a message to all senators here.

If you would like to find out more about Bill C-262 watch this new short video produced by MCC and our collaboration partners.


1 Papal Bull Dum Diveras (Doctrine of Discovery) – https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/dum-diversas/.
For more information about Doctrine of Discovery –  https://vimeo.com/118735770

2 Colonel Richard Henry Pratt on the education of Native Americans in the United States – http://carlisleindian.dickinson.edu/sites/all/files/docs-resources/CIS-Resources_PrattSpeechExcerptShort.pdf

3 Sir John A. MacDonald – https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/chief-justice-says-canada-attempted-cultural-genocide-on-aboriginals/article24688854/

To find out more about the KAIROS Blanket Exercise visit: https://www.kairosblanketexercise.org/

Charity Nonkes is the MCC Ottawa Office Advocacy Research Intern

 

Advertisements

Towards Living Wages and Decent Work

by Greg deGroot-Maggetti

“We need to create a parade that politicians want to get in front of.”

That is how one participant at a forum on the living wage and public sector employers put it.

At the heart of decent work is fair pay – the ability to earn a living wage. Not a poverty wage. But enough to meet your needs and fully participate in the life of your community.

But the growth of low-wage and precarious employment has become one of the defining labour market challenges in our time and one of the root causes of growing income inequality.

In 2017, the Government of Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review found that 30% to 32% of workers in Ontario were in low wage jobs with few if any benefits. Many people in standard jobs, “work for very low pay and do not have a private pension.” (An Agenda for Workplace Rights, p. 45)

How does one change that reality?

One approach is to advocate for change in government policy. Groups like the Workers’ Action Centre and the Fight for $15 and Fairness Campaign have been doing just that in Ontario. And in 2017, their efforts began to bear fruit. Indeed, the very fact that the Changing Workplaces Review took place is a testament to the effectiveness of that advocacy. And although the review was not tasked with reviewing the minimum wage — which happened a few years earlier — when the Government led by Kathleen Wynne announced policy changes based on the Changing Workplaces Review they included a plan to raise the Ontario minimum wage to $15 an hour by January 2019 alongside a number of improvements to employment standards.

Policy change can be characterized as an exercise in taking two steps forward and one step back. That is just what happened in Ontario. In June 2018 a new government was elected. One of the first things the new premier, Doug Ford, did was to freeze the minimum wage at $14 an hour and roll back many of the employment standards changes that the Wynne government had brought in.

Advocates have also taken another approach to create change alongside the direct engagement with government. This approach has been directed at employers, encouraging them to voluntarily pay a living wage to all of their employees – full-time, part-time and contracted services, like custodial, security or food services. The living wage differs from the minimum wage in a couple ways. First, the minimum wage is government mandated and applies to most employees across the province. The living wage is a policy voluntarily adopted by employers. Second, the minimum wage tends to be arbitrarily set, usually bearing no relation to the actual cost of living. The living wage is independently calculated based on the actual cost of living in communities. In Ontario, living wage rates calculated for close to two dozen communities are all above the $15 an hour target for the minimum wage. The living wage rates in these communities vary from $21.75 in Toronto, Canada’s largest city to $16.05 in Thunder Bay.

The Ontario Living Wage Network came together in 2014. Nearly 200 employers have enrolled in the Living Wage Employer Program. Hundreds of employees have seen a pay raise as a result.

But the impact is greater than the number of employees directly affected.

In 2017, the Government of Ontario held hearings about upgrading employment standards. Typically in such situations, workers’ organizations and anti-poverty advocates speak in favour of raising the minimum wage, providing fair scheduling, paid sick days, etc. In the other corner are business groups – chambers of commerce, industry associations and the like – who caution about the presumed negative economic effect of making such changes. Into that mix, a group of living wage employers helped launch a new initiative – the Better Way Alliance. Members of the Better Way Alliance talked from their own experience about why paying a living wage and implementing positive employment practices makes good business sense.

