The Spiritual Backstory of the Crown-First Nations Gathering


As aboriginals wait to see what actions or changes, if any, will come out of the Crown–First Nations Gathering that took place on January 24, their leaders have upped the pressure to let the federal government know that they are not going away.

The root of this sentiment is the unshakeable knowledge that underlies their insistence: The matter, for First Nations, is as much spiritual as political.

At the meeting itself, First Nations leaders and the head of the Canadian government discussed face-to-face the issues dragging down the country’s aboriginal peoples, and by extension, Canada. Politics aside, the underlying theme, at least for the First Nations, was the notion of maintaining their cultural integrity and making it part of the national landscape.

The gathering started out on a spiritual note that set the tone for the cooperation and communication to follow. An honor song and ceremony launched the proceedings and were later explained by Anishnabe Elder Dave Courchene, winner of the 2012 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for spirituality and the founder of Turtle Lodge, a center for learning that envisions all the races coming together in the lighting of the eighth fire foretold by the elders. The honor song and ceremony symbolized the establishment of a new relationship, he said, an attempt to find a new way forward for First Nations peoples and the Canadian government, as well as all Canadians. (Photos and other follow-up information about the Gathering is on the Turtle Lodge's Facebook page.)

“It is said by our elders—the wisdom keepers and the visionaries of our people—that we have entered a very special time. And it is a time of great opportunity. It is a time that we are witnessing changes happening around the world,” Courchene said in his speech and prayer explaining the spiritual nature of the gathering and its relevance to the material world.

“Our people foresaw all of these things,” he said. “We consider today very historical to be able to come together and to reflect on the original instructions that we were all given as human beings. And that was to bring peace and love into this world.”

The sentiment was acknowledged privately, before the opening ceremony, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper presented the three elders—Courchene, Bertha Commanda and Barney Williams Jr.—with tobacco. Then on behalf of the three dlders, Courchene presented him with a scroll, while Barney presented one to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. The scroll highlights Ogitchi Tibakonigaywin—the Great Binding Law of the Kizhay Manito (the Creator) and the Seven Teachings.

Later, in his speech and opening prayer, Courchene emphasized the importance of putting children and mothers back into the center of our lives, calling on participants to remember the “original instructions” that all were given by the Higher Power to bring peace and love into the world. He emphasized everyone’s connection to Mother Earth.

“As independent and free peoples, we come together,” Courchene said, urging a spirit of cooperation for the meeting. “We gather reflecting the spirit of our hearts and belief as a people. We must find that courage to be able to do the right thing.”

A traditional ceremony opened the event, after which Governor General David Johnston, Harper and Atleo ceremonially launched the sessions on how to improve the relationship between the Crown and First Nations peoples, as well as how to strengthen First Nations economies. A drumming circle accompanied the procession for the grand entry, led by a Canadian flag and the Assembly of First Nations flag. An elder smudged the leaders with sweet grass and a feather before the traditional gift exchange.

Atleo presented Johnston with a Covenant Chain belt to represent one of the earliest treaties between the Crown and First Nations peoples.

The belt shows that the Crown is linked by a chain to the First Nations peoples of this land, according to the AFN’s description. The three links of the chain represent a covenant of friendship, good minds and peace. The silver it is made of symbolizes the occasional polishing the relationship will require to keep it from tarnishing.

Johnston gave Atleo a reproduction of a painting of the Battle of Queenstown Heights, depicting the cooperation of aboriginal and non-aboriginal soldiers in the War of 1812. Then the real work began.

“I call upon the drum to call us to order,” Courchene said, explaining to the various cultures assembled that the drum represents the heartbeat.

“I call upon the drum to carry these words that the elders continue to speak about, that we will find that courage to be able to do the right thing,” he said. “There are many many ways to do the wrong things. But there's only one way to do the right thing. And it's written in our hearts. All we need to do is find the courage to listen to the voice of the heart that speaks to all of us. Because we are all within the human family.”