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Vol.10 No.2 Fall 2000

ARC Seen Through the Lens of Religious Life

By Richard Renshaw

Richard Renshaw, Co-Chair of ARC

At the beginning of June, 2000 the Canadian Religious Conference held its Leadership Assembly in Moncton, New Brunswick. Immediately following that event, I left with Guido Zegarra, a Peruvian Franciscan priest, to Esgenoôpetitj [Burnt Church] on Miramichi Bay, N.B., to spend a few days as guest of gkisedtanamoogk, the Atlantic spokesperson for ARC, and to observe the struggle of the Reserve to defend their right to fish. It seemed to be the perfect way to follow-up on the several days we had just spent in Moncton reflecting on our call as Religious to take seriously the Gospel demand for militant and active non-violent resistance to the untruth and injustice that so permeates our society and that we, as middle-class white Canadians of European descent, are so distanced from by our wall of privilege. While at Esgenoôpetitj we got to know the leaders at the Reserve and the Observers who were there. At the same time, Guido and I reflected on the experiences we had, whether in Peru or in Canada, to live out our calling as Religious to make an unequivocal option for the poor, the excluded and the oppressed in our world today in fidelity to the call of the Gospel, in fidelity to the values left to us by the founders of our Religious Orders.

ARC has a very special place in the hearts of members of Roman Catholic Religious Orders in Canada and has held that place since the beginning. It must be remembered that the relationship with Aboriginal peoples and Religious Orders goes back to the very beginning of contact with European settlers 500 years ago. Orders like the Jesuits, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Sisters of St. Ann and the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, to mention only a few, can trace centuries of attempts to build a relationship with Aboriginal Peoples. In recent years, faith communities in Canada have looked for ways to provide a consistent and respectful support for the struggles of Aboriginal peoples to sustain their aspirations as peoples and to recover their heritage. It is not surprising that communities of Religious should find an echo in this same desire.

From the very beginning of ARC’s story members of the Oblate and Jesuit communities have supplied important personnel and resources to ARC’s work. It would be hard to underestimate the importance of the research of Father René Fumoleau, OMI, on Treaty 9 in the struggle of the Dene people for recognition of their rights. Since ARC’s beginning, Jesuit priests like Father Michael Stogre have accompanied its, at times, tortuous journey. Sister Eva Solomon, CSJ, has also brought her extraordinary gifts to the work of ARC. Bishops, priests and Religious women from all across the country who walk with Aboriginal peoples in their pastoral ministries consistently bring a human face to the harsh statistics of Aboriginal life on and off the Reserves.

There is also something deeper. Religious Institutes in the Roman Catholic tradition are called, by the charisms revealed to them by their founders, to incarnate within and around them the faith community proclaimed by Jesus. These men and women journey in the Spirit to know and serve their God. So it is no surprise that the spiritual journey of Aboriginal nations finds a special resonance in their hearts. In those who struggle to live traditional Aboriginal spirituality, they find brothers and sisters with whom they can walk together in faith. Through mutual respect for our differences we can find similar values and deep solidarity forged in the heart of the Creator.

It has not been easy for Religious to set aside the blinders that society constructed to prevent an honest relationship with Aboriginal peoples. As have other sectors of the Church and society, we have floundered more often than not. However, so many Religious have lived and prayed in close friendship and sharing with Aboriginal peoples that they have found a unique perspective to appreciate the dignity of Aboriginal peoples and their history. Religious have had a special responsibility to share that experience with their brothers and sisters in the Church and to bring the struggles of the people among whom so many of us have lived to the attention of society. ARC and support of ARC has been a primary vehicle for that effort.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the many constituencies that make up ARC, its staff and leadership, partners, Aboriginal and not, and its many volunteer supporters across Canada. for helping to coordinate the efforts of the Churches in Canada to support of Aboriginal rights. We ask God to help us continue to find ways to continue along this same path.

Richard Renshaw is a Roman Catholic priest, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross. He is currently Assistant Secretary General of the Canadian Religious Conference and Co-Chair of ARC National.

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The Cost of Doing Business?

By Rick Zerbe Cornelson MCC-Manitoba

Tommy Monias, spokesperson for the Pimicikamak Cree Nation

At the annual meeting of the Aboriginal Rights Coalition in Toronto, church and network group representatives from across Canada heard Chief John Miswagon and Tommy Monias, spokesperson for the Pimicikamak Cree Nation (PCN) at Cross Lake, Manitoba, raise serious human rights concerns related to the impact of hydroelectric development in their people's territory.

