Sacred space, sacred journey

Upon entering, I was asked to remove my shoes, as this was now considered sacred ground.

I had gone to Carleton University’s Art Gallery to see a commemorative art installation meant to draw attention to the thousands of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women an01walkingposter-225x300d the injustice of residential schools. Entitled “Walking with Our Sisters,” I quickly realized this exhibit was something to be experienced, rather than simply seen. As the title suggested, I was invited on a journey to recognize and remember victims of violence and injustice.

Burning sweet grass filled the air as visitors were invited to smudge while audio recordings of over 60 traditional, honour, grieving, and ceremonial songs played softly in the background. The floors were covered with red cloth as well as the traditional medicine of cedars, on top of which were placed over 1,700 moccasin tops, or “vamps,” each pair created in memory of missing or murdered Indigenous women. An additional 108 vamps for children’s moccasins stood as reminders of those who did not return from residential schools.

Tissue boxes were strategically placed along the path, and I was thankful, as I found it hard not to be overwhelmed by the losses represented by so many unfinished moccasins.

Beside each box of tissue was a paper bag marked “tear collector” for used tissues. These tear collectors, along with small pouches of tobacco people could carry with them in their left hand near their heart to gather their prayers, would be burned in a sacred fire when the exhibit left Ottawa.


Photo courtesy of Walking With Our Sisters

Each pair of vamps was incredibly beautiful and unique—just like the lives they were meant to honour. Some were obviously created by skilled hands, while others appeared to have been done by the less experienced. Yet all reflected a tremendous sense of love. The various designs and materials represented many cultures, experiences, beliefs, and dreams.

On viewing each vamp, I felt a mixture of sadness for the loss, celebration of the life that was, and hope that the awareness raised by this work would bring justice for those lost and those left waiting.

Perhaps the government’s promise for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls will be one more way Canadians can walk with our sisters and move the journey forward.


Photo courtesy of Walking With Our Sisters

My feeling of being in a sacred space grew as I prepared to leave. But I stopped at the sound of live drumming. A small group of women who gathered in the center of the room began singing and praying as a new pair of vamps was “welcomed” and added to the installation.

At the end of this brief but moving ceremony, strawberries were distributed, and each of us in the room was invited to wait and to share this symbol of life together. Serving as a form of communion, it was a powerful reminder that while all these mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins, aunts, grandmothers, wives, and friends may be missing, they are not forgotten.

As I moved with the line of people slowly winding their way around the room, I found myself offering brief prayers for this sacred journey.

For those whose journeys were interrupted,
We take a step.
For those whose journeys ended violently,

We take a step.
For those who are lost, for those who are missing,

We take a step.
For those left behind to grieve,

We take a step.
For those with visible and invisible wounds that make their journey more difficult,

We take a step.
For those with nowhere to go,

We take a step.
For those filled with pain, despair, and anger,

We take a step.
For lost traditions and cultures,

We take a step.
For damaged relationships,

We take a step
For understanding and healing,

We take a step.

Creator God,
We ask you to guide our steps.
To bring meaning to our journey
That our steps may lead to healing
And our journey be one of reconciliation.


By Monica Scheifele, MCC Ottawa Office Program Assistant


What’s in a word?

This week’s blog post was written by Sue Eagle, who is MCC Canada’s Indigenous Neighours Program Co-coordinator alongside Miriam Sainnawap

When I attend Indigenous events or meetings, I listen for themes or for wisdom that might give my work direction. I try to pay special attention to those voices that are not often listened to.

In spring, I was at one of the most highly-attended meetings at the United Naunpfii_logotions in New York City. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) is 14 years old. It has become an event where Indigenous Peoples world-wide gather to build solidarity, inform other Indigenous nations and organizations about what is happening in their homelands and find ways to bring their issues to the attention of the United Nations.

One of the common threads that I found weaving in and out of the sessions and events was that words hold power.

The word “Indigenous” was claimed back in 1974 by the people who gathered to work on their rights at the United Nations level. They spent some time deciding what they should collectively call themselves. They chose “Indigenous.” The word was claimed in an act of solidarity and resistance.

Kairos Canada's Gathering at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.   The opening plenary session was moderated by Gabrielle Fayant (co-director of the ReachUp! North Program), and featured Mike Cachagee, former president of the National Residential Schools Survivor Society, Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and Jah'Kota, hiphop artist, musician, founder of Un1ty Entertainment.

