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Participants take part in the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights. Photo courtesy of the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights

Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights (Part 2)

While walking in support of First Peoples' dignity and well-being, the writer comes across a bump in the road

By Dennis Gruending

My wife, Martha, and I recently joined walkers for the final three days of a Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, a 600-kilometre trek from Kitchener, Ont. to Ottawa. Along the route, we encountered warm support from individuals and churches, as well as one bit of pushback from a middle-aged settler — a reminder of the task ahead if reconciliation is to occur. 

A core group of about 30 walkers — mostly people of faith — hiked through rain, snow and sunshine for 20 days in April and May. They responded to a call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) inquiry into Indian Residential Schools. The TRC commissioners asked churches, among others, to support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which outlines the “minimum standards necessary” for the dignity, survival and well-being of Indigenous peoples. Although the Trudeau government has accepted the declaration in principle, it has yet to provide any framework for implementing it. So the walkers called upon the government to do just that.

When we joined the group early one morning, they were having breakfast after sleeping at a Perth, Ont.-based United church. The next stop, after a 37-kilometre walk, was a tiny Anglican church in Ashton, Ont.  There, after being greeted warmly by the minister and served dinner by volunteers, the walkers rolled out their sleeping bags on, under and in between pews.

The walk, alone, wasn’t taxing, though. Four of us had a bracing encounter while standing beside our support van, which was parked along the roadside. An older man, who had been watching us from his acreage, walked over and asked us what was happening. When we told him that we were walking in support of Indigenous Rights, he said that he was Indigenous because he was born in Canada and inquired about his rights. That led him into a litany of prejudices: the jails, he said, are full of “natives” while their leaders are corrupt.  He claimed to have dined in British Columbia with a chief who lived in a big house and had an SUV in the driveway while his band members lived in squalor. Curiously, when I looked past the man, I saw that he, too, lived in a big house and kept a large automobile parked in his driveway.

The “natives,” he continued, were killing their own women. But a young pilgrimage organizer suggested gently that we should wait for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls to describe what had occurred.

Finally, the man said that whites are now a minority in Canada. Although this really has nothing to do with Indigenous rights, I knew where he was coming from, having just observed the 2016 U.S. election.

At this point, a young woman among us offered the man some ice-cream, but he declined. Still, the peace offering appeared to have its effect; he quickly thanked us for the conversation and cautioned us to be careful while walking along the highway. 

Author's photo
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His work will appear on the second and fourth Thursday of the month. His Pulpit and Politics blog can be found at www.dennisgruending.ca.
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