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Pilgrimage For Indigenous Rights

Kelly (left) with Niki Ashton at the final rally. Niki holds the sacred birch-bark scroll.
Photo: Kelly Bernardin-Dvorak

Recently, I took part in the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, organized by Mennonite Church Canada and Christian Peacemaker Teams ‒ Indigenous Peoples’ Solidarity Project. Between April 22 and May 14, 30-60 people from diverse ages, stories, and backgrounds participated in this 600km walk. The majority of the walkers identified as Christian and as settlers in Canada, though there were Indigenous peoples and other faiths among us. “Pilgrimage” is common to many traditions, and the purpose of this walk was simultaneously personal, spiritual, and political.

We began in Kitchener-Waterloo, on the Haldimand Tract, and ended in Ottawa, on un-ceded Algonquin land, walking 25-35 kilometres daily. We opted for less busy roads when available, but often walked along busy highways, sometimes single-file along narrow shoulders. We prayed and reflected on the land and history in each place. Local news reports covered the walk, making community members more aware. Each night, we slept in different churches (some Anglican!) or community centres.

The Pilgrimage came together as a direct, active response to Canada’s five-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process. Walkers were responding – personally, spiritually, and politically – to two calls to action issued by the TRC in their final report:

Call to Action 43: We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoplesas the framework for reconciliation.

Call to Action 48: We call upon … faith groups and interfaith social justice groups in Canada … to formally adopt and comply with the principles, norms, and standards of the Declaration as a framework for reconciliation. This would include, but not be limited to: Engaging in ongoing public dialogue and actions to support the Declaration.

Because the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is mentioned throughout the TRC’s final report, and because the TRC was created to facilitate the reconciliation and healing process in our country, it follows that the Canadian public should be educated about the Declaration’s significance and history. Most notable is that the Declaration was collaboratively developed, over decades, by Indigenous peoples all over the world; it is a global, Indigenous-led response to the common realities in countries with colonial histories.

Most evenings included a Teach-In (often by way of sharing circle), which was meant to raise awareness about the Declaration with our host communities. Teach-Ins included reading a sacred birch-bark scroll, which held a message for the House of Commons entrusted to us by elder Myeengun Henry of Chippewa-on-the-Thames. Receiving the scroll was part of the sending ceremony that began the Pilgrimage. By carrying an important message about long-term peace and well-being between communities, were enacting an ancient tradition. The scroll implored the Canadian government and the Canadian public to not only adopt and implement the Declaration, but also to genuinely honour historic treaties and pursue real harmony between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. The scroll was ceremonially passed to Niki Ashton, Northern Manitoba MP, during the walk’s final rally near Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Teach-In discussions also included public education about Bill C-262, a private member’s bill introduced in Canada’s House of Commons by Quebec MP Romeo Saganash, whose life’s work includes participating in the decades-long development of the Declaration. Bill C-262 calls on the Canadian government to do exactly what TRC in general, and specifically Call To Action 43, requests: full adoption and implementation of the Declaration into Canadian law.

Kelly Bernardin-Dvorak lives in North Point Douglas, Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory. She is a therapist with Jonah Counselling and is active in community development work through Jonah Community Projects. Email her at kelly@jonahconsulting.ca if you’d like more information about communicating with your friends, neighbours, and MP about the Declaration or Bill C-262.

Bill C-262 represents a turning point in Canadian legislative history. If passed, it would be the first Indigenous-led legislation that can withstand colonial policies. The bill will be voted on in the House of Commons in September 2017. Canada’s current government has demonstrated commitment to full adoption and implementation of the Declaration in the past, and it was one of their campaign promises.

The next few months are an important time of continuing education and awareness-raising about the importance of adopting and implementing the Declaration into Canada’s legislative framework through Bill C-262. We encourage all people to contact their MP in order to communicate public support for Bill C-262.

Learn more about the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights at our website and Facebook page. All are welcome to attend a Winnipeg Teach-In event about the Declaration and Bill C-262 on June 29, 7 p.m., featuring Romeo Saganash and other speakers, including some of the walkers from the Pilgrimage. Location is TBD, so follow our Facebook page or RLN for more info.

Feature image: Walkers arrive in Perth, Ontario, on May 9, Day 17 of the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights.
Credit: Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights