Our church is in a partnership with the church and community of Pauingassi First Nation. We’ve tried to frame the partnership as seeking to build each other up, where we both bring gifts to the table to share.
Historically, relations between Indigenous and Settler communities have usually featured one side on the “giving end”, and one side on the “receiving end” (I’ll let you take a guess as to who’s who), with one side knowing what’s best for the other. Given the vast cultural, language, and historical differences between our two communities, working towards an equal partnership is obviously a big challenge, but one that we intentionally are aware of and work at.
But this isn’t a post about our partnership with Pauingassi. Rather, it’s a post about murdered and missing indigenous women. What’s the connection?
- As part of our partnership with Pauingassi, we now know many more indigenous people. On one hand, this sounds as ridiculous as someone claiming that they know black people, or gay people, or people who don’t go to church. But on the other hand, given that our church is located in Steinbach (which doesn’t have a high population of people who aren’t white), starting to know names and faces and stories of our indigenous neighours is a really important step. As these friendships have grown, we’ve seen how violence against indigenous women negatively affects families and communities, and it brings us to tears.
- Pauingassi is a fly-in reserve, so the cost to get there makes travel quite prohibitive. So from the beginning of our partnership we’ve known that many of us from Grace wouldn’t get the chance to go to Pauingassi, so working towards right relations with our neighbours will have to occur on multiple fronts. We heard from a Metis woman that one of the ways we can do this is to be “Settler faces behind First Nations voices.” So rather than us be the primary faces and voices of advocacy, our job is to walk with and support the indigenous voices that are already speaking.
Every October 4th, there are vigils across Canada to remember the murdered and missing indigenous Women. They’re organized by a variety of groups, but the main one is the Native Women’s Association of Canada. This year, a group of us from Grace Mennonite attended. At the end of the vigil, they handed out postcards to everyone, asking us to send them to someone who can make a difference. The postcards simply asked the receiver to do their part to ensure the safety of indigenous women. I told one of the organizers that I am from a church, and that I would like a stack of postcards. She looked at me a bit strangely as she handed over the postcards, but I reassured that we would do our part.
We brought the postcards to church and asked people to take one and sign it. We ran out of postcards.
We thought about sending them to Stephen Harper, but we figured that he probably receives truckloads of mail a day that he never reads. So, we followed our great democratic institution of elected representatives and handed the postcards to our local Member of Parliament, Ted Falk. We also requested to meet with him so that we could be informed as to what the government IS doing about the high rate of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada.
Stephen Harper himself said that the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women isn’t high on his radar, plus we don’t have a large population of First Nations in our riding, so we weren’t really expecting our Conservative MP to agree to this meeting.
But much to our surprise, he said yes! It was during working hours, so only five of us from Grace could make it, but the five of us did our best to represent our church, which we hope is doing its best to get behind the indigenous voices calling for a safer country.
The meeting itself was kind and cordial. Ted more or less stuck to his talking points. We asked questions. He did his best to answer. We talked about whether or not the funding was new money or old money, how it was distributed, the RCMP report, education on reserves, how one protects the wealth of a citizen when they don’t have wealth in the first place, a national enquiry, and few others things. He answered what he could, and when he didn’t have an answer, he admitted that he didn’t know.
At one point, Ted commented that it seemed like First Nations didn’t like being told what to do, so it was hard to reach consensus with the federal government on action plans. We agreed, but also pointed out nobody really likes being told what to do. We also pointed out that many First Nations have a large level of mistrust in the federal government (ie. residential schools, land claims, nutrition experiments on First Nation children, voting rights, the Indian Act, Kapyong Barracks, etc). And then we wondered how we can work towards restoring that relationship.
(On a related note, for more information on walking in solidarity with host peoples, check out Mennonite Church Canada’s brochure: Paths for Peacemaking with Host Peoples. It’s great.)
We understand that this issue is large and hard to grasp, and that a small little church group spending thirty minutes with their MP probably isn’t going to have a drastic change on national policy (or on racism, sexism, and misogyny in general). But we do feel that this meeting was part of our work towards ensuring the safety of indigenous women, of getting behind the First Nations voices that ARE speaking up, and also working towards right relationships between settler and indigenous peoples in Canada.