The Canadian Way

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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People of the Earth at the 2015 Parliament

by Rowan Morrigan

Inija Trinkuniene speaking about the survival of the Romuva religion in Lithuania.

Inija Trinkuniene speaking about the survival of the Romuva religion in Lithuania.

To a packed room, the “People of the Earth: The Surviving Indigenous Spiritual Traditions of Europe” presentation was a wonderful description of the history of indigenous people in Europe by Andras Corban Arthen, and an example of keeping a living tradition intact through the Romuva religion in Lithuania by Inija Trinkuniene. I think many people did not realize that Christian Europeans were the conquerors of the pagani (the people of the land) long before they went on to conquer the Americas and other lands. Once Andras set the stage with that, Inija showed how her tradition survived, largely due to Lithuania being the last hold-out to Christian European colonization. The photo on the screen shows a core concept of Romuva: the living fire.

Andras Corban Arthen speaking of the history of indigenous people in Europe.

Andras Corban Arthen speaking of the history of indigenous people in Europe.

My First Handfasting

by Andras Corban-Arthen

Exactly 40 years ago, in 1973, I performed my very first handfasting. I had originally learned about this traditional European marriage ceremony from my teachers, who had told me about handfastings (or “left-handed marriages,” as they were sometimes called) in Scotland, how they differed from Christian nuptials in both concept and form, and how they were still clandestinely practiced by some in Gaelic-speaking communities in the Highlands. And I had recently attended two such ceremonies, the religious weddings of pagan friends who subsequently legalized their marriages before a justice of the peace. The possibility that I might be called upon to officiate a handfasting any time soon, however, had not even crossed my mind.

Ginny was a friend from work. She had been assigned to show me around the library on my first day there, and we had taken an immediate liking to each other. We were about the same age, had a very similar sense of humor, and quickly discovered that we shared the same political views about some of the important causes of the day – the Civil Rights movement, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, and, of course, the Vietnam War. And, certainly not least, we were both diehard Red Sox fans.

Ginny was very blunt-spoken, and readily used four-letter words, a habit for which she had been reprimanded by her boss a few times. There was something very “tomboyish” about her, and I remember her telling me that one of the reasons she had applied for her job was that she wouldn’t have to wear a dress to work every day.

We started having lunch together frequently, and once in a while would go for a couple of beers after work. As we became closer, I eventually felt enough trust to confide in her about my being pagan; she thought it was odd, but interesting, and the subject would occasionally come up in our conversations.

One day, as we got together for drinks after work, we were joined by Betsy, Ginny’s roommate of several years. Ginny and Betsy had become friends in high school and attended the same college, where they originally began living together, and had continued doing so after graduation. It turned out that Ginny had told her roommate about my paganism, and Betsy had become very interested and wanted to meet me to talk about it.

Betsy and I hit it off as quickly as Ginny and I had, and we enjoyed a very pleasant but brief conversation because of time constraints. Ginny suggested that I have dinner with them at their place the following week, so we could talk some more; she mentioned that I’d be in for a treat, since Betsy was a wonderful cook.

That certainly proved to be the case, and as we talked about paganism after dinner in their tidy, plant-filled North Cambridge apartment, the two of them sat on the sofa opposite me. At some point, Ginny matter-of-factly reached over and pulled Betsy close to her, and we continued talking as the two of them snuggled on the couch. A little later, during a lull in the conversation, they casually kissed.

While that might not raise too many eyebrows nowadays, back then it was a very different story – people of the same sex simply didn’t engage in open displays of romantic affection toward each other. At that point in my life, the only times I had ever seen two women kiss on the lips were in a couple of European art films, but never in the flesh. I imagine, in retrospect, that if I had watched two women I didn’t know kissing like that in public, I might have felt somewhat uncomfortable; ­­­for all my avowed support of Gay Liberation in principle, I really didn’t have much actual experience with gay people.

But I knew Betsy and Ginny, and it was very obvious that they shared a very deep bond of love, friendship and affection, so their intimacies didn’t faze me at all – they felt natural, normal, right. If anything, I was glad that they were comfortable enough to be themselves around me.

