by Deborah Froese
Mennonite Church Canada
When Brad Langendoen told an Indigenous friend that he planned to walk 550 km to honour Indian Residential School (IRS) survivors and encourage awareness about truth and reconciliation, he got an unexpected response.
“He offered me his boots,” Langendoen says. His friend is an IRS survivor.
Langendoen, along with Erin Sawatzky, Laurens Thiessen van Esch and Ann Heinrichs will walk from Stoney Knoll, Sask. to Edmonton, Alta. March 7-26. The departure point has historical significance. In 2006 Mennonites, Lutherans and First Nations signed a memorandum of understanding there outlining the need for all parties to respect “the sacred nature of covenants” and agreeing to work together for “peace, justice and sufficiency for all our communities.”
A spiritual journey as well as a physical one, the walk fittingly coincides with Lent, the season of lament. It concludes just in time for walkers to attend the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) event beginning March 27.
Participants invite others to join them—for part of the journey as companions, as supporters in prayer or hospitality, by fasting or through donations of funds and supplies. They will be accompanied by a van and a driver for transport during off-walk hours and safety purposes.
Simultaneously, others will fast in Winnipeg, including Steve Heinrichs, Ann’s husband and Mennonite Church Canada’s Director, Indigenous Relations. The couple has two adopted First Nations daughters with relatives who experienced IRS first hand.
“I wouldn't have my daughters if the colonial system hadn't messed up native communities," says Ann Heinrichs, pointing out the emotional conflict she wrestles with. The walk will give her time for reflection and prayer. Though Heinrichs says she will miss her family when she leaves them for three weeks, it doesn’t compare to the forced separation inflicted on so many survivors and families. “I hope to honour the stories of my daughters’ birth communities.”
The walk emerged from weekly meetings of Student Christian Movement (SCM) Manitoba where discussions about Indigenous/Settler solidarity led to participation in Winnipeg Idle No More events and a desire to do more. Inspiration came from Cree teens who hiked 1600 km between Quebec and Ottawa last year, drawing public attention to justice issues.
Sawatzky, a 4th year student at CMU, spent last summer with a reforestation group in an illegally logged northern BC community. She heard Indigenous stories first hand. “By throwing myself into this walk, I will be challenged to spend more time learning about the past and learning what my role is in the present.”
Born and raised in the Netherlands, Thiessen van Esch learned about the history of Indigenous Canadians through a delegation assignment with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Ontario. “I was blown away by the stories I heard, which struck me as incredible in a country that has such a positive image.” He has been attending SCM Manitoba meetings since a recent move to Winnipeg.
Langendoen just completed Peace and Conflict Resolution studies at CMU. “I didn't know about Indian Residential Schools until I came to CMU,” he says. But since then, he has actively supported Indigenous relationships, travelling with Steve Heinrichs to the TRC in Quebec last year, and producing a powerful video about the experience. (www.mennonitechurch.ca/tiny/2276)
Whether or not he wears his friend’s boots may come down to foot size, says Langendoen. Still, he appreciates the gesture. “I took the offer to wear his boots as a kind of commissioning.”