From Kairos Canada’s Gathering at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa (Photo courtesy of Alison Ralph, MCC Canada).

“Peoples” with an “s,” turns a generic group of individuals into distinct nations, according to Oren Lyons, faith-keeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy and long-time leader in Indigenous rights work at the United Nations level. With the “s,” they become Arapahos, Dakotas, Haudenosaune, Dene, Anishinabee, Cheyenne, Sami, Metis, and Mayans. The use of that word is part of the movement to get member status for each of these Indigenous nations within the United Nations.

An “s” can change reality for vast numbers of Peoples/people.

In a session on “Indigeneity and Spirituality,” LeMoine LaPointe, Sicangu Lakota, clarified that Indigenous culture was not “lost,” but it has been interrupted. A change in words turns a passive action into an intentional act. The concept that culture has been interrupted highlights the strength and resiliency of Peoples, overwhelmingly evident at the Permanent Forum.

In speaking about her plans to introduce an intervention on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women at the UNPFII, Dr. Dawn Lavell-Harvard, Ph.D., president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, adamantly stated that “car keys go missing.” Indigenous women are “being stolen” from their families and communities. To say that they are missing does not do justice to the reality that they and their loved ones are facing. Again, the verb “missing” is passive, while “stolen” refers to a deliberate action.

Words can turn human beings into concerns….


Sue Eagle, walking with the over 7,000 people who joined in the walk for reconciliation in Ottawa (Photo courtesy of Alison Ralph).

“We are Peoples, not issues,” I heard one person say. The reference was to the title for the meetings – The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. There has been talk around changing the name of the gathering. In fact it was one of the recommendations put forward in a previous UNPFII. Some Indigenous people present have decided to start using the words “United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples,” rather than wait for the powers that be to approve it.

Words hold power and they need to be chosen carefully. Choosing words is not simply about semantics or being politically correct. It is about visibility, strength and identity. It is about resistance.

Acknowledging treaty and territory

This week’s guest writer is Steve Plenert, peace program coordinator for MCC Manitoba.

“I just think it’s annoying.”  That’s how my conversation with someone from church ended one Sunday after worship. The person had just pointed out that on the cover of our new church directory we had included “Treaty 1 Territory” as part of the address of our church building.

Hundreds of people particpated in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill, lead by members of Kairos. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

Hundreds of people participate in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill. The blanket exercise teaches Canadian history from the perspective of indigenous peoples. MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

“That’s a political statement” he went on, clearly irate. I tried to make some statements to defuse the tension, but clearly the high dudgeon he was experiencing was more important to him at the moment than having a conversation about issues relating to colonial history and indigenous-settler relationships.But it got me thinking. I thought about it during lunch (hotdogs), clean-up, and even while I was golfing that evening. I thought about two questions: First, is church a place where people are supposed to get annoyed? And second, so soon after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s closing, what are appropriate ways of acknowledging this troubled/troubling era of Canadian history?

Although I didn’t initiate the “address change” on the directory, I actually think that’s a pretty good symbolic way of identifying with Indigenous people.  The history of Mennonites with Indigenous people here in Manitoba slants pretty heavily in favour of the Mennonites. When you look at measures like education, economic class, cultural stability, representation in society, we Mennos stack up very high on the positive side of the ledger.  As with all settler peoples here in Canada some of this, at the very least, comes at the expense of Indigenous people.  So, if we acknowledge that the land was generously shared with us and sometimes confiscated on our behalf, putting “Treaty 1 Territory” on our bulletins and directory doesn’t feel inappropriate to me at all.


Walk for Reconciliation, Ottawa, May 31, 2015. MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

Our congregation also hosts community people on Sunday mornings before the worship service. People come for coffee, breakfast and conversation. Many of them are Indigenous. This has been going on for years now and some good relationships have been established.  Quite a few of those folks now consider our congregation “their church” – whatever that means to them. I think that’s pretty cool. In an era of “truth and reconciliation” relationship-building and hospitality, perhaps this is what is called for.  It’s not everything, but it’s something.  Maybe having “their” address as part of “our” address can help us see each other as part of one body. That would be good.

But is church supposed to be a place to go to get annoyed?  Probably. At least some of the time. Because if we’re not annoyed with each other occasionally, we’re probably not being honest with each other. There’s always the question as to whose annoyance takes priority, mind you. Is it more important that one person feel annoyed over an experiment with identifying with Indigenous people or do we prioritize the annoyance of never saying anything about this topic?

