Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights: A way is made by walking

Houses. Toilets. Schools. These are basic human rights to which Canadians feel entitled – and which many vulnerable and disenfranchised Indigenous peoples do not have.

Houses, toilets, schools could also be a translation for the much longer title “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” or UNDRIP. Indigenous leader Leah Gazan says UNDRIP is really just the floor for human rights. The activist, policy analyst, and educator at the University of Winnipeg says UNDRIP outlines “the minimum human rights to be healthy.”

After years of objector status to UNDRIP, the Canadian government accepted the Declaration in the spring of 2016 to a standing ovation when Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett made the announcement at the UN.

But words are one thing; implementation is another. Currently in play is the proposed Bill C-262, an act that would ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with UNDRIP.

Erin Froese Sue KlassenTo keep the church focused on this justice issue, Steve Heinrichs, student intern Erin Froese, and a small circle of diverse Indigenous and settler volunteers are organizing a Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights. The 600 km walk from Kitchener to Ottawa is an attempt to “…engage churches in a series of conversations about UNDRIP, explore why it matters, the hope it offers, and how we can live into it” says Heinrichs, Director of Indigenous Relations for MC Canada. Indigenous Peoples Solidarity of Christian Peacemaker Teams is co-planning the event.

Erin Froese, 21, is a third year environmental studies student at Canadian Mennonite University. She is helping organize the pilgrimage as part of an independent studies project. The work has special meaning for her: Ike Froese, her late grandfather, was a predecessor to Heinrichs in his work with Indigenous peoples. Erin, who spent recent summers as staff at Camps with Meaning was surprised to learn that one of its sites, Camp Koinonia, is situated on crown land that is sacred to the Dakota peoples.

Sue Klassen, 56, is already in training for the April 23 – May 14 journey. She appreciates the sacred nature of the term “pilgrimage.”  The former math and computer science teacher now does trauma and resilience training. At the end of a three-day long volunteer training a correctional facility, Klassen walked home in sleeting rain for three hours. She says her participation in the pilgrimage is a logical response given her 17 year interest in restorative justice. She is also in spiritual training for the journey. “I don’t want to say, ‘those people back in history did these horrible things’” to Indigenous people, she says, acknowledging the wrongs of residential schools and cultural genocide dating back generations. “Where would I have been at Jesus crucifixion? I don’t know. Would I have been yelling ‘Crucify him? Would I have been calling residential school students savages?”

So far, participants committed to the intentionally ecumenical pilgrimage range in age from 12 to 85. A support vehicle will accompany walkers who need a rest or a water refill. Walkers will spend nights in church basements along the way, and local communities will be invited to attend conversation circles enroute. The journey will conclude with a celebration feast in Ottawa, but not before walkers stop at Parliament Hill to advocate for Bill C-262. Heinrichs is hoping for 30-50 core walkers committed to the 600 km distance. Casual walkers can join any leg of the trip and must supply their own food and drink. Those joining for more than one day need to register so that accommodations can be planned and prepared. All participants are responsible for traveling to and from the start and end points. “It’s a commitment, for sure,” says Heinrichs, “but I’m confident it will make a tremendous impact.”

Leah Gazan will join the walk for the entire duration. Her commitment required serious juggling of her schedule and the cancellation of a previously planned speaking event. “We are living in a time where there is a lot of hope – but it can also go the other way,” she says. Quoting Chief Justice Murray Sinclair, she says she’s joining the pilgrimage because, “This is not about us and them. This is about how we are going to work together to rediscover a better future together.”

Support the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights