Thursday morning with Ovide Mercredi… by Vicki Ross
Thursday was our last full day in Winnipeg, and we already had a full day planned. The plan was to visit the drop-in at the Winnipeg Centre Vineyard Church and hear about their school of justice in the morning, head straight to Forward House for the afternoon, and then get ready for our awareness concert that evening. By this point I honestly thought our trip couldn’t get any fuller and that God had set-up more than enough learning opportunities for our little choir…but I was wrong! Beth got another phone call from Steve Bell on Wednesday afternoon asking us if we wanted to hear from Ovide Mercredi, an Aboriginal Elder with a long list of accomplishments. A simple google search of his name brings up dozens of sites that describe his involvement as a Canadian First Nations leader and politician, and he is described as a Cree, a lawyer, a negotiator, a poet, an author, a lecturer and an activist. He has dedicated his life to advancing social and economic justice for Indigenous peoples, and has made significant contributions to his community. We knew we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to hear from a man like this (I felt a bit like I was going to meet a Canadian celebrity…I guess I was!). So we decided to fit him into our schedule on our last day.
Thursday morning we had to have all of our bags packed into the vehicles before the meeting, so I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one who felt a bit sleep-deprived as we sat there in the conference room, waiting for Ovide to arrive (thankfully coffee was provided!). I must admit, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I definitely felt a certain amount of anticipation to see what he would be like and what he would say.
I think the first thing that I noticed about Ovide was the way that he carried himself. To think of all the things he had been a part of over the course of his life, things he had experienced, and the way that he had fought for his people, you might expect him to be up front, loud, full of outrage at the injustices that have been done, or even bitter that little change has occurred. Yet Ovide was none of these things. He had a quiet, polite demeanour that was somehow a perfect balance between humility and confidence, which made what he had to say that much more powerful. He was clearly well-educated, full of passion and deep conviction, and had a strong sense of what justice could realistically look like for his people. I instantly had huge respect for him, and was very intrigued to hear what he had to say, particularly his vision for the way forward.
I recently completed my Masters in public policy and health inequalities, and during my program I had the opportunity to give a presentation about the Canadian Aboriginal people. The majority of the people in my program were not Canadian (I studied in Scotland), so I had to provide details of our history, including the residential school system, as well as give statistics for the current situation (ie. the number of people living in poverty, addictions, living conditions, etc.). It was incredibly sobering for me to reveal the extent of the injustices that have occurred and continue to occur. During my research I came across a video called ‘Third World Canada’, a documentary that depicts what life on a reserve can look like, and gets to the heart of the reality of what many Aboriginal communities across Canada struggle with. From a health perspective (I am a nurse after all), it is clear that Aboriginal people are at a disadvantage- they have drastically higher rates of suicide, abuse, addiction, chronic health conditions, mental health issues, and a much lower life expectancy than average Canadians. Considering the fact that Canada is widely considered a country that promotes justice and a good standard of living the reality of the situation is, in many ways, embarrassing.
So why do these problems continue? Whose fault is it? What can be done about it? These are the hard questions, and the problem is that there are no easy answers. The underlying causes of these issues are complex and multi-layered, and people have a wide range of opinions. Personally, I think some of the contributing factors include: inter-generational impacts of trauma (ie. the cycle of abuse and addiction), lack of understanding and public education (which leads to racism and distrust), and an unbalance of power (especially in the political realm). I wanted to hear from Ovide’s perspective as I believe the most important place to start is to hear the truth from someone who has lived it (way better then reading it in a textbook that was most likely written by a white person). Ovide spoke to a lot of these issues while he spoke (I believe Beth took notes while he talked, so her blog should provide more details on what he said!)
Sadly, we only had an hour with Ovide- I’m pretty sure we could have spent all day learning from his past experiences and knowledge. But in that hour I felt hope. Hope that someone like Ovide was fighting for the justice of his people, that he had a vision and was living it out. I felt excited to hear of Ovide’s plans to meet with the Queen of England, to demand that the United Kingdom uphold the promises they made over a hundred years ago (because Canada won’t). I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some way the Canadian church could get behind them, to actually support the cause of justice like we are called to. We are called to be courageous; we are called to bring light into dark places. We are not only to speak the truth, but act it out. There have been many times in the past when I have thought about the current situation, and wondered if there ever would be any change, or what the church could do about it. I spent two years working for the Mustard Seed in Edmonton, which serves high numbers of Aboriginal people, and witnessed the seemingly hopeless patterns of abuse and addiction. While I did have the privilege of seeing some lives changed, I couldn’t help but feel an ache in my heart for the hundreds of children still born into broken families across the country. Church programs that are designed to help individuals can only go so far- there needs to be change at a systemic level for any lasting difference to be made. I believe the church has a role to play in that, and it begins with a willingness to learn about what has happened, and to partner with and pray for those that are actively involved- like Ovide Mercredi. Justice is very close to God’s heart- I believe the more the church gets involved in it, the more doors will be opened to bring Jesus to those that need Him most.