Rob and Sharlene Dilts have been walking alongside the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation for nine years in the unceded traditional lands of the Algonquin peoples. The community is home to between 400-450 people. It is next to the hamlet of Golden Lake, where Rob and Sharlene live, and approximately 3000 indigenous people live in the County.
From the time of their arrival, Rob and Sharlene have deliberately adopted the posture of learners. “We are still constantly learning, which is good,” says Rob. “We are cautious to never come in like we have all the answers. Historically it has been, ‘do things our way, this is how you do it.’”
As part of the healing from traumas inflicted through past and continued policies, many communities are working to revitalize their traditional culture and languages. Many followers of Jesus are learning to express themselves in worship in ways that reflect their culture and forms, in essence, their hearts and spirit, rejecting the settler forms that were often forced upon them.
For the past four years, the Dilts’ have been directors at a summer camp called Pinaaz-Zibi Maamawi, which means Travelling the River Together. As Directors, they help with planning, training storytellers and volunteers, and do their best to see that things run smoothly during Camp. Rob and a community culture and language instructor chose the camp name and developed the camp concept. The goal is that the young people attending will learn to travel well together with the Creator, celebrating culture in peace, friendship, and goodwill. Pinaaz-i Zibi Maamawi was presented with a Friendship Belt, a covenant in pictures between Pinaaz-i Zibi Maamawi and three First Nation People Groups and settlers to work together through camp and in community.
The Camp is primarily for indigenous children, but all are welcome and the children of non-indigenous staff often come. It runs for one week and is broken up between two age groups, 7-11 and 12-16. It is oriented around an indigenous worldview, culture and traditions and is a great opportunity for young people to learn and be immersed in their culture, and for others in attendance to learn more about indigenous culture and traditions. Even language is taught since many parents are no longer fluent due to the effect of Residential Schools and the Reserve system such that they are unable to pass it down to their children. A highlight of this summer’s Camp was the presence of a Community Grandmother who first joined them at the past Pinaaz-i Zibi Maamawi Winter Christmas Gathering, bringing her wisdom and traditional crafts skills. In a matriarchal society, it was an honour to have her leadership. “It was also a highlight to watch her work with a young girl, helping her make a pair of moccasins,” says Sharlene. “The girl was so excited and happy to be at the Camp.”
With the help of the Canada Summer Jobs grant, the Dilts’ hired a teenager from the community as a summer student. She has volunteered at camp before and was a big help with administration and Camp planning. Rob and Sharlene were able to mentor her and give her the opportunity to take some online workshops for extra training and professional development. Along with the benefits of having the help of a summer student, this opportunity provides employment in an area where unemployment is a common issue. Rob and Sharlene would like to continue this process every summer.
On August 27 and 29 Rob was able to accompany Community members on a Walk for Joe. This 100-kilometer walk was organized by the sisters and brothers of a young 13-year-old boy from the community who tragically lost his life while frantically trying to get home after running away from a residential school in Brantford in 1968. While crossing a train yard after a day and night of running alone, he was hit by a train. The news reported only that a trespasser was killed and all his grieving mother received by way of identification was the blue shirt she had given him, and a closed coffin. The walk was to ceremonially bring Joey’s spirit home, back to his people. “For me, says Rob, it was an opportunity to feel a little bit of what they went through, just trying to get home, and it was a chance to hear the experiences of some of the walkers and to empathize with the survivors.” When they got back to Golden Lake, around 200 from the community joined in for the final leg of the journey which ended at an old cemetery in the community where Joey was laid to rest so long ago.
September 30 is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, also known as Orange Shirt Day. It is a day marked annually to remember and honour the thousands of children forcibly taken to residential schools and to recognize the legacy of these institutions.
“I have a responsibility to be a part of the healing and to represent the church in the harms that were done against indigenous children in the name of the church. I believe it is the responsibility of us all,” says Rob.
If you are wondering how to learn, connect, and mobilize around reconciliation, Rob has some suggestions.
- Learn about Orange Shirt Day. Click here to see last year’s reflections from EMCC leaders and sign up to receive updates for this year’s reflection.
- Go to native-land.ca and learn on whose land you are living, worshipping or working.
- Look up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and read its 94 Calls to Action.
- Remember that repentance in Scripture is changing the way you think and act. We need to change and look at others as being made in the image of the Creator. Regardless of their wealth, the colour of their skin, their language, their traditions or their forms, they were made in the image of the Creator. May we exhibit a changed heart toward indigenous peoples.
- Get involved. Go to an Orange Shirt presentation or a vigil on September 30th. Listen and lament with those who continue to hurt and grieve this trauma.
- Come alongside, as a listener, and join the struggle for justice in solidarity.
- Check out Truth & Reconciliation, #48 in the declarations. It is directed at churches. See what your church can do to fulfill it.
- If you need help, we are happy to point people in the right direction to find answers. Contact us here.
Rob and Sharlene are EMCC Global Workers.
This article is featured in the Fall 2021 edition of The EMCC Together Newsletter.
Download a PFD copy of the newsletter and previous EMCC Together publications here.