Elaine Sawkins (middle) of St. John the Baptist, Anglican diocese of Ontario, was among those who greeted the truth and reconciliation walkers. They include (L to R): Remi Nakogee, Daren Hughie, Frances Whiskeychan, Patrick Etherington, Sr. and behind him, Patrick Etherington, Jr. and Maurice Wesley. Photo: Contributed
Six walkers travelling from Cochrane, Ont., to Ottawa to be present for the final report of the six-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) are relying on the kindness of strangers and churches along the way.
But that’s one of the points for the walk, according to organizers of the Mushkegowuk Truth and Reconciliation Walk. Meeting with Anglican parishioners, United Church members and non-Natives gives the walkers—all from the James Bay Cree region—an opportunity “to create awareness and education about the Indian residential school,” says walker Patrick Etherington, Sr. It’s also a reminder of how the journey toward reconciliation needs to continue, he said. (The walkers have set up a Facebook page and posted a video about their journey.)
Three of the walkers, including Etherington, are survivors for whom the Indian residential school experience is more than a distant story. While he was in a Roman Catholic school, another walker, Frances Whiskeychan, was placed in an Anglican school.
Two of the others are Etherington’s sons, one of whom was recently located on the streets of Toronto, where he had been living.
“I’m his father. He’s my son. He ended up somewhere. It took him far into that world” is how Etherington describes his son’s experience and the effects of drug addiction.
Two other members of the team visited his son and convinced him to join the walk. “He came back to be who he is, to be my son,” says Etherington, admitting, “I was overwhelmed” by the reunion.
The impact of residential schools is generational, Etherington’s other son, Patrick Jr., says on a Facebook page. His grandparents, his father, his own generation and their children still feel the effects. “I feel that we can break this cycle for the children today and the youth,” he writes, “so we can start another beautiful picture.”
This 800-km walk from northern Ontario to Ottawa, which began April 8, is the third walk for healing and reconciliation undertaken by Whiskeychan and Patrick Sr. and Jr. In 2011, they walked 2,200 km across eastern Canada to attend the Atlantic National Event of the TRC held in Halifax. The trip lasted a gruelling 42 days. Their first walk, to launch the start of the first TRC event in 2010, took them from Cochrane to northeast of Timmins and Winnipeg.
The other walkers are Maurice Wesley and Remi Nakogee, both from Attawapiskat, and Darren Hughie, from Kashechewan.
Walkers are being greeted in various ways by Anglicans along the way. Some are providing food and shelter as requested, while others are more intentional about participating in a meaningful way. Some are walking part of the distance with the group as a symbolic gesture.
“I see this as a kind of breakthrough for this part of our journey with the First Peoples,” says Jean Koning, a parishioner at All Saints in Peterborough. At 92, Koning has been passionate about the relationship between First Peoples and non-Native Canadians for almost 50 years, ever since she worked for Children’s Aid on Manitoulin Island, where her husband was posted as an Anglican priest.
The disparity in the people’s socio-economic situation there was “a terrible culture shock,” says Koning. “I knew that there was injustice. I wanted to help them and walk with them in some way.”
So when she heard that there was to be a literal walk, and that the ceremonial procession would pass through where she now lives, Koning sprang into action. The Sunday morning before the walkers were to arrive in Peterborough, Koning announced she would be collecting money at the end of the service to help provide breakfast. To her surprise, parishioners at the sparsely attended service gave her $260, with another $50 coming in later.
And when volunteers contributed food and assistance, most of the money wasn’t needed. “I gave them the cash that was left over.” In many stops along the way, the team had to rent motels for the night, making cash donations helpful.
Meeting with people on the journey has been “very intense,” says Etherington, because “non-Native people are asking a lot of questions.”
And that’s the way it should be, says Koning. “We have to sit down face to face and be quiet while the First People tell us the truth about our shared history.”
Healing from the residential schools experience is proving to be a very long process. While the Anglican Church of Canada closed its last school in 1969 and then-Primate Michael Peers apologized for the church’s role in 1992, the years since then have been a learning process as the church finds ways to reconcile with Canada’s first peoples. Part of that process was the appointment of a national Indigenous bishop, Mark MacDonald, in 2007.
The Anglican church was also instrumental in establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. When the TRC releases its final report on May 31, it will be only another step along the journey. “We’re not going to [fix everything] right away,” says Etherington.
In the meantime, under the hashtag #22days, the Anglican church is asking cathedrals and churches across the country to pray for the work of reconciliation every day between May 31 and June 21, National Aboriginal Day, as well as create a symbol inside or outside each church, and hold one special event during that time.
Debra Fieguth is a freelance writer in Kingston, Ont.
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