The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released its final report on Indian residential schools in June 2015. The TRC commissioners bluntly described those schools as instruments of “cultural genocide.” They were equally frank in describing the complicity of Canadian churches, which operated most of the schools on behalf of the federal government.
Nevertheless, the colonizing project went well beyond schools to include seizing Indigenous lands, forcibly relocating people and otherwise restricting their movement, banning Indigenous languages and spiritual practices — and much more. In reconciling with Indigenous neighbours, the commissioners called upon Canadians to move beyond words to action. One of the major recommendations was the adoption and implementation of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The UN describes the document as outlining the “minimum standards necessary” for the dignity, survival and well-being of Indigenous peoples.
Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights
These combined calls by the TRC and the UN inspired a recent Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights. On April 23, a core group of about 30 people began walking in a rain-soaked, 600-kilometre pilgrimage from Kitchener, Ontario to Ottawa. The oldest participant was 87 and the youngest — pushed in a stroller by her mother with frequent help from other walkers — was nine months. In solidarity, my wife Martha and I joined the pilgrimage for several days near the end, when the group had swelled to about 50.
It was all planned by Mennonite Church Canada and Christian Peacemaker Teams, who said that “we are Christian settlers exercising responsibility to educate our own and encourage our government to fulfil the TRC’s calls to action and fully implement the UN declaration.” The group was hosted for meals and lodging along the way by a variety of churches and one Indigenous centre. Each evening, there were conversation circles and also a number of teach-ins about Indigenous rights, treaties, settlers’ responsibilities and the UN declaration, itself.
Free, prior and informed consent
A common and recurring theme in that declaration is that Indigenous peoples have the right to dignity and self-determination, and that no actions regarding their persons or lands should be taken without their “free, prior and informed consent.” In Canada, the previous Harper government balked at adopting the declaration, in large part because it believed such “consent” might put in jeopardy various proposed pipelines and resource extraction projects involving Indigenous lands.
More recently, the Trudeau government signed the declaration but has yet to put forward legislation which would provide a framework for its implementation. In turn, Roméo Saganash, an NDP MP and an Indigenous leader from Quebec, has introduced Private Member’s Bill C-262 which sets out key principles and a timeline to ensure that Canadian law is in harmony with the UN declaration. Saganash’s bill is supported by those participating in the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, and he was a resource person at some of the teach-ins along the route. The group is calling upon the Liberal government to allow its MPs to vote in favour of Bill C-262.
Walking the talk
After the pilgrims reached Ottawa on May 12, they held a rally in downtown Ottawa and a teach-in at a Mennonite church. As for their 20 days of walking and talking, unsurprisingly, they described them as both a spiritual and political endeavour.
This article appeared in slightly altered format with the United Church Observer on May 12, 2017.