A few weeks ago, I sat around a table with some friends in a cafe in Winnipeg to talk about reconciliation and our church’s connection to Cross Lake (A First Nations community of about 6,000 located in Treaty 5 territory, north of Lake Winnipeg).
Sterling Mennonite Fellowship has a relationship with the community of Cross Lake (Pimcikamak Cree Nation) that spans over seven years. Mennonites in general have been present in Cross Lake for over 50 years. The community structure is complex with municipal components as well as federal reserve components and our connection hasn’t been equal in both. Sterling is in partnership with the Living Word Church of Cross Lake though the Partnership Circles of Mennonite Church Manitoba.
Our church has been going up to Cross Lake for the past seven years for one week during the summer to be in the community, build relationships, learn from their experience, and to run a Vacation Bible School (VBS) kids camp together. The week we spend in Cross Lake is a highlight for many of the youth and adults we bring with us from Winnipeg. It is a time of learning from a different culture, making friends, and sharing and experiencing the love our Creator has for the community.
The beauty of this relationship is that we have the opportunity to build lasting friendships and to find ways of connecting at other points throughout the year. We also benefit from the gifts of the community and the teachings they offer. In our small way, we are trying to walk the road of reconciliation - a road that is long, hard and sometimes confusing. It is also rewarding, fun and inspiring.
This point was one of the concerns of some of the friends around the table. What we are doing in our small way is good, but what is being done to actually make a difference in the community? What are the big-picture, indigenous-led initiatives that will bring Cross Lake out of the difficulties they find themselves in (difficulties that are all too common in northern First Nations communities)? It’s no secret that Canadian settlers have shared their frustration that these problems never seem to end.
Every time we visit Cross Lake there is some kind of crisis that has shaken the community. The rest of the world only hears about these sporadically when the media decides it’s big enough news for the rest of us. This past year, Cross Lake made the news as it declared a state of emergency because of a suicide epidemic among its young people. At this news, help poured into the community and many of us settlers wondered what we could do to solve their problems.
Perhaps that is where the rub begins, when we see the problems in Cross Lake as their problems. You would have work hard to intentionally ignore the history of our country and province to even be able to make such a claim. Yes, Cross Lake has many problems. There are many children but the majority of adults are unemployed. There is little to do for young people in the community which leads to substance abuse and other trouble. There is poverty, inadequate government funding, and systematic challenges to living a healthy life.
As much as we, western settlers, don’t like to hear it, all of these problems are not Cross Lake’s fault. These are the cause of our government’s history of planned assimilation, residential schools, the Indian Act, and other systematic tools used to extinguish a people group from this country.
In Cross Lake’s history specifically, Manitoba Hydro’s act of building power generating stations flooded the community of Cross Lake under the Northern Flood Agreement and destroyed their economy. It’s hard for us to imagine that poverty stricken First Nations communities were not always that way, but Cross Lake was not always that way. They used to be a sustainable community but our resource extraction has put them into the situation they are in. Commitments were made and documents were signed, but to this day, Cross Lake asserts that they have been taken advantage of and that the promises of the government and Manitoba Hydro have not been fulfilled. (Read more of their story here.)
I’m not saying that the Cross Lake community has no responsibility to take for their situation, and I'm not saying that you specifically are responsible for our past history, but the problems we are dealing with are the result of systematic racism and injustice. There simply are no quick fixes to those kinds of problems. The kinds of solutions that Cross Lake invites us to embrace deal with issues of decolonization, adherence to treaties and principles of self-determination.
If we are going to work towards reconciliation, what does that look like? How do we dismantle the systems of government and industry to bring justice to a community as small as Cross Lake? That could take years, decades, centuries. Our western ears don’t often like to hear that. We like quick solutions and economic results. And there is no better quick fix than re-settlement. If they experience such high poverty, unemployment and suicide, then we should move them somewhere where they can help themselves properly. This “solution” doesn’t seem to be out of the question for some well meaning people.
My fear is that those conversation lead us back to the kinds of attitudes that brought us into this mess in the first place. That may be our idea of fixing the problem, but that is not reconciliation.
Reconciliation is to walk along-side one another, to listen to each other, to learn from one another, to admit when we have done wrong, to cry and rejoice together, and perhaps most importantly, to follow and allow the other to lead. It’s what we are trying to do as Sterling in our small way, hoping that together with other small acts of reconciliation we may soon see healing and justice for our brothers and sisters.
To walk this road requires humility, patience, love, reflection, prayer, forgiveness, grace, courage, energy, and commitment. As messy and difficult as it is, we believe it to be the road that Jesus would walk. As His followers, we too walk that road, knowing that God walks with us.