MC Canada and CPT send team to Unist’ot’en

Mennonite Church Canada and Christian Peacemaker Teams have formed a five-person accompaniment team that will spend time listening, learning and supporting at Unist’ot’en Camp in Wet’suwet’en Territory

May 31, 2021 | Web First
Mennonite Church Canada
Team members, from left to right: (Back row) Josiah Neufeld, Steve Heinrichs and Allegra Friesen Epp; (front row) Emily Green and Rachelle Friesen. (MC Canada photo)

Mennonite Church Canada, together with Christian Peacemaker Teams, has responded to an invitation to accompany Unist’ot’en Camp in Wet’suwet’en Territory. This past Friday, May 28, a group comprised of CPTers and members of MC Canada arrived at the camp in northern B.C.

The team members are:

  • Rachelle Friesen, Canada Coordinator, Christian Peacemaker Teams;
  • Allegra Friesen Epp, MC Canada-CPT intern and member of Home Street Mennonite Church (Winnipeg, Man.);
  • Emily Green, CPT reservist;
  • Steve Heinrichs, Director of Indigenous-Settler Relations, MC Canada;
  • Josiah Neufeld, member of Hope Mennonite Church (Winnipeg, Man.).

The team released the following statement on May 28:

“While many communities and workplaces have been in a form of lockdown for over a year, the work of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline has not stopped. Settler colonialism and land theft continues. But so too does Indigenous resistance. Part of the resistance is the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre which nurtures connection to the land, cultural and spiritual wellness, and ensures Indigenous presence on sovereign territory. Five members of CPT and Mennonite Church Canada will be joining the site for approximately one month. Updates from the field will be limited, but we look forward to sharing our journey with you upon our return.”

With respect to COVID-19, the camp has protocols in place for risk reduction, and is taking risk seriously. The CPT-MC Canada accompaniment team has also put in place a strict COVID-19 protocol to minimize the risk of transmission. In addition, all members of this group have received their first vaccination.

During their stay, team members will learn from the people, listen to the land, and support the protection and maintenance of the Healing Centre, which, for more than 12 years, has nurtured connections to traditional territories and waters, cultural and spiritual wellness, and ensured Indigenous presence on sovereign territory.

Two of the team members, Allegra Friesen Epp and Emily Green, answered questions about the trip.

Q: Please describe your role on this trip and your relationship to MC Canada and CPT.

Friesen Epp: I am visiting Unist’ot’en as part of my internship with Mennonite Church Canada and Christian Peacemaker Teams’ Turtle Island Solidarity Network. Over the last number of months, I have been doing Indigenous solidarity work with both organizations. I also attend Home Street Mennonite Church in Winnipeg. I first became involved in CPT’s work on a delegation to Colombia in 2019.

Green: I am a reservist with CPT. This means that I have completed their one-month intensive training and I am available to work or volunteer with their projects. I am also a member of the Undoing Oppressions Working Group where we examine CPT policies and aspire to improve their anti-oppression practices.

Q: Tell us about where you’re travelling. Where is Unist’ot’ten and who lives there?

Friesen Epp: Our delegation is going to the Wet’suwet’en nation, which is located in what is now known as northwestern B.C. All 22,000 square kilometres of Wet’suwet’en territory remain unceded, which means that the Wet’suwet’en have never given up title to their lands.

The Unist’ot’en are one of five Wet’suwet’en clans. They established Unist’ot’en Camp in 2010 as a place of cultural resurgence and connection to their territory. We will be staying at this camp, which the Unist’ot’en maintain year-round.

Green: The territory is the site of a land defense struggle: the Wet’suwet’en people are resisting a pipeline project that would threaten their river and watershed—and their way of living and being. I am learning to appreciate my relationships with non-human life as just as real and important as my human relationships. The territory is inhabited by many living beings including bears, wolves, moose, elk and deer; there are also cedar, spruce, fir and many other species of tree.

Q: Why are you visiting this community?

Friesen Epp: Our delegation is responding to Unist’ot’en’s request for on-the-ground support. It is essential that, as settlers, we embody our solidarity and take seriously the invitation to be present on the frontlines. Christ paid particular attention to those who were being oppressed by the colonial powers of his time. As a Christian, I believe I am called to do the same.

Green: I had the honour of visiting just over a year ago, before the pandemic. I’m hopeful that I will reconnect with old friends and make new friends. Relationship-building is foundational to settler-Indigenous solidarity. It gives me life to envision a decolonized world and it gives me hope to engage in Indigenous-led strategies to build that world.

Q: What will you do when you are there?

Friesen Epp: We will take direction from the Unist’ot’en leadership and lend a hand wherever needed. This might include chopping firewood, washing dishes or documenting human-rights violations.  We intend to do lots of listening and learning as guests on Wet’suwet’en territory.

Green: I’ll do what is needed: cooking large meals, helping with construction projects or any number of other tasks. Our accompaniment group has plans to read about settler-Indigenous solidarity and to learn together.

Q: How can we learn more about this community and support the work that you’re doing?

Friesen Epp: There are several great videos on the Unist’ot’en Camp website that beautifully illustrate the values and vision of the community. This three-minute video describes the Healing Centre at Unist’ot’en, which provides the community with cultural programming and land-based teachings.

The Unist’ot’en need financial support. Donations made here go towards legal costs associated with the Unist’ot’en’s ongoing protection of their lands, rights and way of life.

Green: For a short, 20-minute background on the struggle, I recommend watching the video Invasion.

