The purpose of the trip was to take a look at the way another Church had worked through sovereignty and treaty discussions with its First Peoples, to better inform the conversation we’re currently engaged in across the Uniting Church.
It was one of those overwhelming experiences that really knocked me off my axis. The country, the landscape, and the people we met were amazing, and it’s taken me some time to reflect and make sense of everything we saw and shared.
Our journey began in Vancouver where we met students at the UCC’s Native Ministries Consortium Summer School and visited the Vancouver School of Theology.
We heard many survivor stories from Canada’s infamous residential schools. The similarities with our own Stolen Generations took my breath away. UAICC members were also struck by it.
“I was surprised at the similarity, people coming over there and taking over, kids stolen and put into homes,” said the UAICC Deputy Chairperson Rev. Garry Dronfield.
“It was interesting meeting the aboriginal people from Canada and seeing that they’re still holding on to a lot of their culture. I don’t think we’re as advanced as they are over there.”
We all also stood in awe at the Reconciliation Totem Pole in the grounds of the University of British Columbia.
UCC Elder Ray Jones, a hereditary chief of the Gitxsan Nation and himself a residential school survivor, read the pole’s images to us which included children from residential schools, even the schools themselves. The system began in the 1800s and the last residential school only closed in 1996. Children were each given a number as they entered the schools.
Later on our trip UCC Elder Lorna Standingready took us to an unmarked graveyard near the site of a former residential school.
Along the way, we learnt about the treaties of Canada, their intent and what they do and do not offer to First Nations people. Sadly the existence of treaties in Canada hasn’t brought certainty for First Nations people.
“There are lots of treaties in lots of different places, but the problem is the government always squeezes out of its treaty obligations if it doesn’t want to follow them,” said Garry Dronfield.
“Something the UCC seems to do better than us is to line up their policies with United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Our Church and our country would benefit from that kind of alignment.”
There were many times when our hosts would say, ‘Tell us what’s happening in Australia. It seems so far ahead of us.’ To which members of our delegation would say, ‘We want to learn what’s happening in Canada. It seems so far ahead of us.’ The truth was there was more common ground than we all expected, and often not in a good way. Common ground so similar at times that the silence was all there could be.
As we travelled across Saskatchewan and Manitoba we considered the questions:
Why does reconciliation matter? What are some positive signs of hope? What are the challenges?
At the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre in Manitoba, we met First Nations people on the journey of ministry. Sandy-Salteaux is a national centre for training Indigenous people to minister in their own communities. We heard candidates’ stories of call and the tenacity of those who were beginning that journey. Their steadfastness in their openness to God’s leading was inspiring.
UCC Moderator Jordan reflected at one gathering that it will take more than goodwill and good words to be open to change, we need actions; and that as we figure out what it means to be a just and equitable Church together, we need to stay in conversation together.
How long is reconciliation expected to take? And how will we recognise when it has happened?
Our UAICC Adnyamathanha leader Rev. Denise Champion believes it will be when her children and grandchildren can sit down with my children and grandchildren and they will be able to speak to each other in their own language, and be understood.
Dr Shauneen Peet, a member of the Little Pine First Nations who taught at the University of Regina reminded us about white privilege. First Nations people “are not required to perform our trauma over and over again so that other people can learn,” she said.
There were times of deep conversation and respectful listening. There were times of joy, laughter and wonder.
The UCC’s All Native Circle Conference (ANCC) is a national conference of the Church based on different Aboriginal cultural ways of life and languages.
At one memorable occasion we had to walk on country, we attended a powwow at Carry the Kettle Reserve in Saskatchewan with ANCC Leading Elder Bernice Saulteaux.
We were honoured just to watch the grand entry on the opening day, but to our surprise, we were invited to take part. We were walked into the arena surrounded by dancers. The drums around us were so loud we could feel the vibrations through our feet. It was an awesome sense of celebration.
Later we also attended the ANCC Grand Council and the National Aboriginal Spiritual Gathering at a wilderness retreat in Pinawa, Manitoba.
“I would have loved to have spent more time with First Nations people. It was great to see them so engaged in their worship and culture,” said Garry Dronfield.
As our group travelled together on buses, planes, and in taxis, we spoke often and a lot. There was singing, laughing and the sharing of stories of the ancient land that people belonged to.
I think we saw some possibilities for our Uniting Church and our covenant with First Peoples through the Congress. Important possibilities. A centre for First Peoples spirituality and theology, a move to more clarity about where Congress sits within the structure of the Uniting Church, the consideration of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in framing our responses and actions and much more.
It was a precious time for me to build relationships with Congress leaders, to hear their stories, their perspectives and truths, without distraction.
We’ve spoken and written many words on our own process to sovereignty and treaty in Australia. Words are important. They give us a foundation. But they can’t be all there is, and we need to commit to action.
I realise though that my need for action is just that, mine. In our country and in our Church, we have a bad habit of imposing solutions.
So I look forward to our discernment and action in the months ahead on these important issues, and to further input as we travel the reconciliation path together.
I am so grateful to Revs. Garry Dronfield, Denise Champion, Tim Matton-Johnson, Aunty Diane Torrens, Pastors Mark Kickett and Ray Minniecon and Rev. Dr Chris Budden. Also to our wonderful hosts Rev. Jordan Cantwell and Sara Stratton of the United Church of Canada.
We will return the hospitality of our UCC friends when we host a delegation of theirs in March 2018.