Participants in Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights.

My wife Martha and I joined walkers in May for the final three days of a Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, a 600-kilometre trek from Kitchener, Ontario to Ottawa. The walkers encountered warm support from individuals and churches along the route, but a few of us received one bit of push back from a middle-aged settler — a reminder of the task ahead if reconciliation is to occur. 

A core group of about 30 walkers hiked through rain, snow and sunshine for 20 days in April and May. They were people of religious faith who were responding to a call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) inquiry into Indian Residential Schools. The TRC commissioners asked churches, among others, to support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The UN describes that document as outlining the “minimum standards necessary” for the dignity, survival and well-being of Indigenous peoples. Although the Trudeau government has accepted the declaration in principle, it has yet to provide any framework for implementing it. The walkers called upon the government to do just that.

When we joined the group early one morning, they were having breakfast after sleeping at a United Church in Perth.  The next stop, after a long walk of 37 kilometres, was a tiny Anglican church in the village of Ashton. There, after being greeted warmly by the minister and served dinner by volunteers, the walkers rolled out their sleeping bags on, under and in between pews. Breakfast on the following morning was provided by the equally modest United Church down the street.

On that day’s long walk from Perth to Ashton four of us had a bracing encounter while standing beside our support van which was parked at the side of the road. An older man who had been watching us from his acreage walked over and asked what was happening. When we told him that we were walking in support of Indigenous rights, he said that he was Indigenous because he was born in Canada, and he asked about his rights.

That led him into a litany of prejudices: The jails, he said, are full of “natives.” The leaders, he said, are corrupt. He claimed to have dined in British Columbia with a chief who lived in a big house and had an SUV in the driveway while his band members lived in squalor. Curiously, when I looked past the man I saw that he lived in a big house and kept a large car parked in his driveway.

The “natives,” he continued, were killing their own women. A young pilgrimage organizer suggested gently that we should wait for the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls to describe what had occurred. Finally, the older man said that whites are now a minority in Canada. This really has nothing to do with Indigenous rights but I know where he is coming from, having observed the 2016 U.S. election.

At this point, a young woman among us offered the man some ice cream. He declined but the peace offering appeared to have its effect; he thanked us for the conversation and cautioned us to be careful while walking along the busy highway.

This article appeared in a slightly altered form with the United Church Observer on May 25, 2017.

Image: PFIR

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