Committee sees First Nation community up close

They can’t say they weren’t warned.

Before meeting recently in the tiny, remote First Nations community of Kingfisher Lake, ecojustice committee member David Ashdown told the national church committee that gathering in such a small, close-knit community would mean that anything that happened in Kingfisher would affect the meeting’s agenda.

Bishop Ashdown knew of which he spoke, since he is a frequent visitor by virtue of his position as diocesan bishop of Keewatin, in which Kingfisher lies. So, perhaps it should have been no surprise when, during one of the days’ meetings, the bishop looked out the window, then quickly pulled on his coat and ran outside to help battle a chimney fire.

The presence of the committee was a welcome treat for Kingfisher Lake, a largely-Anglican community of about 450. Committee member Rev. Lydia Mamakwa, an assistant priest at Kingfisher’s St. Matthew’s Church, was waiting on the airstrip when her committee colleagues touched down in their small nine-seater plane chartered from nearby Sioux Lookout.

She said to them, “I can’t believe you came!”

The gathering was not without a hitch. Ecojustice chairperson Sue Winn (diocese of Montreal) missed her connection from Toronto to Sioux Lookout, and arrived 24 hours late.

But organizers say any logistical hiccups were by far outweighed by the experience of gathering in a First Nations community and experiencing its realities for several days.
“The ecojustice committee, since its beginning in 1995, has tried to meet in different locations every meeting and to spend a day of its time meeting with local justice people in the community,” said Ellie Johnson director of the national church’s Partnerships department.

Local issues discussed by the committee focused on, not surprisingly, aboriginal rights. Kingfisher Lake and its neighbouring communities, which are joined politically as a tribal council, have been involved in a protracted dispute with the Ontario government over Pipestone River Provincial Park.

The band and tribal council say they were not consulted by the provincial government before the area, which they describe as their traditional fishing and hunting lands, was made a park in 1989. They want restrictions put on the use of resources in the park and they want to be included in any future decisions around land use.

The committee agreed to write a letter to the government on the band’s behalf, urging that the First Nations be consulted about any proposed use or development of their traditional lands. The committee also agreed to support a new initiative of recently-retired Keewatin Bishop Gordon Beardy to unify First Nation communities so that they speak with one voice when dealing with the government on land use issues.

Committee members were housed in Kingfisher’s mission house, a facility often used by the diocese and surrounding communities for its Train an Indian Priest program. The final tallies are not yet in, but it is expected the meeting cost significantly more than a national church meeting in an urban centre, for example. 

Travel was by far the most expensive component. The total will include the $5,000 cost of the charters that took committee members from Sioux Lookout to Kingfisher Lake, plus the cost of bringing all the committee members from across Canada to northern Ontario.

The rooms, shared by members, cost just $50. Local volunteers came to cook for the group, except when the community and visitors gathered at the school gym for a potluck feast and gospel jamboree celebrating the confirmation of four young people and the reaffirming of baptismal vows by a fifth youth.

Not only did the committee share in Kingfisher’s celebrations but they were also a part of the routine comings and goings of a northern town, said Maylanne Maybee, co-ordinator for mission and justice education and the national office staff person responsible for the ecojustice committee.

When a resident’s truck got stuck in the snow, all the committee members donned their coats to help push him out. They went outside again to cheer on a local who was completing a walkathon to raise money for a church vehicle to transport elders to and from church.


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