Pope Francis poses with members of the Assembly of Indigenous Peoples after his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. CNS/Max Rossi, Reuters

Glen Argan: Turning words into action for reconciliation

  • August 20, 2019

In his work with the Mennonite Church of Canada, Steve Heinrichs encourages congregations across Canada to seek reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. He urges Mennonites to learn about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action and to study the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Yet, Heinrichs feels caught by the limits of talking about reconciliation while struggling to live out his principles in his own life.

“We need to cry out,” the director of Indigenous-Settler Relations for Canada’s Mennonite Church said in an emotional moment during his presentation to the annual Bridgefolk Conference in Winnipeg July 27.

His cry is a familiar one, one heard in every age among Christians who want to live with integrity and imbue society with the spirit of the Gospel.

In 1976, Canada’s Catholic bishops raised the same question in their Labour Day statement, “From Words to Action.”“As Christians, we have a responsibility not simply to feed the hungry but to increase their power to change the causes of hunger,” the bishops wrote.

God sent His Son to be born and to live among the poorest of the poor, Heinrichs said. In Canada today, Indigenous people are “the most bruised and battered.” The Church must stand in solidarity with them.

So when he was invited, along with other Church leaders, to take part in a protest in April 2018 at the Burnaby, B.C., terminal of the Trans Mountain Pipeline extension, he knew he had to participate. The terminal is located on traditional territory of the Squamish, Tsleil-Wartuth and Musqueam peoples, land which has never been surrendered in a treaty. All three First Nations oppose the pipeline extension.

“They could get very rich by saying ‘yes’ to these pipelines. They are saying ‘no,’” Heinrichs said.

At the protest, the Church leaders joined the Tsleil-Wartuth elders in prayer and in Indigenous spiritual ceremonies. Then, they lay down in the entrance to the terminal, blocking construction of the pipeline that day. When police asked the Church leaders to move, they refused and were arrested. A year later, a court found Heinrichs guilty of criminal contempt and sent him to jail for a week.

Heinrichs’ witness challenges other Christians: What will you do to bring about reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and Canadian settlers? 

Heinrichs says civil disobedience is not the only faithful response Christians can make and that he does not consider himself a hero for his actions.

The roughly 60 people from across Canada and the United States who attended the four-day Bridgefolk conference each signed a pledge to take seven steps towards reconciliation with Indigenous people.

Bridgefolk itself is a movement of reconciliation — in this case, reconciliation among Mennonites and Roman Catholics. For almost 20 years, members of the two churches have gathered annually for a four-day conference.

I am part of local monthly dialogue established in Edmonton by the two churches, a dialogue of friendship rather than theology. About 20 people are members of our Edmonton dialogue group. This year, with the Bridgefolk meeting held in western Canada for the first time, six of us made our way to Winnipeg.

The timing for such dialogue is appropriate. On one hand, the Catholic Church is finding the traditional just-war theory to be inappropriate in an era of high-powered weaponry. On the other hand, Mennonites are reconsidering their tradition of withdrawal from society and are instead giving greater public witness to the Gospel calls for peace and justice.

One example of the new Mennonite approach is the 2018 statement of the Mennonite World Conference on solidarity with Indigenous peoples. The conference declared, “We are saddened when Indigenous peoples are treated unjustly and oppressed. Their pain is also our pain. … Their struggle is also our struggle.”

Again arises the question of how to move from words to action. Steps might include praying for respect of Indigenous rights, writing letters to elected officials, launching parish groups which build friendships with Indigenous people and supporting Indigenous families whose mothers or daughters have been murdered or gone missing.

Reconciliation means more than heartfelt apologies. It must also include stepping across the chasm separating settlers and Indigenous people, and advocating for governments to respect the rights of the original peoples of this land.

(Argan is program co-ordinator with Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta.)

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