The government of the day listened. They brought in many of those changes. But political times change. And the new government began to unwind many of those changes.

Living wage employers are helping create a new understanding and a new culture around employment practices. They note that the living wage is a practical tool helping employers who want to know they are paying their employees enough to make ends meet and participate in community.

Being able to attract qualified employees, seeing better staff retention, saving money on hiring and training as a result, reaping the benefits of higher productivity and better service from a stable workforce, seeing better morale among employees, are just examples of the many benefits of paying a living wage. Living wage employers are speaking up about them.

A few organizations have become leaders in a movement to counter poverty and encourage wage equity. The Ontario Living Wage Network is one among a number of movements promoting decent work. The Ontario Non-Profit Network has made decent work a focus. They have created a Decent Work Checklist  and a pension program for Non-Profit Organizations. The United Way of Greater Toronto has provided a toolkit for businesses to transform precarious jobs into stable employment. The B Corporation movement is demonstrating how sustainable environmental, social and employment practices can be integral to long-term business success.

Each of these initiatives helps demonstrate how old assumptions about trade offs between decent wages or sustainable environmental practices and profitability are false. As these initiatives expand, they create the political space for public policies grounded in proven employment, social and environmental practices of employers of all sorts. They form the “parade that politicians can get in front of.”

 

Greg deGroot-Maggetti serves as MCC Ontario’s Walking with People in Poverty Program Coordinator and is co-chair of the Ontario Living Wage Network. MCC Ontario is a certified Living Wage Employer.

 

Caption for the photo:
Living Wage Employers in Waterloo Region received Living Wage Certificates during living wage week celebrations the first week in November.

Credit: Ontario Living Wage Network

Persistent faithfulness as an approach to community transformation

by Christopher Lortie

Many people begin the New Year by making resolutions, a decision to remove something or to incorporate something new in one’s life. I have to admit that I did not make any “official” resolutions this year, although I have recently made an effort to include more fitness activities in my life. I write ‘effort’ because ‘commitment’ may be too strong of a word. This is often the case with New Year’s resolutions. For many of us, it doesn’t take too long until they are forgotten.

Looking back, I often find that my New Year’s resolution goals were too big and unrealistic. The process usually ends in disappointment when I have to accept that I am not meeting my goals.

A similar feeling comes to mind when I consider the state of peace and justice in the world. Currently, I don’t think I need to argue too forcefully that reading or watching the news can create a feeling of despair when wondering about the lack of peace and justice in the world.

Like personal resolutions, promises made by governments toward large scale domestic or international initiatives seem to fade away soon after commitments are made. News headlines can be overwhelming, and it can be difficult to imagine any measurable impact our actions could make – or even where to start.

I recently preached a sermon looking at 1 Peter, which I believe provides us with some direction and hope when feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world. In this context, the New Testament church was facing the reality that Jesus’s return wasn’t happening as quickly as they expected and the realization that they would have to settle into everyday life. Peter presents a way forward for the church, responding to how members of the church are to engage with the world around them, as well as how the church should engage with each other in community life.

Peter argues that those who make up the church should do what is “good” or “right” in the places they find themselves (e.g., 1 Peter 2:15, 20; 3:16; 4:19). They should embody Christ in all situations. This is why Peter uses language from Isaiah 53 – what is often called the suffering servant song – extensively in 1 Peter 2 describing how to take on the role of the suffering servant as Christ did, modeling Christ’s actions, especially in vulnerable situations. This might not sound like a very satisfying option for those who are presently experiencing forms of severe oppression; however, Peter believes that persistent faithfulness would be transformative in the context of the New Testament church.

In the context of community, Peter suggests a response which focuses on love and hospitality where each individual contributes their gifts and talents. He emphasizes that each person should excel with the gifts and opportunities they have been given. Each person has something to contribute, and Peter invites them to do well in their area of giftedness.

