“Your beadwork is coming along” she said, looking over my shoulder. “Though of course, my grandmother would have made me rip it all out and start over.”
This is Day 7. I know now that she is joking with me. In our time together, I’ve begun to pick up on the social cues and nuances of the conversation here. Our group from the city has learned a lot on this trip. We’ve had a glimpse of a different way of life. We’ve seen an example of reconciliation.
That’s why we picked the Yukon as the destination for our youth service trip. Teens at the Church of the Redeemer in Toronto have learned a lot about Indigenous history. They’ve met with residential school survivors. They’ve visited reservations closer to home. Building on that work, it was time for a more ambitious trip. So we picked the Yukon, where land claims with Indigenous peoples were settled a generation ago and where Indigenous peoples are self-governing. The Yukon is thought to be one of the healthiest and more hopeful examples of right relationships between Indigenous peoples, the church and government. We wanted to see and experience it. We wanted to learn from it and be shaped by it.
We were in the Yukon for 10 days this summer, travelling between Whitehorse, Dawson City and the village of Mayo, our base. We were supported by the Diocese of the Yukon and were partnered with lay ministers Charles and Valerie Maier, who helped facilitate our relationship with the Nacho Nyack Dun First Nation.
Early into our trip, I began to wonder if perhaps I hadn’t prepared our group properly. They were expecting poverty, despair and dire need. Instead, they discovered a proud and self-governing people who love the land and have regained stewardship of it.
“I guess I’ve always thought of Indigenous people as victims,” a teen announced one evening. “Yeah”, chimed another, “that’s what we’re taught in school.” “But here, it’s like they don’t even need us. They are the ones teaching us. They are showing us what it could be like at home.”
Our teens toured the Nacho Nyack Dun council chambers. Under the guidance of elders, we learned how mining impacted the life of the First Nations communities. We learned about their land settlements and saw what it can look like when an Indigenous nation is self-governing. We saw young adults stand in a running stream and, with confidence and poise, instruct the summer students on how to sample the water. This monitoring is important – it holds the mining companies accountable in the clean-up process. We worked in their community garden and learned about food security in Canada’s north. We participated in their celebration of Canada Day. We offered the first Messy Church experience in Mayo. They came with us to church. And every evening at the youth center, elders would gather with us. They taught us their traditional beading and engaged us in conversation. They welcomed us, strangers, into their way of life with openness, kindness and generosity. We were overwhelmed.
Now we are back home in Toronto. And we are left with questions. How can that experience inform us? What can we learn from them to improve relationships with First Nations communities here at home? What would a healthy relationship look like in Ontario? In Toronto?
I can’t get over the importance of the land settlements in the Yukon. It undergirds the relationship. I’m sure the pride and care and hope we saw in the people of the Nacho Nyack Dun is inextricably linked to their stewardship of the land. I’m sure that the resolution of land claims is a key element to reconciliation.
I’m reminded of the Jewish principle of repentance and forgiveness called “teshuvá.” There are five components: recognition of sin, remorse, desisting from sinful activity, restitution, and confession. Desisting from sinful activity is imperative. Forgiveness cannot be achieved so long as the harmful behaviour persists. I suspect this is why things are so healthy in the Yukon. Stewardship of the land has been restored. The people have access to their traditional lands and their traditional ways. There is hope and opportunity for their children. There are proper homes and infrastructure. You can drink the water. Much of the harmful behaviour of the past has been resolved. And so there is an openness to reconciliation.
When I consider some of the problems, and indeed the plight of Indigenous people in Ontario, the situation is overwhelming. And yet, I remain inspired by this trip. I find hope in the young people from Redeemer who immersed themselves in an experience. I’m inspired by the people at Redeemer who supported this trip, and by the Anglican Foundation and their grant funding that helped make this experience possible. I remain hopeful and optimistic because I’ve had a glimpse. I’ve seen a healthier way and I know it is possible.