Team members, from left to right: (Back row) Josiah Neufeld, Steve Heinrichs and Allegra Friesen Epp; (front row) Emily Green and Rachelle Friesen. (MC Canada photo)

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Nachricten aus der Heidenwelt - News from the Heathen World

I came across the title of this Mennonite General Conference Missions periodical published from 1877-1881 as I was reading an article about the Mennonite Mission School of Darlington, Oklahoma (Indian Territory). This mission school was operated by the Mennonite General Conference from about 1880 – 1898 and it endeavoured to “bring Jesus” to the heathen Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at that time. Of course, most of the effort was directed at the Cheyenne/Arapaho children in the typical fashion of a “mission school,” cut off the braids, speak English only, wear the “right” clothing, accept Christian ideology, learn Biblical history, and participate in Sunday School. The children were the most vulnerable.

My reading about USA Mennonite sponsored mission or boarding schools for Indigenous children, has coincided with the current exhumation of the bodies of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of a Kamloops, B.C., Catholic run residential school. Residential schools were also operated by Mennonites in Canada, in Poplar Hill, Stirland Lake, and Crystal Lake, all in Northwestern Ontario. Residential schools along with the dispossession of lands, were primary tools and strategies used by colonial powers for the assimilation and cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada. How many more bodies of Indigenous children are yet to be exhumed?

The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report of 2015 contains 94 calls to action. Calls to action numbered from 58 – 61, deal with “Church Apologies and Reconciliation.” These specific actions include apologies, education of the Church’s role in colonization, respect of Indigenous spirituality, community healing projects, culture and language revitalization, relationship building, and dialogue. Here in Southern Manitoba the initiative for addressing many of these calls to action lie still in a dormancy stage, denying their potential for the beauty of healing. A pastor in a local Mennonite Church whom I spoke to in the recent past, was unwilling to commit energy, personal or congregational, to begin dialogue with Indigenous individuals to ameliorate racial tensions in our community.

My understanding is that colonization efforts of residential schools and land dispossession have been in large part responsible for the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada (UNDRIP). Mennonites of Canada have and continue to be supporters of and active participants in these colonizing efforts, especially here in Southern Manitoba where we were/are the beneficiaries of approximately 675,000 acres of Treaty One lands.

These genocidal efforts continue unabated. We continue to possess the land without reparation, we benefit from land based free-market capitalism, we participate in the “Millennial Scoop” of Indigenous foster children, we laud our ideological superiority of land use, we promote an “extraction” mentality, and understand the Indigenous spirituality to be inferior to Christianity.

In the meantime, Mennonite Church Canada is sending its Indigenous relations employee (Steve Heinrichs) to Wet’suwet’in territory to support objection to the Coastal GasLink Pipeline. I suppose this is an effort to confront the colonial powers of the oil and gas industry. I think that this Mennonite Church Canada initiative is a misdirection.

The real supporters of and practitioners of colonialism are here in Southern Manitoba. Southern Manitoba is where Mennonite Church Canada needs to send their “missionaries.” It is here where the efforts of colonizers continue unabated. Dies ist der Nachricten aus der Heidenwelt, and the efforts of Mennonite Church Canada should reflect the spiritual poverty that exists here.

Thanks for now
Peter Reimer
Gretna, Manitoba

I appreciate these thoughts, although I question the conclusion that Southern Manitoba is the 'real' practitioner and supporter of colonialism! I don't think any one region can claim that or be accused of that! Sitting in Toronto, with city grids built on the wealth extracted from Indigenous territories across the continent and beyond, I feel we can localize blame in many places!

But colonialism almost certainly looks different in one region as opposed to another. I've mostly learned about the theft of land for hydro-electric systems in Northern Manitoba through reading Canadian Mennonite. I'd say that the territories out in British Colombia (such as it is named) are even more colonial, being almost entirely untreatied, but I think we can agree that there are plenty of issues to work on.

I am grateful for you sharing your understanding 'that colonization efforts of residential schools and land dispossession have been in large part responsible for the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada' and referencing UNDRIP and the TRC. For me this has been the major learning from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - learning how the theft of children and the disruption of clan and family system was essential in seizing the land. For me, direct support of Indigenous sovereignty is a response to the legacy of the Residential Schools.

In the case of the Unist'ot'en camp, it's often understood as a protest camp, but the people on the ground have been clear the last 10+ years - it's a healing centre, where people can reconnect with the land, learn traditional skills, and recover some of what colonialism has destroyed. I can't imagine how much need there must be for healing at the moment.

I'm so sorry to hear of that pastor who is not willing to invest time into building relationships with Indigenous neighbours. I know from my time with CPT that an invitation is absolutely fundamental to beginning work with a community. I assume it's the same with MCC and the national church. I know that the Unist'ot'en camp has a well developed protocol for inviting allies and CPT worked up there in previous years, so it's an ongoing effort.

It's important to hear these stories of failure alongside whatever positive actions towards cultural resurgence and land sovereignty we are able to support as a church.

The facts of this article seem a little slim.

Are the Unistoten the legitimate elected representatives of the Wetsuweten? Or the other folks? Did CPT consult with other Mennos in the area? The two congregations that were once part of MCBC in the area have left.

And in a time of reduced budgets this is what the General council chooses to spend the tithes and offerings of congregations on?

And what will this accomplish for British Columbia Anabaptists?

Don't the readers of the CM deserve something more than infomercials for social activism?

Greetings! In response to this story my spouse and I have sent a donation to Christian Peacemaker Teams. I don't pretend to understand any of this. But I do believe that conversation and putting Light on any situation brings us closer to the justness and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Love always, / jan

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