Members of Toronto’s Indigenous community and many non-Indigenous friends and colleagues came to pay tribute to a beloved elder, the Rev. Canon Andrew Wesley, on Dec. 11. The standing-room only gathering, held at Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre, included about 20 uniformed police officers.
Canon Wesley has been a quiet, powerful presence on the city’s downtown streets and in First Nations affairs for nearly 20 years, since he came to Toronto as the diocese’s first Aboriginal Priest, serving on the team at Toronto Urban Native Ministries (TUNM).
Even though he retired from that position several years ago, succeeded first by Bishop Chris Harper and then the Rev. Leigh Kern, who is the current Coordinator of Indigenous Ministries and Reconciliation Animator, Canon Wesley has continued to serve the community through his work with Council Fire. He is perhaps best known as the lead elder in the monthly “walkabouts,” in which teams of three elders and three police officers make their way through the streets, visiting the regular haunts of street-involved men and women, building relationships of trust and friendship.
The celebration on Dec. 11 began with an invitation to all present to make their way outside to a ceremonial fire, overseen by a young fire-keeper, to make offerings of tobacco. Back in the hall, the crowd was treated to song by a group of young people around a great drum. Then everyone stood for a thanksgiving prayer song, led by a group of women with hand drums.
A shy Elder Andrew, wearing his familiar, worn red jacket and faded blue jeans, was urged to go to the front of the room, where he received tributes and was presented with gifts by Council Fire, the police and the local Member of Parliament. He began by telling the crowd that as a boy he had wanted to be a police officer, but somehow ended up as an Anglican priest, so he was very happy to be spending this time with police officers on the walkabouts.
He graciously paid tribute to the board and his colleagues at TUNM, to Council Fire, to the drummers and singers, and to the walkabout elders and police officers. A final Honour Song was followed by a feast which included spaghetti and meatballs – Canon’s Wesley’s favourite – and of course, bannock.
In his speech, Canon Wesley solemnly told the gathering that his father had taught him “never to accept honours from people.” Then his face broke into a wide grin. Looking up, he said, “But he’s gone!” In a final remark to the crowd, he said he had thought of dressing up for the occasion but wanted to appear in the clothes he always wore on the streets. Then he pulled on his beat-up old baseball cap. The crowd’s long standing ovation left no doubt that everyone thought he very much deserved the tributes paid to him that day.