The Canadian Way

by Andrew Watt

At my second day of A Parliament of the World’s Religions, the thing that keeps striking me is the “Canadian Way”. That’s the name I’m giving to a practice, which I have found striking and emotionally powerful, of acknowledging and recognizing the First Nations of the region around Toronto as the keepers of the land.  These tribes include the Mississaugas, the New Credit Tribes, and the Six Nations.  I’ve not caught all the names or subtleties of the relationships between the tribes, I know.  But I know that they are here, their chiefs saw us at the Parliament’s opening session on the first day, that they knew we were coming, and that they have extended a formal welcome to the Parliament and a kind of formal permission to conduct our business here. (In a kindly, funny but also serious fashion, we were told in no uncertain terms to go home when we were done.)

Talking with a few Canadians today, I learned that this is becoming more and more common at all sorts of Canadian official events: graduations and conferences, government meetings, matriculation ceremonies, and higher-level religious events like church synods.  Canada appears to be making a serious commitment to recognize and acknowledge the place and position of what it calls the First Nations within the fabric of Canadian life.  My new Canadian friends admitted that it feels more like “talking the talk” and not enough like “walking the walk” — but that Indigenous Peoples are much more active in the political and social fabric of the nation today than they were twenty and forty years ago in their own childhoods.

And so, the Canadian Way: to be welcomed to traditional lands by traditional First Nations custodians, to be given permission to settle and perform ceremony, and to participate in the life of the nation as the First to speak.  To Be First.

The formal opening session of the Parliament was preceded by several hours of Indigenous Ceremony in the park outside the Convention Center: dancing, smudging done by members of the Toronto tribes, welcomes from the chiefs of several of the tribes, drumming and singing in the traditional styles and in the traditional costumes of the

Indigenous dancer

photo by Moira Ashleigh

Mississaugas, the Cree, the New Credit Tribes, the Six Nations.  A few hours later, at the formal opening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the chiefs spoke again.  No rousing strains of “O Canada!” filled the hall.  Instead, with the raising of Indigenous eagle feathers and staffs, the singing was one of one of the local tribe’s national anthems, and another song in a First Nations language to thank veterans. During the opening speeches, a minister of the government of Canada thanked the Mississaugas and the New Credit Tribes and the Six Nations. So did the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.  So did a city councillor of the government of the city of Toronto.  No one stumbled over unfamiliar names.  No one tried a couple of times and gave up.  The tribes were mentioned in the same order each time (which I’ve endeavored without notes to repeat, but apologize if I’ve gotten in wrong).  There is clearly an effort underway within the Canadian government to restore a sense of traditional custodianship of the land to the First Nations, at all levels of government.

That’s extraordinary in itself.

But then… it happened in some of the sessions and workshops I attended during the day.  A presenter thanked the First Nations tribes of the Toronto area, and named them the same way the government officials had.  Then she got around to thanking the Parliament for inviting her to speak.  A ritual event in another space included a formal acknowledgement that the ceremony was taking place on Mississaugas land.

Later in the day, I asked a Canadian if they knew what First Nations land they were on. “Mississaugas,” came the answer, followed immediately by surprise. They didn’t know, quite, how long they had known that information, or how they’d come by it.

And yet, in an extraordinary way, the Canadian Way is beginning to undo the effects of centuries of deliberate erasure of the First Nations:  by inviting them to speak First, by inviting them into the role of the traditional custodians, all across Canada people are waking up to the idea that they are on someone’s land, that they are in someone’s land: that Canada is more than one country, and the country has a deeper and longer history than just the French and English, Confederation and a couple of World Wars.

The Canadian Way may bring about a deeper understanding of their nation’s cultural heritage, a heritage that extends at least twenty thousand years into the past…. and into a present where the First Nations always speak First, in words of welcome and of permission. There’s a power in that; and I hope that it brings the many peoples of Canada a few long and graceful strides toward reconciliation. At the same time, I feel the challenge and the opportunity in the Canadian Way that all of these visitors from around the globe must see and hear, and I hope that many of them — and we ourselves — can take the steps and begin the conversations that begin to put Indigenous voices as First Voices.

EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto this week!  Keep an eye here and on our Facebook page for more updates on our interfaith experiences.  

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