Canadian churches launch Jubilee petition for Aboriginal land rights

Canadian church leaders launched the third year of the Jubilee initiative at Parliament Hill by signing a petition, and by urging government and church members to support an independent commission to implement Aboriginal treaty and land rights.

“In signing this petition we are issuing two challenges: one to the government…and one to ourselves, the churches,” said Archbishop Michael Peers, the Anglican Primate, who spoke on behalf of the Canadian Council of Churches, and Roman Catholic, United Church, Evangelical Lutheran, and Presbyterian leaders at the signing. “We pray that both will respond.”

Church leaders followed Aboriginal community leaders in signing the petition. Ian Philip, an elder with the Assembly of First Nations, Millie Poplar, head of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, and Rita O’Sullivan, former vice chief of the Teme-augama Anishinabe and Aboriginal Rights Coalition (ARC) executive member, were present.

The recent launch was preceded by a press conference called by all six church leaders, and by Ed Bianchi, National Co-coordinator of ARC. ARC, a national ecumenical coalition, coordinated the petition project with the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative, which is comprised of partners from various churches and community groups.

Churches also released a letter encouraging church members to become involved with the Jubilee initiative, calling for the “growth of a generous sense of moral urgency” to work for a “new covenant” with Aboriginal peoples.

The event marked the beginning of the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative’s (CEJI) focus on Right Relations with Aboriginal Peoples and the Earth.

According to ARC, while Aboriginal people have highlighted the dysfunction of government communication models since earliest contact, the idea for an independent commission to implement Aboriginal rights was recommended by the Assembly of First Nations and the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples’ Report in 1997. The report sought to address causes for crises such as the standoff at Oka in 1991.

Since that time, the United Nations’ Human Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committees have also urged Canada to move forward.

Church leaders cited theological and socio-economic reasons in favour of the independent commission.

Archbishop Peers told reporters that “Jesus began his ministry with a call to do justice. Part of the justice tradition was jubilee which included the return of land to those who’d lost it.”

“There is no healing and reconciliation if there is no justice,” he said.

Rev. Glen Davis, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, said that Aboriginals’ poor quality of life, rated 63rd in the United Nations index in the country whose non-aboriginal population enjoys the highest standard of living in the world, is “directly related to a lack of land and resource base.”

The situation, he said, which directly impacts high rates of suicide, infant mortality, and incarceration in Aboriginal communities, is “sinful.”

Marion Pardy, Moderator of the United Church of Canada, said that churches have an opportunity to be a prophetic voice in banishing “racism, indifference and hopelessness from our mind and behaviour.”

While reflecting on churches’ roles, leaders did not shy away from criticizing federal leadership in current Aboriginal resource issues.

Rev. Davis affirmed that the jubilee campaign would put pressure on the government to change its approach in resource management.

When asked why the Supreme Court isn’t sufficient for arbitrating conflicts over resources such as at Burnt Church, Archbishop Marcel Gervais, Roman Catholic Bishop of Ottawa said, “The government ignores the Supreme Court.”

Speaking on the role of the Supreme Court and the federal government at Burnt Church later in an interview, Mr. Bianchi said, “we have a case where the right to fish has been upheld by the Supreme Court [in the Marshall decision] and by international bodies.”

The churches began working on the campaign one year ago, when ARC proposed the petition as a Jubilee focus.

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