First Peter 4:8–11 reads, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen” (NRSV).

When working for peace and justice, let us start by using our gifts in the places that we find ourselves. We all have unique talents and a sphere of influence, and with these gifts and in these places, we have a solid foundation.

More than a few times in my life, I have made the New Year’s resolution to start running. The problem is, I really don’t like running. The concept of persistent faithfulness reminds me of a time when as a teenager I had to participate in running exercises as part of a training routine for my hockey team. At first, I put almost no effort into this training, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to complete the run.

A change happened when I realized that since I had to do it, I might as well do it to the best of my abilities. As I ran, I would set small goals that allowed me to focus on accomplishments. I would pick a sign or landmark that was fairly close and simply focus on making that goal, and then I would pick another and another. My running time reduced significantly, and I actually began to enjoy the experience.

Rather than giving in to that despairing feeling about the state of our world today, we can apply Peter’s message to the church. We can set small goals or find a sign or landmark that we can run to and not be discouraged by the great overall distance we have ahead of us – one step at a time.

For example, we might not be able to solve the global migration crisis, but we can extend hospitality to newcomers who are in need of friendship and care. Our next goal might be to start informing ourselves about relevant conversations in our community, then our province and our country relating to Canada’s immigration policies. The more we learn and the more we get involved, the more opportunity we will see to use our gifts within our current and potential future sphere of influence.

Solving the great problems of the world can be overwhelming and seem impossible, but when we use our gifts through the concept of persistent faithfulness to be a positive influence, we might find ourselves empowered to do more than we thought was possible.

Christopher Lortie is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Providence University College in Otterburne, MB.

Photo credit: MCC Photo/Colin Vandenberg

From despair to hope on the shepherd’s field: listening to stories of child detention

In October I joined an MCC-led learning tour travelling through Palestine and Israel to learn about the conflict and to see the realities on the ground first hand. Our schedule was composed of an interesting mix of visiting MCC partners, travelling through the region to see the differences between occupation and relative freedom, and tourist spots including the holy sites.

During one of the mornings, we made our way from Bethlehem to visit the YMCA, an MCC partner, in neighbouring Beit Sahour. The YMCA is fortunate to have offices on one of the shepherd’s fields, a site where the shepherds may have heard the angels proclaim the good news of Jesus’ birth.

Photo of YMCA Beit Sahour

The front entrance of the YMCA in Beit Sahour. (Photo/Craig Neufeld)

We arrived at the YMCA office early and strolled over the shepherd’s field and briefly climbed into an old cave, which shepherds may have used for their sheep at night. While the shepherd’s field was charming, our visit to the YMCA had a very different tone: one of a hard and somber reality. The YMCA offers rehabilitation programs to former child detainees. Every year hundreds of Palestinian children are arrested by the Israeli army, detained, and often serve a prison sentence at an adult detention center or military prison.

Part of our visit to the YMCA was to meet some individuals who had gone through the rehabilitation program. As we finished our introductory session with one of the psychological counselors who works with children, youth and young adults in the program, we all looked at the doors as seven young men walked in.

In that moment I was struck by the reality of the concept of child detention. Before going on this trip, I had been working with MCC’s A Cry for Home campaign for about four months. I had read testimonies and reports, but meeting people who had experienced arrest and detention as a child humbled me. I wondered, how hard it was for them to come and talk to us about their experience and I felt myself cringing, as the first person started to share.

I listened to each heartbreaking story about arrest, mistreatment by military personnel, torture, and physical, emotional, and mental injuries. Detentions and prison sentences ranged from three to eighteen months. While each experience was different, many commonalities appeared.