Chief Miswagon and Tommy Monias told of how a 25-year-old mega-project has flooded and destabilized the lands that once sustained the Cree. The project included five major dams along the Nelson River, the diversion of 75% of the Churchill River, and the regulation of Lake Winnipeg which acts as a reservoir. They spoke of how the project has contributed to 90% unemployment, desperate living conditions, and loss of life due to hazardous navigation.

Chief John Miswagon

Miswagon said his people have been told these impacts are simply "the cost of doing business." However, "if the ‘cost of doing business' is the lives of our people and the well-being of our community, we are no longer willing to pay those costs," he said. "Is business more important than the lives and dignity of my people?"

He spoke personally about the heavy burden a Chief bears in a community where suicides are rampant. "Sometimes I'm afraid to answer the phone," said Miswagon. The 144 suicide attempts in the past year - 7 deaths - are due to the despair wrought by his peoples' disconnection from their lands. Alcohol and drugs in themselves are not the cause of suicides, he said, they are symptoms of a deeper problem.

In 1977, when the hydro-electric project was largely completed, the governments of Canada and Manitoba, Manitoba Hydro and five of the affected Cree communities signed the Northern Flood Agreement (NFA).

The NFA was supposed to mitigate damage done to the environment and address the economic and

social impact the Crees suffered due to the development. Both Miswagon and Monias reported that honourable implementation of the agreement - which an increasing number of parties recognize to be a treaty - has not taken place. They argued that the Crown parties' failure to meet the commitments recorded in the NFA constitutes ongoing violation of human rights under international law.

Miswagon and Monias presented a vision for a more honourable future based on equitable access to resources and consumer responsibility. They called upon those who consume the electricity generated in the north to take responsibility for the effects the production is having at the other end of the transmission lines. They called for implementation of the NFA in a manner that respects the inherent right of their nation to share in the benefits flowing from their lands. And, while PCN is engaged with the Crown parties in an implementation process, they resolutely rejected the concept of "negotiation." The negotiation of the NFA was completed in 1977 they argued, and the negotiation of Treaty 3 was done in the 1870's. "We have agreements!" proclaimed Miswagon, "There is nothing left to negotiate, now is the time to simply implement the existing agreements."

The struggle with Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government has often been highlighted in PCN's story. However, Chief Miswagon reminded this national network that the federal government bears enormous responsibility both as a signatory to the NFA and as a fiduciary charged with protecting the interests of PCN. He suggested that strong, viable First Nations are not in keeping with a longstanding federal policy of rapid assimilation of Aboriginal people into the dominant society. Referring to a 1998 federal document entitled "Gathering Strength" and a pivotal 1969 policy document, Miswagon quipped: "The only thing ‘gathering strength' is the White Paper."

In an evening presentation to a public gathering Monias rooted the present struggle for NFA implementation in the recent rebirth of the traditional Pimicikamak Cree Nation. The nation is governed by four "councils of fire": the Elders Council, the Women's Council, the Youth Council, and the Executive Council. It was the Elders who decided in 1997 to reject the NFA "implementation" agreement being negotiated with the Crown parties, instead opting to pressure the parties to abide by the terms of the NFA itself.

The four councils, with broad community consultation and approval, enact the nation's written laws of which there are presently five. One re-establishes the nation and the process for writing its laws. Another establishes citizenship and election rules. first applied in 1999 and belatedly accepted by the Department of Indian Affairs after an 87% voter turnout. Another provides for community members who wish to pay their hydro-electric bills into the nation's trust fund instead of to Manitoba Hydro; the utility's debt to PCN under the NFA is reduced by the corresponding amount. Monias calls this the "just do it" approach of PCN: "You don't negotiate your God-given rights, you already have them."

In a direct reference to ARC's Year Three Jubilee campaign, Monias spoke of Jubilee as "the celebration of the protection of the earth, not of destroying the earth." The ecumenical Inter-Church Task Force on Northern Flooding was instrumental in pressing for the original NFA in the 1970's.

Now, church and ARC network delegates renewed their commitment to work with PCN and issued a challenge to church groups in the U.S. Midwest, where approximately one third of the power from northern Manitoba is consumed:

"ARC calls on the faith community in the U.S. Midwest to join us in addressing environmental destruction and disrespect for human rights as experienced by the Pimicikamak Cree Nation," said Richard Renshaw, Co-Chair of the ARC Executive, after the meeting. "The lights in our places of worship are powered by dams that cause suffering to the lands and people of the north," said Thomas Novak, member of the Manitoba branch of ARC. "There must be better ways of meeting our energy needs."

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