Wilmot Ecumenical Working Group Discusses the Indigenous/Settler Relationship

Feb. 18 documentary presentation about the Doctrine of Discovery explored the shared history of Indigenous Peoples and Canadians

In a scene from the documentary “Doctrine of Discovery: Stolen Lands, Strong Hearts”, Marlena Anderson, of Nlaka’pamux First Nation, said she is the first generation of her family that didn’t attend residential school. “I carry my parents’ hurt.”

In a scene from the documentary “Doctrine of Discovery: Stolen Lands, Strong Hearts”, Marlena Anderson, of Nlaka’pamux First Nation, said she is the first generation of her family that didn’t attend residential school. “I carry my parents’ hurt.”

In response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, a collaboration between four Wilmot churches is seeking to improve the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canadians.

The group – whose members come from Steinmann Mennonite Church, Trinity Lutheran Church, Zion United Church, and St. George’s Anglican Church – was formed after Trinity’s Rev. Tanya Ramer suggested they could be more effective if they worked together rather than independently.

Since 2017, the Wilmot Ecumenical Working Group on Indigenous/Settler Relationships (WEWG) has been providing historical context to contemporary issues.

Many WEWG-hosted events are educational, said the group’s secretary Dorothy Wilson, who is a member of Zion United Church. “It really helps explain things, and I think once they understand, that will help with reconciliation, because people will look at Indigenous people differently.”

Among WEWG’s projects were the creation of a community blanket in Nov. 2017, which received over 70 contributions, and a presentation in 2020 by local historian Dave Neufeld, who talked about the civilizations that lived in Wilmot before Europeans arrived. WEWG’s events, which are often fundraisers, helped the Wilmot Family Resource Centre to hire an Indigenous Elder to serve the cultural needs of local Indigenous residents. Money raised by the group and an annual grant from the Township of Wilmot contribute to the costs.

“People were getting sent out of the area to be able to discover their roots and investigate a bit more of what they could do to connect back to their roots,” said Gladys Bender, a founding member of WEWG, representing Steinmann Mennonite Church.

Part of WEWG’s mandate is raising awareness of settler privilege, she said. “We have a lot of work to do in that area, so that people can understand that there is privilege in being a white settler.”

She described her own everyday privilege as the ability to go shopping without being watched closely, as well as writing a cheque or using her bank card without undue scrutiny. “A lot of it has to do with finances, but also with the way I’m viewed in the community. I don’t ever feel like I’m questioned or have to defend myself.”

Bender pointed out that a significant number of local residents identify as Indigenous, but they choose not to do so publicly due to fears of discrimination.

“I think people need to be respectful of what they say to the community. I would hope that people could be sensitive to that type of thing so that it becomes safer for people to self-identify,” she said.

The Ecumenical group is helping the public become more knowledgeable about Indigenous peoples’ and settlers’ shared history, said Bender, including herself.

“It’s constantly a learning curve for me, reading about and listening to Indigenous people. I’m hoping that some of what we do also inspires people in the community to do the same, and we understand and talk respectfully of the people who occupied this land before any of our ancestors came here.”

WEWG supported the First Peoples Group’s Prime Ministers Path consultation last year, said Wilson, and hopes the Township will follow through with the report’s suggestions. Council unanimously approved the recommendations, which included ending the project and seeking community engagement before deciding what to do with the statues.

“I think the one thing our group would like to see is that the Township follows up on the recommendations. It’s important that the process is followed through.”

On Feb. 18, WEWG hosted a free online viewing of the documentary “Doctrine of Discovery: Stolen Lands, Strong Hearts,” followed by an audience discussion via Zoom.

The 2019 film, which was produced by the Anglican Church of Canada, describes historical events, from first contact between Europeans and Indigenous Peoples, through to the legacy of Canada’s Residential School System.

The term Doctrine of Discovery refers to the international law that allowed European explorers to claim land on behalf of their sovereigns. If the land was not inhabited by Christians, it was considered vacant, or “terra nullius.”

In 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived in what became known as the Americas, it’s estimated that the land was occupied by 100 million Indigenous people, or approximately one-fifth of the world’s population at the time.

In the documentary, Former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde described how Canada’s residential schools sought to assimilate Indigenous children by erasing their connection to their culture.

“Can you imagine a five-year-old or a six-year-old, taken from their parents, institutionalized, and then (taught that) everything good about being a First Nations person is no good? Their beautiful, long hair was cut. Their beautiful languages weren’t allowed. Their access to their families and their ceremonies were disallowed.”

In another scene, Marlena Anderson, of Nlaka’pamux First Nation, said, “I carry my parents’ hurt. I’m the first generation that didn’t attend residential school, and I think what is hard is that I still hear their stories. To know their pain and suffering is the saddest thing.”

Wilson highlighted comments made in the documentary by former Senator and First Nations lawyer, Murray Sinclair, who led the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“I think it would be good for people to hear what Murray Sinclair said: ‘We don’t want you to go back. We don’t want you to leave. We just want to be able to be in relationship.’ I thought that was a really important statement.”