Each person spoke of an emptiness, hopelessness, and the loss of seeing a future past the experience of the detention. One young man, who is now 17 years old, shared how he was in a vulnerable psychological state when he was released. When he was arrested by the Israeli military, his arm was already in a cast and during the ensuing interrogation the cast was taken off and under torture, his arm was broken for a second time. To this day, he has not regained full mobility. To make matters worse, after his three-month detention and release, military personnel continued to show up at his house, disrupting his reentry into normal life and retraumatizing him. He shared, “When I closed my eyes, I saw them coming to arrest me… I thought I would always see that.”

Another young man shared how he was arrested and detained for two days when he was thirteen years old. At fourteen he was shot in the leg right before he was arrested again. At the beginning of his eighteen-months prison sentence, he spent 6 weeks handcuffed to a hospital bed while recovering from that major injury. When he came to the YMCA, he remembered being completely disillusioned. He could not imagine a future after what he had been through.

While these young men briefly described their detention experience, some not going into much detail, they each made a point of telling us about how far they had come since then. Every-day-life seemed impossible after their release, but they now shared with pride that they were in university, employed, in a trade apprenticeship, or working toward having their own business venture.

Photo of the Young Men

A photo of the seven young men accompanied by a YMCA staff member. Identity of the persons in this picture is not shared publicly. (Photo/Craig Neufeld)

These young men underwent significant psychological counselling, and some received vocational training. The pride of accomplishment and hope for a good future was shining in their eyes. However, overcoming trauma in one way or another is not where the story ended for them. These young men are part of a leadership program, designed to allow them to give back to their communities, focusing on matters such as capacity building, communications tools, and teaching others about positive leadership.

After all of the young man had shared parts of their story, one of them raised his hand, signaling that he wished to add something. He looked around the room and said: “The children of the past are the leaders of the future!”

_________

Later, when my group debriefed about the experience at the YMCA, we reflected on the hardship of what these young men had gone through, and marveled at their resilience, positive outlook, and motivation to help others. But we also wondered what their lives would have been like without occupation, without conflict, without the trauma of arrest, interrogation and detention.

We also remembered all of the children and youth who either have not had access to psychological care, or those who have not receive help in time. Since 2000, over 8,000 Palestinian children have been arrested and detained by the Israeli military, 500-700 each year.

Photo of Shepherd's field

The shepherd’s field behind the YMCA building. (MCC Photo/Leona Lortie)

In this advent season, as the YMCA possibly stands on the very ground where the angels appeared to the shepherds in Beit Sahour, let us remember their message of hope and comfort, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people… Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (KJV, Luke 2:10, 14).

At this moment in time, peace with justice has not yet come to Palestine and Israel as the conflict persists, but there is hope and the young men we met at the YMCA are determined to not only be part of a better, peaceful future, but they are actively working toward it.

Let us join them.

ACT Today: Sign this petition to urge the Canadian federal government to prioritize the human rights of Palestinian children and hold Israeli authorities accountable for widespread and systematic ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian child detainees.

 

For more information and resources on the context in Palestine and Israel, and the work of MCC’s partners, see MCC’s A Cry for Home Campaign.

 

Leona Lortie is the Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator for the MCC Ottawa Office.

Eyes, ears – and a voice – in Washington

by Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach

MCC’s Washington Office is turning 50 this month. This week Ottawa Notebook shares reflections on those 50 years. This story was originally published on June 26, 2018 by Mennonite World Review

In the Feb. 27, 1968, Gospel Herald, Mennonite leader Guy F. Hershberger reflected on why there should be a “Mennonite office” in Washington. He noted the “emergency” in May 1967, when Congress nearly passed legislation that would have placed conscientious objectors under the purview of the military.

“We discovered that many congressmen did not know us as well as we — and they — thought they did,” he wrote.

This incident, along with the work of Mennonite Central Committee in Vietnam during the war, helped to persuade Mennonites that they should have “eyes and ears” in Washington. And so, 50 years ago this July, MCC’s Peace Section opened its Washington Office, led by Delton Franz.

