By Matthew Behrens
Two years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its landmark study documenting the devastating legacy of residential schools on Indigenous communities, a group of 30 people will walk from Kitchener to Ottawa this spring in response to one of the report’s 98 calls to action.
The Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, which will travel along Highway 7 in Lanark County with overnight stops May 8 in Maberly and May 9 in Perth, is a 600-km journey that answers the call for faith groups to “formally adopt and comply with the principles, norms, and standards of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a framework for reconciliation.” Among recommended activities are public dialogue and action, as well as repudiation of “concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples.”
The long-distance walk will also publicize and support NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s private member’s bill, C-262, calling on Parliament to officially adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and ensuring Canadian laws operate in harmony with the treaty. Canada signed on to UNDRIP in May, 2016.
For 21-year-old Erin Froese, a third-year environmental studies student at Canadian Mennonite University, the pilgrimage is an opportunity to put into practice the TRC’s calls for just relationships with Indigenous peoples. “It’s a chance to ask what we will do to recognize the harm that we as churches have been engaged in, and how we can work towards reconciliation,” says Froese, one of the walk’s organizers. “This pilgrimage also allows me to connect the ways I have been learning about Indigenous-settler relations – and the many ways my thoughts have been shifting – into that physical movement of my body, creating a more embodied practice of moving and changing.”
Froese also feels a very personal link to the issue. “I grew up going to a summer camp that I felt very spiritually connected to, but then I found out that the land was also sacred to the Dakota people,” she says. “It was a big realization for me to see that my privilege of experiencing that place was possible because other people were kicked off of that land. That’s when these injustices became more real for me.”
Indigenous people have long-engaged in such lengthy journeys. In 2016, Norman Shewaybick trekked 17 days along 550 km of treacherous ice roads from Thunder Bay to his Webequie home in Nishnawbe Aski First Nation territory, hauling a full oxygen tank to highlight the Indigenous health care crisis afflicting Northern Ontario that claimed the life of his wife.
Three years earlier, a group of Cree Youth, known as the Nishiyuu Walkers, undertook a wintertime 1,500 km journey from northern Quebec to Ottawa. In 1990, supporters of the Innu people, who at that time were trying to stop military training on their traditional lands, walked both from Halifax and Windsor to Ottawa.
The pilgrimage is open to all people, and will include both Indigenous and settler participants aged nine months to 87 years. The walkers, who will sleep in church basements and conduct educational sharing sessions at each stop, will arrive in Ottawa May 14. Details on joining the walk for one or more days are available at http://pfir.ca/
First appeared in the April issue of Hometown News