When Grand Chief Stan Beardy of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) visited the General Synod offices on Jan. 21, he had two main messages for the Anglican Church of Canada: help advocate for Aboriginal rights, and allow Aboriginals to take greater responsibility for their own leadership within the church.
A proposal for a new Anglican structure within NAN was presented to the Primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, in a personal meeting.
“We want to set up our own diocese that is managed by First Nations people, and that follows the doctrines of the Anglican Church of Canada and its teachings,” said the Grand Chief in a later interview. “We’re not talking about a breakaway group here. We like the teachings of the Anglican Church of Canada. We understand its functions and the sacraments. We believe in those and we believe in the core teachings of the gospel itself.”
The proposed diocese would cover a section of the AnglicanDiocese of Keewatin, so the first step is to have Keewatin review the plan at their next diocesan synod. If successful, the proposal will move on to the provincial synod and then General Synod.
“I came here to hear the Primate directly, to see what his responses [to the proposal] would be, whether he felt it was something doable, and what kind of timelines we might be looking at,” said Grand Chief Beardy.
After the meeting, Archbishop Hiltz said he is optimistic that the plan will move forward. “I really believe that what they’re laying out is a potential model for what could and perhaps needs to happen in a lot of places in the church in Canada,” he said.
Grand Chief speaks on advocacy and faith
Earlier in the day, staff filled the Church House chapel to hear the Grand Chief speak on Advocacy and the Assertion of Rights. He listed many problems within his James Bay Treaty 9 area including high unemployment, poverty, and corporations that extract resources without sharing the benefits with NAN. He urged Canadian Anglicans to advocate for Aboriginal rights by contacting their MPPs and supporting social agencies.
Grand Chief Beardy also spoke personally about his Christian faith. He was raised in the Anglican Church but only began to take it seriously after a 1985 boating accident. Trapped in the middle of rapids, clinging to a boulder far from shore, all he and his partner could do was pray. “I prayed and felt peace and joy,” he said. “You want to scream with joy because you’re so happy. It touches every cell in your being. I knew that was the Creator responding to our prayer.”
Since then he has had other “tests of faith,” including the deaths of his brother, parents, nephew, and his son. He said that he has made the decision to keep believing.
And so have other members of NAN, an organization of 50 Aboriginal communities over two-thirds of Ontario. The Grand Chief explained that most of the 45,000 members of his nation are practicing Christians. “We are a very spiritual people,” he said. “We have spiritual gifts from the Creator.”
At the end of his talk, the Grand Chief invited the Primate and National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald to visit a kind of NAN sacred site, a remote northern Ontario fishing camp near Magis Lake, where a family has built a small chapel. “We need to go somewhere lowly. That’s where blessings are found,” he said.
Prayers were offered for the Grand Chief and NAN, and gifts were presented by the Primate, Indigenous Ministries, and the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund.
“He came across to me as not only the Grand Chief, but as a man very close to the land, a man who has a deep appreciation for his own culture, and a man of deep faith,” said Archbishop Hiltz after the Grand Chief’s talk. “I think his visit will have some long-term effects on the staff at Church House and on the way in which we continue to shape our work in Indigenous Ministries. It will also affect the way we help our church and the country to look at some of the deep issues around the place of First Nations peoples.”
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