Some Anabaptists were not sure MCC should have an office in Washington, preferring to remain “quiet in the land.” But in reality, Mennonite leaders had been meeting regularly with U.S. government officials on the issue of conscientious objection. From 1940 to 1967, Mennonite leaders testified 13 times before congressional committees on the issue.

“Our traditional willingness to testify when our own interests were involved,” observed the executive committee of MCC’s Peace Section in 1966, “has led to suggestions that we should also be willing to testify when the rights of others are involved. Constituent groups have expressed a growing concern that witness to the state should be a dimension of our service of Christian compassion.”

In its early years, the MCC office focused on the draft, military spending vs. human needs, global economic justice, domestic poverty, racial justice and religious liberty. While we still work on some of these topics, there have been shifts. The office’s current priorities reflect MCC’s domestic and international work, including immigration, mass incarceration, North Korea, Nigeria and the Syria crisis. In each of these areas, there is still a great need for “Christian compassion” in the political sphere.

When the office opened, many saw it as representing “the” Mennonite voice in Washington. Of course, Mennonites have never been of one mind on political issues. Mennonite agencies and individuals have increasingly advocated directly with the U.S. government on issues ranging from health care to education to peace and security.

Our office is no longer just a listening post but monitors and analyzes policies, facilitates meetings for MCC staff and constituents and encourages church members to be advocates themselves. As we carry out these activities, we listen to and learn from churches and partners in the U.S. and around the world.

In its earlier years, the office saw one of its main activities as sponsoring seminars for Mennonites in Washington. Some seminars drew more than 100 participants. Today, we have found there is not as much demand for MCC seminars, as many more conferences vie for people’s attention. So we partner with other Christian organizations to sponsor “Ecumenical Advocacy Days” each spring and meet with school and church groups who come to Washington.

mcc-washington-hur

Hyun Hur of ReconciliAsian, Samuel Resendez of Iglesia La Roca and Rhonda Dueck of North Fresno (Calif.) Mennonite Brethren Church speak with California Rep. Judy Chu’s aides, Krystal Ka’ai and Rricha Mathur, as part of an immigration delegation in February. — Danielle Gonzales/MCC

Have we changed?

One concern expressed when the office was opened was that Washington would change Mennonites more than Mennonites would change Washington. It is a valid concern. Our staff take regular retreat days to remind ourselves of our rootedness in Christ and the reason we do this work.

But there is also some hubris in assuming our voice is unique and should not change. In his Gospel Herald article, Hershberger argued Mennonites have a “more sound theological base” than other peace groups.

Anabaptists do have important contributions to make to the discussions in Washington. But these days, it is frequently our ecumenical and interfaith colleagues who push us to think about what peace looks like.

We also have much that we can continue to learn about advocacy by and with — not just on behalf of — people who are on the margins. These voices are within our churches and outside them. This past February, many of the church leaders who came to Washington to advocate for better immigration policies spoke from firsthand experience.

MCC’s connections to communities directly impacted by U.S. policies provide integrity to our advocacy. On a recent trip to Lebanon, one of MCC’s partners said, “We partner with you not only for your [financial] support, but for your advocacy.” In recent months, MCC staff who traveled to Syria and North Korea were able to share their experiences with congressional offices.

U.S. policymakers may not always follow our recommendations, but they know us better than they once did.

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach is director for the MCC U.S. Washington Office.

Bill C-262 and living into a new covenant

By Diane Meredith,  Co-Coordinator of MCC Canada’s Indigenous Neighbours Program.

It’s Wednesday night in early May at St. James Cathedral in downtown Toronto.  I sit with reams of people in a nearby park, seeking solace from the busy streets and basking in the long-awaited warmth of spring. This day has been long in coming as ice storms are barely behind us. A talk on the Anishinaabek understanding of the sacredness of protecting the waters is about to begin inside the cathedral. I pull myself away and dash inside, surprised to find myself seated among a crowd of some 60 or so of us on this path of “reconciliation.”