Maybe you wonder about my use of the word “annoyance.”  It’s particularly appropriate, I think, because I am in the privileged position of being able to choose my annoyances.  Settler privilege and priority have a rich history in the church. Mennonite settler types, such as myself, are in the places of power. That means we get to pick how words get used.  Perhaps we use some of that privilege to add a line to the church directory in the hopes of seeing one of the troubled pages of Canadian history getting written with a more inclusive story.

The adage says that the gospel should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  In my view, this is a fairly minor “affliction” – if an annoyance for some – that can hopefully contribute to  more respectful and authentic relationships with Indigenous people in Canada.

The closing of the TRC: in seven parts

This week’s guest writer is Eileen Klassen Hamm, program director for MCC Saskatchewan. The photos were taken by Alison Ralph of MCC Canada during KAIROS’ Time for Reconciliation gathering and the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, May 28 to June 3, 2015.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.    	At the start of the walk, organizers arranged for several notable people to speak, encouraging walkers for reconciliation.RS50673_IMG_2515-scrMore than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.RS50971_IMG_3107-scrJustice Murray Sinclair addresses walkers and those gathered at Marion Dewar Plaza in Ottawa. More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.    	At the start of the walk, organizers arranged for several notable people to speak, encouraging walkers for reconciliation.I
I am a woman born blind
socialized into a colonial story
with church collusion
was it my sin
or my parents’
but now my eyes
have been washed
with the mud of survivors’ stories
and I am beginning
to see

in front of me
sit rows and rows
of survivors
I receive the words
of the commissioners
through these now old bodies
which carry within them
child bodies
from circles of love
buried in unmarked graves
a massive test
for something so small as words
to ring true
Hundreds of people particpated in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill, lead by members of Kairos. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.through the bodies of children
listening for

a horrific moral wound
intergenerational trauma
cultural genocide
no matter how uncomfortable
an important lesson

the commissioners
are midwives of a new day
delivering us out of the dark
toward love and respect
with art and dance
drum and song
reminding us
to be human

ninety-four calls to action
no stones left unturned
let justice roll down like waters
righteousness like a deep river

we are kin
made so by treaties
and the creator
do not turn yourselves
from your own kin
walk in a good way
toward reconciliation
through reparation and restitution
langRS51161_IMG_3873-scruages and cultures
lands and resources
do justice
love kindness
walk humbly
be gentle
with the children
and grandchildren
and great grandchildren

back home
along the south saskatchewan river
where my grandmother
coaxed vegetables and roses
from the sandy soil
providing feasts for our bodies and souls
what will I do with my reclaimed sight
the test of our love
will always be
the tender hearts
of all the children

For further reading:

TRC Findings
Response of the Churches to the TRC
John 9, Amos 5, Isaiah 58, Micah 6

New learnings in a familiar place

By Rebekah Sears

In April I had the pleasure of visiting the Maritimes as part of my work with the MCC Ottawa Office. As a Maritimer myself, it was a wonderful trip in many ways. It was a chance to talk with all kinds of folks about advocacy and the work of the Ottawa Office, and an opportunity to make connections with local partners of MCC, university groups and churches in the region. For me, the crux of my excitement was the chance to share my work with family, home church and long-time friends, all steeped in the familiar.

A railway-turned-pedestrian bridge crossing the Saint John River in Fredericton.

A railway-turned-pedestrian bridge crossing the Saint John River in Fredericton.

But another major highlight was being challenged to look back and reflect on my early life and education in a new way. At St Stephen’s University in New Brunswick, my MCC colleague Christina Farnsworth led faculty, staff, students and a local Indigenous chief in the Blanket Exercise. It was my first time participating in this exercise, designed in part by KAIROS: Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

The Blanket Exercise is a participatory and interactive way of learning the history of North America, from the perspective of Indigenous peoples. It examines life before the arrival of Europeans, interactions with early settlers, the development and violations of land treaties, the (often deliberate) spread of diseases, the forming of reservations, and implementation and impacts of the Indian Residential School System.

It was especially noteworthy to participate in this exercise now, as we await the official closing of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) next week. Commissioners of the TRC have been travelling across Canada since 2010, listening to individuals, families and communities share their stories about the residential schools policy, developed and maintained for decades by the government and churches of Canada.

