Archbishop Michael Peers joins Canadian church leaders in calling for the establishment of an independent aboriginal land claims commission. In the background (from left to right) are Janet Somerville, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches; Ed Bianchi, national co-ordinator of the Aboriginal Rights Coalition; Rt. Rev. Marion Pardy, Moderator of the United Church of Canada; Rev. Glen Davis, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Canada; Bishop Telmor Sartison, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada; and Archbishop Marcel Gervais, representing the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Archbishop Michael Peers, the Primate, joined other Canadian church leaders on Parliament Hill to help launch a petition campaign in support of aboriginal land rights in Canada.
Amid a backdrop of clashes between Native fishers and federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans officers at Burnt Church, N.B., church leaders called on Ottawa to set up an independent commission with the clout to implement aboriginal, land, treaty and inherent rights.
However, they said at a news conference Sept. 25, the campaign was not triggered by the dispute at Burnt Church but was part of the churches’ three-year Jubilee effort that began with a call two years ago for the cancellation of unpayable debts by the world’s poorest nations.
The news conference came just before a bold move by Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin, who proposed an immediate moratorium on debt repayment for the most heavily indebted countries and a lightening of conditions attached to debt relief.
Mr. Martin’s proposal came during late-September meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Prague. His proposals still fall short of Jubilee’s ultimate goals but were welcomed by the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative as “a significant step forward.”
At the news conference, Archbishop Peers said, “This year the concern is for land, for a new beginning in an issue that has shown no progress for many years. We want to encourage this initiative afresh as a celebration of the Jubilee.”
The petition campaign is being co-ordinated by the church-based Aboriginal Rights Coalition and CEJI. It seeks to right what the groups called the “disfigured” relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples. Also at the news conference were leaders of the United, Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches along with the head of the Canadian Council of Churches.
A seven-page letter endorsed by 12 Canadian church leaders was released asking members of the various congregations for prayerful reflection on justice for aboriginal peoples. “If we are to hear God’s word of peace and seek it with one another, then we must face past and present injustices which have caused and continue to cause a breach between us,” the letter states.
“What we hope to encourage through this letter and other ways, such as through educational programs in our churches, is the growth of a generous sense of moral urgency within the hearts of all Canadians,” said Lutheran Bishop Telmor Sartison. The status of land negotiations in Canada leads the churches to conclude “sadly, that the present system works for no one,” he said.
Archbishop Peers said that although the call for justice for aboriginal peoples was being made this year as part of Jubilee, the message is not new. The Anglican church ended its relationship with the government’s residential schools more than 30 years ago and set out on “a completely new path” in its relationship with Canada’s aboriginal peoples, he said. Since then, he said, the church has stood by Native people on issues such as the pollution of traditional fishing waters by mining companies and in supporting aboriginal land rights claims.
“It’s part of a continuum, and it lives, of course, in the midst of all of the things that have surfaced in the residential schools. But we’re in it for the long haul,” he said.
Signatures are to be collected across the country over the next several months and presented to the federal government next June. “We’re looking forward to having as big a splash with this issue as the Jubilee people had with their petition on the debt,” said Ed Bianchi, national co-ordinator of the Aboriginal Rights Coalition. The CEJI petition calling for the forgiveness of debt contained signatures of more than 600,000 Canadians and was presented to the federal government in 1998.
Art Babych is a freelance journalist based on Parliament Hill.