Nancy Rowe, Giidaakunadaad, a traditional knowledge keeper and Anishinaabekwe (Anishinaabe woman) of the Credit River, begins to share her wisdom about the traditional territory around Lake Ontario/Niigaani-gichigami. Before she begins, Rev. Evan Smith of Toronto Urban Native Ministries (TUNM), extends her hand and offers her a red pouch of tobacco, as is the tradition when greeting an elder or someone offering wisdom. Nancy reaches out and accepts the pouch of tobacco—and a covenant is sealed.

I can’t begin to capture the fullness of Nancy Rowe’s teachings rooted in decades of oral history spoken by elders across Turtle Island. But when she shares this knowledge, I feel a loosening of the grip of a deep skepticism on my heart about the “reconciliation road” the churches profess to travel with Indigenous Peoples.

tobaccoHer explanation of this seemingly simple custom of offering tobacco breaks open a window into a winding long road of the history of the Anishinaabek worldview, including creation stories, forms of spirituality, and governance. Even in its enormity, we begin to grasp that her story is but a glimpse into an expansive worldview so many of us know nothing about. It is however apparent that the meaning of this act—of extending one’s hand to another to offer sacred tobacco—is “covenant.” It is a commitment made between the partners to honour ways of governance and the protocols of living in right relations between and within nations.

The act of sharing tobacco to seal a covenant, often through pipe ceremonies or through the exchange of pouches of tobacco, is a long held ancient Indigenous tradition. It was an act that was extended by Indigenous peoples to the settlers in their first meetings. It seems as if these agreements were made with sincerity. Yet tragically history tells us they were as readily broken with a ferocious greed that explains where we are today.

When this tobacco (in Ojibway called “Semah,” one of the four sacred medicines) is extended and accepted, a spiritual covenant rooted in reciprocity (mutually agreeing to give up something to create something else) is activated, says Nancy. “I am here,” she says, “away from my grandchildren, because I believe this teaching with you is also very important…We are the only ones…humans, who don’t follow the original instructions from Creator as to why we are here… Everything in creation before us agreed to help us being here to fill our purpose… But are you willing to give back? Is there reciprocity?” she challenges.

Bill C262 posterOn May 29th MP Romeo Saganash’s Private Member’s Bill C-262 will be read for the third time in the House of Commons.  Soon after, it will be voted on. The Liberal Government states it will support the bill. This bill calls for the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). This declaration was drafted by Indigenous Peoples worldwide over a 30-year span.  Consisting of 46 articles, covering all aspects of life, UNDRIP is a universal international human rights instrument that outlines the minimum standards governments should provide to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples. Bill C-262 will ensure that the Government of Canada, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous Peoples in Canada, takes all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the rights as outlined in the UNDRIP.

Tabled in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation 94 Calls to Action called on the Government of Canada, civil society, and the churches to implement UNDRIP in at least twelve of its articles. In 2017 Anabaptist Leaders in response to the TRC Call to Action #48 said: “In our ongoing efforts to seek right relations with our Indigenous neighbours, MCC also commits itself to using the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a guide for right relations and reconciliation. We affirm the principles of self-determination, equality and respect embedded in this Declaration…”

Nancy Rowe’s teachings remind us of the sanctity of covenants based on reciprocity, and the importance of respecting the spirit that dwells within and between these agreements. The treaties, she explains, were a simple example of ancient systems of Indigenous governance and natural laws that were shared with newcomers. “What are you doing to support Indigenous-led healing initiatives of Creation and our society? Everything is about reciprocity and relationship. The enemy of life is greed,” says Nancy.

Like the warmth of summer after long winter storms, justice for Indigenous Peoples is too long in coming. As Ovide Mercredi, Cree leader and former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has stated, “The days of the status quo or business, as usual, will not lead to reconciliation.”[1]

Indigenous hands are being extended once again to settlers – here and now. The passing of Bill C-262 into law will ensure the rights of Indigenous People are respected. Bill C-262 is an opportunity to live into a new covenant that will break the inertia and the broken promises of the past. When enacted into law, it will become a dwelling place for the spirit of right relations to thrive between the Creator, God’s creation, and one another.

