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Understanding covenants; finding common ground

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Idle No More hasn't been in the news that much of late. When it was, there was a lot of talk about treaties -- aboriginal people claimed they weren't being honoured, and many non-aboriginal people wondered what the fuss was all about. That was so long ago! Let's move on.

The problem, it seemed to me, was the two groups weren't understanding each other. They used the same word -- treaty -- but each had different ideas about what that meant.

For many of us non-aboriginals, treaties are synonymous with contracts, like the kind you might make in business -- I promise something, and you agree. If it doesn't work out, we void it and start over again. If it grows old, it might no longer be relevant. If our name isn't on the paper, it doesn't apply to us.

But that's not the way aboriginal people view treaties.

"When most Christians hear the word 'treaty,' they must recognize that the Old Testament perspective of 'covenant' is invoked in indigenous people's understanding," wrote leaders of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS) on the organization's website.

"These are not business contracts, promises that can be set aside when a signatory defaults, changes her mind... nor can these treaties be unilaterally legislated out of existence."

That's also the view of J. R. Miller, Canada Research Chair in Native-Newcomer Relations at the University of Saskatchewan.

In his book Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada, he draws upon oral histories to show aboriginal people believed they were forging covenants with the newcomers and that they sacralized these covenants through spiritual ceremonies and by invoking the Great Spirit.

The Canadian Encyclopedia agrees, noting that "on a deeper level Indian treaties are sometimes understood, particularly on the aboriginal side, as solemn pacts or sacred covenants between peoples."

Garry McLean of Lake Manitoba Treaty 2 First Nation sees it that way, too. Speaking to the Clean Environment Commission, he said that "there are no time limits to our historical treaties... they will exist as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and rivers run... they are sacred agreements between the First Peoples of this land and past, present and future Canadians."

Adrian Jacobs, an aboriginal leader and Christian pastor from the Cayuga Nation of the Six Nations of Grand River country in Ontario, also feels that way.

Speaking on Church Matters, a radio program sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada, he noted that non-aboriginal people tend to think of treaties as being "from the past," and that we need to "get over" and "move beyond" the violations and problems.

But aboriginal people, he said, view treaties more from an "understanding of covenant" that is very similar to the biblical understanding of an agreement between peoples under God, or between people and God.

"It is not something that is simply time-limited, a contract that can be fulfilled or broken or moved on from. It's like a marriage commitment. It's meant to be a lifelong commitment."

Covenant -- now there's a concept that especially resonates for the Abrahamic faiths, for Christians, Jews and Muslims. It's something they understand, studying it in church, synagogue and mosque.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there are major covenants between God and humans. They include the one with Noah, where God promised to never again destroy the earth with a flood. There's one with Abraham, to make of his descendants a great nation. And there's one through Moses, where God claims the Israelites as his chosen people. Christians add an additional covenant -- a new covenant that creates a way to God through Christ.

The Qur'an also speaks of a covenant between Allah and Muslims where the faithful commit themselves to testifying that Allah is God and Muhammad is his messenger.

Which leads me to wonder: If the idea of covenant something held in common between followers of these three religions and aboriginal people, is it possible for to create some new understandings about treaties? Can Christians, Jews, Muslims and aboriginal people use this common understanding of covenant to find common ground?

It's a tall order. On the Christian side, there's a lot of history and misunderstanding to overcome. But not talking won't help, either.

Perhaps it can start with a promise to try -- to ourselves, to God, to each other. That's a covenant that would be worth making.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 J14

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