(Background) Walter Thiessen, Raymond Funk, Rosie Funk                  (Foreground) Agnes Kramer-Hamstra 

Agnes Kramer-Hamstra, representing an Indigenous person, stands on a blanket, representing the land. Photo by Mary Main.

As I listened, I was struck by how this perspective had not been part of my own understanding of Canadian narrative until fairly recently. I remember learning about Indigenous peoples from an early age, but looking back I recognize major gaps in that learning. We would talk about first contact with settlers, about the fur trade, and about cultural and traditional practices of various First Nations across Canada. We would talk about treaties made in those first few decades of contact. But this history was often presented in a way as to make these important things seem irrelevant today.

In high school I remember we examined some of the major human rights issues of our time and of history. But so often we looked at these issues from a global perspective. And while it was not explicitly said, Canada’s actions, both past and present, were often held up on a kind of pedestal — Canada is, after all, the “peacekeeping nation,” right?

During these formative school years, I also remember seeing news stories of local ethnic-based tensions, such as clashes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous lobster fishers in rural New Brunswick. I remember being worried and upset by these clashes. But, again, despite growing up in a very politically engaged home, I did not have the proper understanding to grasp the roots of these tensions.


Debbie MacDonald reads from a “scroll” which identifies one story from the larger narrative of how Indigenous people were dispossessed of their land. Photo by Mary Main.

It was not until a fourth year university class on “Genocide and War Crimes in the Twentieth Century” when I first recall discussing the now notorious residential schools policy. My professor led us in discussions of global events, but then always brought the issues back to Canada. I remember being shocked and ashamed when he went into depth about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, especially in the context of the residential schools. The experience left me with significant questions, notably, “How could this have happened?” and “Why am I just hearing about this now?” This class also left me with a determination to tell others about this side of Canadian history.

But back to the blanket exercise and prospects for reconciliation …  The exercise speaks loudly of the need to listen and try to understand Canadian history from the perspective of Indigenous peoples. It also serves as a call to action. The apology expressed by Prime Minister Harper in 2008 on behalf of the Government of Canada for the residential schools and the initiation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were essential first steps for rebuilding relationships and helping lay the ground work for reconciliation. But now the real work begins – for us all.

We don’t necessarily know what this will look like in the coming months and years, but one way to begin is to both listen and intentionally talk about these issues whenever we can: in our churches, in schools, as part of community gatherings, as part of our advocacy campaigns.

I’m grateful to have participated in the blanket exercise and to witness its impact on others in my home province as well. I’m also grateful for the chance to visit the familiar while continuing to gain a new and deeper understanding of the history of my country. I hope and pray we can keep this conversation going and see real change – all across this amazing land.

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office. She is originally from Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Solidarity, resistance, recovery: Thoughts on a Mother’s Day walk

I chose to spend a portion of Mother’s Day this year participating in the Sisters in Spirit walk that honours and remembers missing and murdered Indigenous women.

It was a holy thing to walk slowly and reverently with several hundred women, men, elders, children and youth through Winnipeg’s downtown; to absorb the drumming, dancing and singing; to hear the speeches and the prayers at the gathering place. This witness of remembrance for lives lost or vanished, this call for an end to violence – it was sacred space.

As I walked, the reasons for my being there became clear.

IMG_20150510_140851Solidarity – I wanted to stand with the Indigenous people in my community, people who have experienced the violent death or disappearance of a beloved mother, daughter, granddaughter, sister, auntie or friend. As a mother who has lost a child – my middle son died of cancer as an eight-year-old – I have a small window into the excruciating agony that families experience when a precious loved one is snatched away.

The reality of violence against Indigenous women in Canada is a travesty. Nearly 1200 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing since 1952.[i]  This represents a rate nearly four times greater than the representation of Indigenous women in the Canadian population. One study indicates that the national homicide rate for Indigenous women is seven times higher than for non-Indigenous.  Not only do Indigenous women experience a disproportionate amount of violence, the violence is also much more extreme.

Like many others, I want to stand with those who suffer from the violence and call for it to end. We must all work together to address the poverty, racism, marginalization and violence that makes so many Indigenous women statistics. Showing up with the Sisters in Spirit is one way to do that.

IMG_20150510_125510Resistance – I wanted to participate in this Mother’s Day community action because, to me, it is a powerful way of resisting all that is crass and commercial about Mother’s Day. One of the realities of our advanced capitalist system is that it commodifies everything it can – joy and happiness, peace and security, water and clean air.[ii] We see the most egregious examples of this at Christmas time, but it increasingly happens on Mother’s Day too.