They came out to me then, and we spent the rest of the evening talking about their lives, their love for and bond with each other, the struggles they’d had to face dealing with family and friends, and those they kept encountering with neighbors and at work.

And we talked about the pain – the pain of rejection and marginalization, of not being accepted for who they were; the pain caused by prejudice, by discrimination, by not being able to marry and live normal lives like most people; the pain of having to deny and hide their beautiful love every day of their lives. Tears flowed, we held each other, and from that moment became a lot closer; over time, I came to experience even more the depth of their love for one another, the strength of their commitment.

Months later, Ginny and Betsy told me that they had decided to get married. They knew there was no way they could legally do so, but they wanted, at the very least, to have some sort of unofficial ceremony, some spiritual affirmation and blessing of their relationship. They approached the minister of one of their family’s churches, but he turned them down. Over the next few months they tried churches of other denominations, only to meet with similar results.

They eventually pinned their hopes on the minister of a local Unitarian-Universalist congregation, someone they’d met at a friend’s wedding; they suspected he was gay, and felt that he, of all people, might be willing to marry them. He turned out, in fact, to be very sympathetic, but also apologetic – he wished he could perform the ceremony, he’d told them, but he was too afraid of losing his job if word ever got out. They were heartbroken.

Then, one day, Betsy showed up at my library at the time I usually went on coffee break, and asked if she could talk to me. She had just remembered my telling her about the pagan handfastings I’d attended, and a light bulb had gone off in her head. Could I – would I – perform a handfasting for them? She took me completely by surprise: the thought had not even occurred to me, as it obviously hadn’t to them until that moment.

After regaining my composure, I had to think a bit – I was just in my early twenties, and had only been on my path for four years, so what she was asking was a bit daunting. I finally told her that I could not remember anything in all my training that raised objections to the marriage of two people who clearly were in love and wanted to ceremonialize their commitment to each other.

And so it was that on a gloriously sunny but chilly spring morning, a small group of us gathered in a secluded part of a large public park in Brookline, surrounded by pines, to celebrate the handfasting of my two friends. It was a bittersweet event: Ginny’s mother was there, as were two of Betsy’s sisters; the rest of their families had adamantly refused to attend. Just a few close friends completed the party, twelve to fifteen people altogether, but what we lacked in size, we more than made up for in spirit.

We blessed them with mead. We blessed them with rose petals. I took the multi-colored cord they had brought and wrapped it around their joined hands. They each tied a knot while saying their vows to one another, looking deeply into each other’s eyes, the smiles on their faces more radiant than the sun. I tied the third knot on behalf of their family and friends, and pronounced them handfasted in marriage.

As the rest of us offered them our good wishes for their life ahead, I remember hoping that, one day, they would be able to renew those vows in a ceremony that would finally legitimize the marriage which took place that day; not because some legal piece of paper would make their relationship any more meaningful or real, but simply because the love which they had for each other deserved to be untainted – in any way at all – from ever being considered second-class.

I lost track of my two friends over the years, but they have been very present in my mind lately, as the U.S. Supreme Court begins to hear arguments regarding two cases that could decide the future of same-sex marriage in this country. Let us hope that the justices will put aside political and religious ideology, and rule in favor of freedom and equality under the law.

The measure of freedom lies in the ability to make choices; and whom we decide to love and share the rest of our lives with, is one of the most important choices we can ever make. In a truly free society, everyone should be able to make that choice equally, with equal rights and responsibilities – whether we choose someone of a different race or religion, or of the same sex; or whether we choose to share our lives with one other person, or with several.

I am proud to live in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriages have been legal for almost a decade, the first state in the Union to take such a step. As I think of Ginny and Betsy, I can’t help but wonder if they stayed together living here throughout all these years.

I’d like to imagine that they did, and that they stood in line at the courthouse in 2004 to be among the first to take advantage of the changed law, to finally legalize their marriage. And I’d like to imagine them now, two older women sitting close to each other on the couch at their home, tightly clasping their ring-bedecked hands while gazing fondly at the thin, multicolored cord hanging over their front door, the cord that we bound together forty years ago.