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Coming together in spirit to care for the body

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MCC consults with Aboriginal leaders

There was no shortage of water outside as 155 Mennonites and Aboriginals gathered at Bethel Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, on a snowy Jan. 14 evening to discuss water issues on northern Manitoba reserves. After a series of articles in the Winnipeg Free Press highlighted Third World living conditions on First Nations reserves in the Island Lakes region, Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba organized the consultation, Just Water: Challenges in the Island Lake Communities, to explore “whether or how to respond to the water crisis in the Island Lake aboriginal communities.”

It was an evening for “coming together in Spirit,” in the words of Bill Meade of the Northern Gospel Light Singers from the Manigotagan area, who opened the evening with energetic singing.

Songs of hope dominated the evening. Pastor Howard Jolly of First Nations Community Church, Winnipeg, sang of Jesus’ love, and Grand Chief David Harper of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) opened and closed his remarks on guitar, singing of being “sheltered and safe in the arms of God.”

Kevin Carlson, housing and capital projects advisor for MKO, delivered statistics and screened part of Wrapped in Plastic, a 1999 documentary on housing conditions in Garden Hill, Man. Nearly 10,000 houses in MKO lack basic plumbing. Government promises to build a water treatment plant do not include the funding to retrofit homes to accept plumbing.

“We need a made-in-Manitoba plan,” said Carlson. He hopes the federal and provincial governments can sit down with Aboriginal leaders to devise a strategy that will lead to proper housing and water on northern reserves.

This is where MCC comes in. “We need your help to call on government,” said MKO Grand Chief David Harper. “We’re calling for you to pray with us…. We’re not looking for a handout.”

In the brief question and answer period, one respondent pointed to the poor condition of many houses on northern reserves. “The issue is larger than water,” he said. There’s a problem of “sustainability.”

Harper referred to the 1909 treaty as a covenant that has been broken, and pointed to the $3 billion the province earns from natural resources each year. “All we’re asking is to share the wealth.”

“We cannot make promises now,” said MCC Manitoba board chair Ernie Wiens at the close of the evening, but, responding to Harper’s reference to Luke 10:30, “we will ponder what it means to be a Good Samaritan.”

—Karla Braun

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