What is a Quaker anyway? What draws people to Quaker meetings, and what keeps them there?
Six Quakers in Manitoba recently got together to answer those questions and talk about their experiences with The Religious Society of Friends.
You can listen to their stories in “What Canst Thou Say,” a special podcast hosted by Lara Rae. “What Canst Thou Say” is part of an oral history project that Winnipeg Monthly Meeting has embarked on to document more about Quakers in Manitoba.
Wednesday is a special day at CYM. That’s when Friends are invited to help with a local service project and then partake of the simple evening meal, with the cafeteria’s savings on the meal going to a local charity, usually the charity organizing the service project.
This year we got a chance to take part in a Battle River watershed project designed to alert the public to the need to keep hazardous waste out of storm drains and hence out of the river. The Battle River was apparently the scene of many a battle between the Blackfoot and the Cree in past centuries.
As an alternative, thanks to Canadian Friends Service Committee, Friends had the opportunity to visit Maskwacis, a 45 minute drive from Camrose. The community, with a total population of 13,000, consists of four First Nations. We visited the Samson and Montana First Nations.
We parked “downtown” within sight of the pawn shop, Lucky Dollar Food store and the bingo hall, and then entered the Samson Cree Nation Administration Building, where we exchanged introductions.
Jennifer Preston, of Canadian Friends Service Committee, gives tobacco to Chief Kurt Buffalo.
We visitors were presented with some information sheets and a gift of braided sweet grass. When you are united like a braid, you are strong, we were told.
In contrast to the warm welcome was the grief evident in the community: a long hug given to a woman who had just lost her husband, the wake going on for a youth who had died by suicide… To strengthen their sense of identity and reconnect with their past community leaders are encouraging a revival of the Maskwacis Cree language. In the local museum, where we were reminded of the near-extermination of the buffalo in the late 1800s and consequent threat to the Plains Indian way of life, we were shown an app to teach the local language, developed with the help of our guide.
Brian Lightning demonstrates a Maskwacis Cree language learning app that is in development. One is already available for download, the other will be available soon.
Unemployment is high in the community and the Band Council is a major employer. The literature we were given soberly stated: “Death by suicide has reached epidemic proportions within the Maskwacis community. The rate of suicide for aboriginals is 2.1 times greater than the national average.” As many children are in care, the community is creating an agency to try to reintegrate some of those in foster homes.
After the museum visit, we drove to the Montana First Nation, which is accessed by an extremely rutted gravel road. The first person we saw was a young man in a black T-shirt with the words “solar training” on the back. Our guide led us up to the roof of the long building containing a gym, where we were shown six rows of solar panels. These low-maintenance panels have halved electricity costs. A federal grant was obtained for their construction and now, with a new Alberta government, the province has chipped in. This is not just an environmentally friendly job-creation project, but also a training strategy. It is the biggest First Nations solar project in Western Canada and justifiably a source of great pride to the 1000-strong Montana First Nation.
Montana Cree Nation Green Energy Solar Power Project, explained by Councilor Brad Rabbit. The project has greatly reduced the Montana Cree Administration Building’s energy bill and has employed about 20 community members, some as trainers for others wishing to do solar projects.
Our hosts had yet more visits in store for us. Once we were reunited with a carload of Friends who had gone astray on the way back from Montana First Nation, some of us indulged in tea and bannock, while others hastened back to campus – one driver picking up a speed ticket on the way – where the cafeteria were eager to serve us our simple supper and quit for the day.
High school of the Ermineskin Cree Nation.
Although not a typical service project, the visit to Maskwacis was an eye opener to us all. Several community members commented that they were rarely visited and remarked on the distorted perceptions about them circulated in the general public. A big thank you to CFSC for organizing this educational tour and to our First Nations hosts for opening up to us about their problems and their achievements.
With a song of gratitude in his native tongue, Elder Rick Lightning welcomed us to Treaty Six Cree territory. We were gathered in Wahkohtowin Lodge at Augustana University in Camrose, Alberta. This Cree word refers to creating kinship with the natural world. So it is fitting that Elder Rick deplored the accelerating destruction of Mother Earth and the consequent violation of Aboriginal rights. The Cree who signed Treaty Six in the late 1800s understood that the treaty would allow the settlers to use the top six inches of soil, in other words plow and farm the land, whereas mineral exploitation nowadays pollutes to a much deeper depth. Pointing to the children in our midst and referring to his own grandchildren, Elder Rick stressed that it was they who would bear the brunt of environmental destruction.
Elder Rick Lightning welcomes Friends to Treaty 6 Territory. Camrose, AB.
When the treaties were signed, cultural misunderstandings were rife, and there was a gulf between the expectations of the two parties to these legal documents. The new arrivals understood the Indians to have many gods as they appeared to be worshiping rocks, trees and the like, whereas they were actually giving thanks to one deity, the Creator.
Briefly, and without bitterness, Elder Rick reminded us of past injustices inflicted on the Cree and on Aboriginal peoples in general. Both his parents went through residential school. Under the Indian Act, native languages and ceremonies were suppressed, depriving the Indian peoples of their own culture. But what touched me most in his welcoming address was that he did not dwell on this painful past. “Let it go,” he said. “Don’t hang on to it.” In other words, his message was that relationship building in the here and now is what counts.
This theme of moving forward by relationship building was continued on Monday at a Special Interest Group showing of the movie Elder in the Making: Treaty Seven. This road trip documentary of reconciliation, set in stunningly beautiful Alberta landscapes, traces the history of the area from an Aboriginal perspective and centres on a Blackfoot whose ancestors lived there for thousands of years and who feels disconnected from the place he calls home. It is a profoundly moving film.
I came to Quakers because I was looking for a Christian-based pacifist tradition, seeking companions and examples for the pacifist beliefs I had formed in isolation. I found the religious basis of Quaker pacifism very compatible with my own religious experiences. That there is “that of God” in everyone, and that everyone has the capacity to hear the voice of the Spirit and communicate it to others, was something I had felt for myself.
I was already worshiping alone in a way similar to the manner of Friends, sitting in silence and waiting for a religious experience like the two I’d already had in similar circumstances. While worshiping in Meeting I’ve had other profound religious experiences, though I’m not gifted with ministry very often. My personal worship is profoundly enriched by the company of my community.
I had a sex change many years ago, transitioning from female to male as a young adult. I’ve since described it as discarding that which was false, so that I spoke the truth with my words, my deeds, and my physical body. For me it was a powerful way to let my life speak, to act with the integrity Friends strive for. It was something I did years before coming to Friends, but it was another example of the way I wanted to live being the way Friends practiced their spirituality.
I became a convinced Friend very quickly after I started attending Meeting, though I waited a few years to take membership. The practices of the society made a lot of sense to me, and the accumulated wisdom of centuries of Friends is a wonderful spiritual and intellectual resource for me. When I’m feeling fearful, angry, or bereft, I can look to the experiences of people like me who have overcome their own human frailties to act with courage and love, upholding the values of peace and justice, speaking to the powerful and the powerless as children of God.