What do young Indigenous Anglicans want from their church? According to a youth panel at the eighth National Anglican Sacred Circle in Port Elgin, Ont., the answer is pretty clear: engagement with issues that matter in their own lives.
The panel, moderated by Dixie Bird, a member of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) from the diocese of Saskatchewan, gave Indigenous youth from across Canada an opportunity to share their concerns about the church, its future and its role in their own lives.
The consistent message, whether on issues of poverty, gender violence or pollution, was that young people want to see a church that is advocating on matters that affect their lives.
“[Our young people] are suffering due to the past wrongs that have been done to our people,” said Sheba McKay, an Oji-Cree woman from the Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh. “They need to know about God’s love, and you see in most places…people don’t express that toward our young people.”
Indigenous youth need to be at the forefront of showing God’s love to their peers, said McKay. “It’s going to take me and my fellow young people here to show the way, to be an example.”
For Leigh Kern, a Métis woman from the diocese of Toronto, one of the most pressing areas in which the church needs to act on is sexual violence.
“We are in a state of crisis in our communities, and we need to come to a place where we can regard each other as holy and beautiful, and other, and not as objects to be exploited and colonized,” said Kern. “We have to decolonize our bodies and our sexualities and our relationships with each other, so we can come to a place of wholeness and self-love and respect for each other.”
Kern stressed that the emphasis cannot be only on teaching women to keep themselves safe-men must be held responsible for working to put an end to sexual violence as well.
Environmental concerns were also high on the list of priorities.
Ariana Dorie, who lives on Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, a part of the Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, explained that while her grandparents can remember drinking water directly from Lake Winnipeg, due to industrial pollution the water is now unsafe if it hasn’t been treated.
“My community has been stricken with many big companies coming into our town, coming into our community and ruining the environment,” she said. “Some fishermen have even reported that if you cut open a fish, you can see cancerous lumps. Our fish are sick; our land is sick.”
The panel also touched on spiritual concerns. Melanie Wesley, a Cree woman from the diocese of Moosonee, shared her frustration with the tensions she has seen between Anglicanism and traditional spirituality within her own community.
“It’s okay to have both-to walk with the Lord of the church and also to…hold onto the roots of your ancestors in the cultural way of our people,” she said. “Let’s reclaim our culture and our traditions, and integrate them into the church as well, and be welcoming of them. That can also be a healing for our people, to finally heal and move on from the residential school era.”
Jay Waterchief, a Siksika from the diocese of Calgary, stressed that if the church really wants to reach out to Indigenous youth, it has to be willing to meet them where they are. In Waterchief’s context, this means going beyond the walls of the church, to the “wrongfully imprisoned, the ones who’ve been turned away for just being First Nations.”
Given that “not a lot of them are into Christianity and not a lot of them are into the church,” Waterchief acknowledged that this is not an easy group to reach, but insisted that Anglicans-and especially Anglican leaders-have a responsibility to these young Indigenous people.
“If no one can be there for them, the church has to,” he said.
In addition to McKay, Kern, Dorie, Wesley and Waterchief, the panel also featured contributions from Jesse Johns and Aaron Sault, of the diocese of Huron; Theresa Halkett, Trent Bird and Jermaine Bell, from the diocese of Saskachewan; Freeman Bell, from the diocese of Caledonia; Shilo Clark and Danielle Black, from the diocese of Calgary; and Nick Kigeak, from the diocese of the Arctic.