Rebekah and Jane Sears during march

TRC event in Ottawa 2015 MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

With the passing of Bill C-262 many changes will come; and society, government and church will most surely have to accommodate them. The road to reconciliation demands such change. But I am fully confident that, in this act of reciprocity, all partners in this covenant relationship will benefit for generations to come.

 

 

[1] Kathleen Martens, APTN News “Ovide Mercredi report rips Ontario Law Society on handling of Keshen file,” March 24, 2018.

 

We are still here

Miriam Sainnawap, author of this reflection, is Co-coordinator of MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours program.  She is Oji-Cree from Kingfisher Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario.

Miriam’s reflection is prompted by the story of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl who was murdered in Winnipeg in 2014. The white man charged with her death was acquitted in February 2018 because of insufficient evidence. Prior to her death, Tina was in the care of Children and Family Services. Tina’s death galvanized attention on the vulnerability of Indigenous women and girls in Canada and led to the establishment in 2016 of a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

When I heard the trial verdict “not guilty” in the death of Tina Fontaine, I burst out in tears of grief and anger. That anger inspired me to write.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I could imagine Tina and her aspirations, dreams and hopes.

Miriam's blog 4

From a walk in honour of Tina Fontaine, February 23, 2018, Winnipeg. Photo by Miriam Sainnawap

Not to undermine Tina’s tragic death, I also saw myself in her. Like Tina, I grew up in a  remote community (in northwestern Ontario). Like Tina, I was 15 years old when forced to leave home and live in an unwelcoming urban centre, so that I could fulfill my education opportunities. I quickly had to learn to adjust to white-dominated society and speak in English.

I could be Tina.

As a young Indigenous woman in Canadian society, I quickly learned my worth is devalued and my voice is suppressed.

Tina’s case raises major issues related to the treatment of Indigenous youth in this society.  The systems in place that are meant to serve and protect do not have my best interests and do not reflect my tradition and values.

No justice exists unless truth is told. Reconciliation does not exist now.

Miriam's blog 1

From a walk in honour of Tina Fontaine, February 23, 2018, Winnipeg. Photo by Miriam Sainnawap

Let’s get to the point. The current mess we find ourselves in is our reflection of our society. Canadian society has yet to begin and name the systematic injustice, racism and privilege. Let alone acknowledge whose land they reside and stand on.

Good intentions are not enough. Apologies cannot fix the long-standing broken promises. Paternalist attitudes cannot help save Indigenous youth. Imposed livelihood solutions cannot empower our communities. Colonial systems cannot serve us.

Indigenous people have known, for far too long, that injustice has been a way of life: violence, forced assimilation and abuse.  Those grievances felt over the many generations of the past, exist today and go on into the future.

The goal of colonization has been to get rid of my ancestors and wipe out my nation. Over the years, the attempted assimilative policies have threatened our very existence and survival as the people of the land. They have denied our humanity.

Colonization is costing the lives of Indigenous peoples, my community and my people. What price must we pay?  What price must young Indigenous women pay?

Tina’s life was cut short. She didn’t get the chance to live her dreams. She will continue to remind us we need to do better as a society. We need to stand up for justice and the time is Now.

Miriam's blog 2

From a walk in honour of Tina Fontaine, February 23, 2018, Winnipeg. Photo by Miriam Sainnawap

Indigenous people matter. Indigenous young women matter. We deserve equitable and fair access to justice.

We have dreams and hopes for ourselves and our communities.  We love our families and friends.  We attend universities, drink our cappuccinos like you and go to ceremonies.   We work constantly to make our daily lives better.

We are resilient. We are the people our ancestors prayed for and hoped for the future. We are still here.