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Rev. Susan Beaver speaks before General Council 43. (Credit: Richard C. Choe)

Indigenous church cautiously optimistic about General Council changes

The United Church has voted to create a new National Indigenous Elders Council and a National Indigenous Spiritual Gathering, among other commitments.

By Mike Milne

General Council 43 was significant in the United Church’s continuing journey toward better relations with its Indigenous leaders and communities of faith. Indigenous church people were more present, visible and heard than at any Council meeting in recent memory.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has shown, the church’s relationship with Indigenous communities has been fraught, extending back further than the United Church’s 93-year history. But the meeting in July gave the church a glimpse of what self-determination looks like, through the airing of Indigenous concerns and the groundbreaking adoption of Calls to the Church. The calls were created by Indigenous church leaders and were sent to General Council by its Executive last fall.

In the introductory plenary session, Adrian Jacobs, keeper of the circle at the United Church’s Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre in Beausejour, Man., showed wampum belts that illustrate treaties between First Nations. He said they signify “not a rights-based agreement, but a responsibility” accepted by two groups. In considering the calls, General Council was facing a similar agreement. “We are at a very pivotal time,” Jacobs told commissioners. “We have the desire to move ahead together.”

The report was open for adoption or rejection, but not discussion or alteration. In a later interview, general secretary Nora Sanders said respect for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the General Council Executive adopted in 2016, means the report needed to be received. “It isn’t for the rest of the church to tinker with and try to improve,” she said, “but for us to figure out our part.” Commissioners voted almost unanimously to adopt the report and applauded its passage. 

Laying out what it describes as a “framework for reconciliation,” the report affirms that Indigenous ministries “will decide for ourselves who we are,” determine what training programs are needed, and promote an “Indigenous understanding of the Christ story.” The calls will shift the relationship between the Indigenous and broader United Church “to mutuality and respect,” says Rev. Maggie Dieter, executive minister of the Aboriginal Ministries Circle and Indigenous justice.

“We are at a very pivotal time [...] We have the desire to move ahead together.”

As part of an implementation package, commissioners agreed to create an eight-member National Indigenous Elders Council that will advise other parts of the church; create a decision-making National Indigenous Organization; hold a National Indigenous Spiritual Gathering every three years, starting next August; and develop clusters and networks, including a national network of urban Indigenous ministries. Implementation will also include collaboration with non-Indigenous parts of the church.

The Calls report states that the church is “rich in land and properties” that were “stolen by false promises in treaty negotiations,” and suggests that at least some of the proceeds from sales of decommissioned church properties should be given back to Indigenous ministries. The implementation motion doesn’t outline a way to ensure this will happen, but some individual congregations are already choosing to do so as awareness grows.

In some Indigenous communities of faith, though, there is skepticism about the wider church’s commitment. “To be completely honest,” says Rev. Susan Beaver of Grand River United in Six Nations, “I would sort of characterize it as making a new treaty. And the people have absolutely no faith that the treaty will be upheld or that it will mean anything.”

She continues, “I don’t necessarily believe that is true. I think there is room to work.” In her community, though, the attitude is largely “wait and see.”

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