On April 24-25, Walking Together: A Conversation with Indigenous Pathways in NW Ontario was held in Thunder Bay, Ontario. With the goal of fostering better understanding and true peace between First Nations and those of European descent, participants at the conference had the opportunity to learn from First Nations teachers about what it means to change things in the name of Jesus.
Randy McCooeye, Pastor at Bilberry Creek Baptist Church, attended the conference with a group of fellow Canadian Baptists. Pastor Randy first became interested in First Nations issues not in Canada, but thanks to a trip with CBM’s Blair Clark to meet Borneo’s indigenous Dayak (or Dyak) people. As exciting as it was to interact cross-culturally, Pastor Randy credits the trip with helping him realise how little he knew about indigenous peoples in his own country. Since those days, he has had the opportunity to get to know people from Canada’s Micmac, Mohawk and Cree people across Eastern and Central Canada, which has fed his interest in “resetting the relationship” with Canada’s First Nations.
I interviewed Pastor Randy about his experience. Here is what he had to say:
Q. What did you learn at Walking Together?
A. There’s no overnight fix to our relationship. There are 500 years of history – good, bad and downright nasty… Don’t be discouraged, but things aren’t going to change overnight. I realized in many of our churches, not just in society in general, there’s not only deep-seated ignorance about our mutual history, but also there’s an amazing amount of prejudice. The odd thing is that having often travelled overseas, we tend to be very gracious with First Nations people in other countries. We’re concerned about the politics and issues that they face – injustice, poverty and so on. We, as Canadian Baptist, have a correct love and concern for First Nation folks in third world situations, but we haven’t extended that to our own situation. There’s a disconnect between how we think and operate overseas and how we think and operate here in Canada.
Q. Why do you think that is?
A. Why? It costs us personally at home. If we’re going to address what we confront overseas–injustice, prejudice, etc.–when we come home it means that the land we’re living on was maybe not quite so fairly traded or acquired. It means that the party we vote for may be oppressive in some ways, such as educational funding. Maybe we don’t want to face that. We tend to look at Canadian First Nations with a welfare mentality. They have opportunities, why can’t they take advantage of it? But with First Nations overseas, we see oppressive governments, injustice and corporate greed which lead to poverty and so on. If we actually honor our treaties it will mean significant change here in Canada and inclusion of First Nations in political dialogue and power.
Q. How will what you’ve learned influence your approach with resetting the relationship?
A. I’ve realized that as much as I’ve learned over the years about our mutual history, there’s more for me to learn. If I’m going to continue in this partnership with First Nations, there’s more I need to learn and be aware of. There’s some listening – some listening to them – that I need to do. One of the speakers mentioned that the European Canadians or new immigrants – if they’re going to walk with First Nations, they need to understand what the goals of First Nations are. We have to “be willing to make their goals our goals” as well. We need to follow through on historic treaties. We need to hold our governments accountable for upholding the treaties. We need to have a shared goal for unjust treaties too. We need ask some questions. What happened? How can we rewrite treaties in a more equitable way? How do we hear about the big picture from First Nations and adopt their goals as our goals as fellow people on the land?
Q. What do you feel God was telling you through this experience?
A. Remain humble and be willing to listen and learn. Also, that there’s a cost involved in resetting the relationship with First Nations. Whatever choices we make, there’s a cost personally, for the church and for the nation. Everywhere along the line we need to ask if we’re willing to pay the cost on the personal level. Are churches willing to change? Are the nation and political parties open to real change? Are we willing to do that? We can’t make one dependent on the other; someone needs to start it. If churches and people change, who knows if that will influence the government or not?
Q. What are your next steps?
A. In our church context, our next steps are that we’re looking to partner in some way with the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre. Ottawa has the largest population of Inuit people in the south and they’re not too far from the church. We’re investigating opportunities in Northern Quebec with the Cree people as well. Our mission committee will be looking at an education strategy including videos, books and First Nations guest speakers. We’ve realized how much there is a lack of education and relationship. We’re also looking at how we can continue to encourage our sister churches to catch a similar vision.
Resetting and rebuilding a relationship takes time, sacrifice, effort, humility and work. Pastor Randy is excited to lead his church toward a more Christ-like approach to Canada’s First Nations.