At Mother’s Day we are programmed to again head to the mall to buy stuff – jewelry, clothing, electronics, appliances, spa visits, vacations and more – to show our mothers we love them. According to one source, Canadians were projected to spend $107 each on Mother’s Day, with an overall Canadian total close to $500 million. Many of us have bought into the lie that love is about buying and giving stuff, rather than expressing gratitude, compassion and caring.

Capitalism also teaches us that we are individuals – and only individuals. Our purpose in life is to seek our own personal gratification. Sure, if I buy a TV I will help to employ the people who built or sold the TV, but there is little in the capitalist agenda that promotes community. There is little inherent in capitalism that shapes us to work for the common good – to build just and caring communities.[iii]

The women who organize the Sisters in Spirit walk know that life is precisely about caring, compassion and community. Their actions are a wonderful act of resistance to the Mother’s Day of capitalist enterprise.

IMG_20150510_134325Recovery – Ever since I learned of the roots of Mother’s Day, I have longed for a recovery of its spirit and vision. According to at least one (if debated) tradition, the day has its origins in the work and proclamation of Julie Ward Howe, an American suffragist, writer and lecturer who lived from 1819 to 1910.

Moved by what she witnessed of both the U.S. Civil War and the Franco-Prussian wars, Howe issued her Appeal to womanhood throughout the world (later known as the Mother’s Day Proclamation) in 1870. The proclamation was a clarion call to women to condemn war, and to stop preparing their sons to kill the sons of other mothers.  She understood that women – mothers, in particular – possess a special responsibility to build a world of peace.

The women of Sisters in Spirit hold a vision for Mother’s Day very much like Julia Ward Howe. They call people to mourn the murdered and missing, to acknowledge that all human lives are precious and deserve protection, and to work together to end violence against Indigenous women – indeed, against all life. Sisters in Spirit embrace a vision of justice, peace and healing. They embody the true spirit of Mother’s Day.

[i] This statistic, from the RCMP’s National Operational Review on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, has been challenged by various people, including Dr. Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and professor at Ryerson University, who indicates that the number is likely much higher.

[ii] See Daniel M. Bell Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 105-109.

[iii] See Bell, 94-97.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

The Metis, the Museum and the Mennonite

Today’s guest blog is written by Steve Plenert, peace program coordinator for MCC Manitoba.

The new Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) opened to considerable fanfare a few weeks ago in Winnipeg where I live. Dignitaries came, speeches were given, and ribbons were cut. For us local residents, our cityscape is forever altered by the imposing structure located at The Forks. Towering over the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, it shines as a hoped-for beacon of hope.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Photo credit

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Photo credit

I recently had the opportunity to view the CMHR exhibits (at least the few that are open already) as part of an MCC Indigenous Neighbours learning tour. The architecture of the museum is stunning – particularly if you are fond of alabaster, as I am. The exhibits are comprehensive, interactive and full of impact. I was glad to see that such a beautiful and thoughtful investment has been made to challenge people to learn and think about human rights in our world today.

But I said that this was part of a learning tour, so we made other stops on our one-day excursion. And here’s the thing: I actually found the visit to the Manitoba Metis Federation – the Louis Riel Institute in particular – much more interesting.

MMF flag

The flag of the Manitoba Metis Federation.

I learned many things about Metis people, including how they are “defined,” what their governance apparatus is, and how their community is served by the structures organized for the purpose. I learned about amazing Metis happenings from cultural events to educational opportunities. Most interesting of all, I heard Canadian history from the perspective of a thoughtful Metis person. I heard a community voice – full of pride and power – articulating challenge and vision and hope for the Metis people, for my own community, and for all of us who call Canada/Turtle Island our home.

And I have to say that I was moved more by the passionate voice and stories of our Metis host than the glowing architecture and sophisticated exhibits of the CMHR. The experience pointed out to me (once again) that relationship and listening truly matter. It reminded me that knowing people, and caring about what they care about, matter. A lot.This is the path to mutual transformation. I am convinced that movement towards goodness, tolerance and love happen when we engage people and care about them in their own space. I was invited into someone’s space and was hosted admirably. I left feeling inspired and transformed.

I hope many people have rich experiences at the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights. I suspect they will be more profoundly transformed if they visit Shirley at the Louis Riel Institute.