October 1, 2023 Reflection and Worship Link

National Indigenous Council Presentation

Billy Harasymow

Tansi, Makhesis, dishiginashoo.

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Hello, my name is Fox. Fox is my traditional name granted to me by an Elder from the Metis side of my family. My Christian name is William Joseph Harasymow, but family and friends call me Billy. I am here today to speak to you about my recent appointment to the National Indigenous Council, the upcoming remit as well as some reflection on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

This day honours the children who never returned home and Survivors of residential schools, as well as their families and communities. Public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools is a vital component of the reconciliation process.

First, I would like to share a bit about my spiritual background.

I was baptized at a young age in a Catholic church but only attended sporadically with my mother. I attended a Baptist bible camp every summer in Whitehorse during my formative years.

During a first year university philosophy class, we were introduced to the Ontological argument. This had a profound effect upon me and caused me to abandon my sense of spirituality and religion. I spent the next several years primarily as a materialist searching for some meaning in life. However, I spent much of my spare time studying esoteric knowledge and also picked up meditation as a regular practice. I was lucky to have a mentor at this stage of my life: Dr. Joel Morris (Ph.D.) who was also a Rosicrucian.

The return to a spiritual life began several years ago after I attended my first Sweat Lodge ceremony. Although I was skeptical that this experience would alter my perception, I participated with an open heart and mind. A Sweat is done over three rounds of which the second round involves calling our spirit ancestors. After this round one of the other attendees told me I had a visible shape, caused by heat rash, on my back in the distinct shape of a buffalo. This opened me to the possibility of a spiritual existence, and I now consider the buffalo as my spirit animal.

My appointment to the National Indigenous Council began the day we were supposed to have Reverend Murray Pruden speak at our Church.

Now, as many of us remember, Murray was not available on the day we had initially invited him to speak. Russel and Charlene Burns came in his place. They were also scheduled to leave Vancouver that day but took it as a sign that they were meant to come. Carla had asked me to do the recognition of territory in Cree like I had done before. Unbeknownst to us, Russel and Charlene are from Maskwacis (formerly Hobbema) which is a Cree reserve south of Edmonton and Russel and Charlene are both fluent in Cree.

They understood every word I said during my acknowledgement and Charlene was verklempt with emotion. Many of you were here during their presentation and how they referred to “this young Metis man” many times.

They also mentioned the upcoming Spiritual Gathering in Edmonton and encouraged me to attend. This dialogue also continued during the circle session we had after service and yet again at lunch with Carla, me, Nancy and Brenda.

I immediately decided that I would be willing to go to this gathering as I had lived in Edmonton for a few years honing my amateur boxing career and had even had a match on the Hobbema reserve where Russel and Charlene are from in 1988.

Leading up to the Spiritual gathering I was invited to attend zoom meetings for the Pacific Mountain and Urban Indigenous zones where new National Indigenous Council members were being nominated and appointed. I wanted to be of service and was willing to fill any role I might be needed for. Initially I had my hopes set on the Urban Council seat but was instead appointed to the Pacific Mountain Region seat as there was a greater need.

I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was just excited to go to Edmonton and immerse myself in the experience. The conference was well run and I was most impressed by the number of people who spoke their Indigenous language as their primary communication method. There were many tables and circles of people speaking their language. I was also glad to see other Metis at the conference wearing their sash proudly.

The first evening I happened to pick a table where both Russel and Charlene also joined us for dinner. A little later, the very busy Murray Pruden also joined us. The second evening I invited myself to sit with Carmen Lansdowne for dinner and share some stories about Alert Bay where Carla and I were going for my Metis family reunion in a few weeks time.

Earlier that second day, Moderator Carmen Lansdowne offered a keynote address, asking among other things, “What does a flourishing Indigenous church look like?” That question will continue to unfold as the Indigenous church moves towards its vision of self-determination.

Over the course of the Spiritual Gathering there were many seminars, breakout sessions, and cultural activities. One of the most intense and emotional sessions was on the topic of residential schools. This was the only session that went over the scheduled time and the moderators felt there was a need for an impromptu healing circle later that afternoon. That afternoon session lasted well into the dinner hour.

There were many residential school survivors, Elders, in the room and many wanted to speak to the issue. Most were sharing stories of loss and pain. It is hard for me to properly convey what I experienced but I will try my best.

Other than the intensity of the residential school sessions, I walked away with two other key learnings from this conference. First, transfer payments that Indigenous people receive from the government do not come from tax-payer dollars. Rather, these transfer payments come from royalties collected from resource extraction. Second, I learned about how the United Church apology was made without worry over legal recourse. From my understanding, during this period of Truth and Reconciliation and a demand for apology, many Churches sought guidance from their legal teams, obviously worried about potential liabilities. The legal team for the United Church felt that the first priority should be the apology itself and that any repercussions afterwards should be of secondary concern.

Shortly into the conference, Murray approached me and advised me a little on what I was expected of as a representative of my Region. He asked me to find my people and learn what was needed in those communities of faith.

As I made my rounds with the groups from my region, I soon found that not everyone was pleased with my appointment. This makes some sense as I was very new to the scene, and no one had any idea of who I was. Still, I made the best of it and indeed presented the concerns from my region. Mainly there is a need for more ministers. Many communities of faith share a minister with other communities, and some are led by one of the lay members of the congregation. Bella Coola also had a need for a projector and screen for the Church basement so they could host ceremonies, such as funerals, at the church rather than at the community centre.

A week after the Spiritual Gathering I contacted one of the people who were opposed to my appointment. Knowing that I would be in their region on my way to my family reunion I was hoping for an invitation to visit – which I got!! I was able to spend a few wonderful days at Cape Mudge (Quadra Island) and I believe it was helpful in building relationship. I was also able to meet with my co-council seat member Keetah Billy. Together we share one vote on the NIC and since our meeting have been in solidarity at recent council business.

In 2022, at General Council 44, the National Indigenous Council proposed that the church identify and remove any structural barriers that would prevent the development and sustaining of an autonomous National Indigenous Organization within The United Church of Canada. When any requested change in church structure will alter the Basis of Union of The Manual, as this will, a Category 3 Remit is required.

This remit asks if the church will agree to remove these structural barriers so that the Indigenous Church can determine its place and structure within the United Church. The 44th General Council authorized this remit to test the will of the church with respect to this change.

Approval of this remit will enable the creation of an autonomous National Indigenous Organization within The United Church of Canada. This would acknowledge Indigenous peoples’ rights to their own spiritual identities and to self-determination and would be consistent with the Caretakers of our Indigenous Circle’s Calls to the Church and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The remit requires a vote by every regional council and each pastoral charge’s governing body. Information about the remit, as well as voting cards, were sent to every regional council and each pastoral charge on March 10, either through email or Canada Post. Voting will take place between March 15, 2023, and March 31, 2024. Abstentions are considered a vote against the remit.

The results will be reported to the Annual Meeting of the General Council of the United Church in October 2024. I would like to encourage our community to approve this Remit.

I’m very proud to represent Mount Seymour United Church on the National Indigenous Council and look forward to what is yet to come.

All my Relations.