As part of her commitment to reconciliation and reaching out to Indigenous communities, Moderator Jordan Cantwell recently travelled to Manitoba, then British Columbia. She talks about what she learned in this interview with Paul Russell.
In February you attended the Keewatin presbytery meeting in Winnipeg. Tell me about that.
Keewatin only meets once per year, when the winter roads are open. For the rest of the year, many of the communities can only be reached by airplane. The cost of flights in the north is prohibitive, making presbytery gatherings at any other time of year unrealistic. Much of the presbytery meeting was spent dealing with remits. Because this was their only chance to meet before next winter, they had to discuss and vote on 7 of the 8 remits. I was impressed by the care and consideration that presbytery members gave each of the remits, even those that would have little or no direct effect on them personally.
Listening to the conversations at this meeting, I heard that some of the key concerns for folks in this presbytery are: maintaining their language, preserving and practising their culture, and supporting young people who are losing hope for their future. The remits do not speak to these issues, arising as they do out of very different social and cultural contexts and concerns. This highlighted for me the disconnect between the concerns of the Indigenous church and the matters that occupy the majority of the rest of the church.
You and the Very Rev. David Giuliano then travelled to northern Manitoba to visit several Indigenous communities. Tell me about that.
Seeing firsthand the reality of life in remote northern reserve communities brought it home in a way that is much deeper than just reading about it. We read about poverty, high levels of unemployment, overcrowded homes, undrinkable water, youth suicides… all of these are very present realities in many of the communities we visited. But now those stories have faces and names attached to them for me. They are not merely facts that I know — they are people that I have met and care about. And that makes a huge difference. This brings me back to the teaching that elders have shared with me, which is that learning to walk in right relationship is first and foremost about being in true relationship with each other, knowing one another as relatives. Facts don’t transform us, human relationships do.
Did you see anything that gave you hope?
I was inspired by the resilience and determination of the communities we visited and the people we met. Even in the midst of very real and entrenched social struggles, people are finding creative ways to bring healing and strength to their communities. There are a number of innovative social and economic developments taking place. I was particularly impressed with the Atoskiwin Training & Employment Centre in Nelson House, which is very cutting edge. It was great to see so many examples of the vision and hope that are alive within these communities.
After that, you travelled to British Columbia. Tell me about that.
One of the highlights was a walking tour of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with Judy Graves. Her humility and wisdom were truly inspiring. We couldn’t walk half a block without someone stopping Judy and thanking her for the difference that she has made in their lives. What really stood out to me was her comment that that she has not yet been able to give more than she has received. That is an approach to life I want to adopt. She taught me such an important lesson about gratitude.
Another highlight was meeting Phyllis Webstad, [now a Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation elder] who inspired Orange Shirt Day. She shared with us her experiences of growing up in Williams Lake and attending St. Joseph`s Residential School. Together we visited the site where the school had stood. That was a powerful moment.
The next day you travelled to Prince George, BC. What happened there?
I met with Maria Brouwer of Harmony House, a home for new moms and expecting Indigenous women, who are struggling with issues of mental health or addictions. Their goal is to help these women and their babies get the start they need to thrive as families.
Tell me about Maria.
She is an amazing woman who has a deep conviction that she needs to be part of reconciliation. Several years ago, her husband’s car was hit by a carful of Indigenous youth who had been drinking. When she was beside him in the hospital, not knowing if he would live or die, the Indigenous youth in the other car were also brought in, all in critical condition. But no one was there to be with them. So she sat at their bedside also, and held their hands as each of them died. In the midst of her own pain she was able to recognize a serious social problem that led to these youths drinking, driving, then dying alone in hospital. This incident convinced her that she needed to be part of healing the relationship between settlers and indigenous people. Maria gave me a new understanding of what it means to be a part of reconciliation.
That evening, you attended an interfaith gathering, which included the local imam. Tell me about that.
A real diverse crowd came out, and we had a great discussion. People started to see the possibilities of working together, and barriers of “otherness” were broken down as folks talked and laughed together. After the imam spoke, a church woman stood up and said, “I hear my faith reflected in your words.” As people of faith, we have much more in common than what divides us.
—Paul Russell is Communications Coordinator with the Office of the Moderator and General Secretary. He will continue to have conversations with the Moderator about her work, with excerpts from the conversations posted here on a regular basis.