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The Australian reconciliation delegation with United Church hosts, including Moderator Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell (front row centre), at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver last July. Photo courtesy of Sara Stratton

Australian and Canadian churches work on promoting Indigenous rights

By Alanna Mitchell

The Uniting Church in Australia and The United Church of Canada have both apologized for their roles in managing residential schools — the Uniting Church in 1997, the United Church a year later. Now the two denominations are exploring strategies for working together on promoting Indigenous rights in both countries.

A first step, initiated by United Church Moderator Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell, has been to schedule high-level fact-finding exchanges. An Australian delegation, including Colleen Geyer, general secretary of the Uniting Church, visited Canada in July 2017. Among the delegates were members of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, a separate but connected wing of the Uniting Church.

A delegation from the United Church, including Cantwell, is slated to travel to Australia next month.

Geyer says that learning more about Canada’s residential school history has been gut-wrenching. “Those stories showed the common ground between our two churches’ and countries’ histories,” she says. “They also highlighted the injustices and the slowness of the pace of action around First Peoples.”

Late last year, Cantwell spoke to The Observer about forging closer ties with the Uniting Church in Australia. Following is an edited and condensed version of the interview:

On seeing the big picture: I am convinced that if we’re going to understand the changes we need to make here in Canada to have just relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks, we need to understand clearly what is wrong in those relationships. And what is wrong in those relationships is something that is not bound simply by the Canadian story. We need to understand the mentality, the operation of colonialism, because that’s at the heart of what is fundamentally wrong with how we have built Canada as a country.

Until we understand that, we will never grasp the depth of the changes and the breadth of the changes that need to take place in order to have right relationships. And so, when we build these alliances across nations, we start to see, ‘Oh, this isn’t just about us. This is something bigger than us.’

On shared injustice: The Doctrine of Discovery, terra nullius — those racist, white supremacist doctrines and principles of the colonial project — were very operative in both countries. And they have justified the founding of both Australia and Canada on Indigenous lands. They continue to operate. They are used to justify land seizures and the removal of people and the extraction of resources without any kind of compensation or prior informed consent of the Indigenous people whose territories those are. The rights of corporations over Indigenous people, the misuse and selective use of the legal system against Indigenous people, all of those things are almost identical.

On the scope of responsibility:
The churches were very much involved in the colonial project. So we have a particular responsibility to be active in dismantling that system because we were so complicit in assembling it.

We know from history that when there are grave injustices entrenched in societies, it typically requires international solidarity and international attention to pressure national governments to make the profound, fundamental changes that are necessary to address those injustices. So we need to be building international solidarity.

On global connections:
I was part of an anti-apartheid education project in South Africa in 1990. Church people said to me, ‘You need to go home and look at what is going on in your country as well. Because the system of apartheid, the structures of apartheid, are based on structures that Canada uses to keep Indigenous people oppressed.’ That was news to me. And so I came home, and that began a process of study.

I am convinced that international solidarity work strengthens us and tunes us into the work that we have to do at home. I know my life and my integrity and my humanity depend on my being involved in meaningful ways with building right relationships in Canada. I know from my own experience that the international connections that help us to see a bigger picture are essential for being able to do that work well.

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