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The UN-inspired Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights began on April 23 in Kitchener, Ont. and ends on May 12 in Ottawa. Photo courtesy of Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights

Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights

A faith group walks in support of the dignity, survival and well-being of First Peoples

By Dennis Gruending

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 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.

These combined calls by the TRC and the UN inspired a Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights. On April 23, a core group of about 30 people began walking in a rain-filled, 600-kilometre pilgrimage from Kitchener, Ont. to Ottawa. The oldest walker was 87 and the youngest — carried by her mother — was nine months. In solidarity, my wife Martha and I joined the walk for several days, too.

The pilgrimage was planned by Mennonite Church Canada and Christian Peacemaker Teams, which said that “we are Christian settlers exercising responsibility to educate our own and encourage our government to fulfill 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 Indigenous centres. Each evening, there have been conversation circles and a number of teach-ins about Indigenous rights, treaties, settlers’ responsibilities and the UN declaration, itself.

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 implementing it. 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 has been supported by those participating in the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, and he has been a resource person at some of the teach-ins along the route.

When the group finally reaches Ottawa on May 12, they will hold a rally 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. 

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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