First date in Constance Lake – Part 1

St. James’ Stratford visits sister parish in Diocese of Moosonee

By Rev. Tom Patterson

A “first date”. That is what the Rev’d Larry Armstrong of St. Stephen’s Constance Lake called it. And happily, it is leading to a second date next year, this time in Stratford.

Eleven members of St. James’ Stratford set out on July 19 to make the 12-hour drive north for a weekend visit with our sister parish, St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in the Constance Lake First Nation. Of course, we had not been thinking of it as a “date”, but as a pilgrimage. But Rev’d Larry has a wonderful way of poking self-important balloons, and the notion of a date is priceless! It is a lovely reminder that, as much as it was a faith journey, its possibilities and its life could only be realized in relationships of respect and affection between people.

Constance Lake is just north of the Trans-Canada Highway northern route, Highway 11, about half an hour west of Hearst. It has 1,470 members of Ojibway and Cree ancestry, of which 820 live on reserve. Its territory comprises 7,686 acres (3,110 hectares) and many lakes, rivers and streams. Stands of birch, poplar, jack pine and cedar cover much of the area. It is beautiful country. Wildlife and fish are plentiful: moose, rabbit, beaver, muskrat, mink, marten, lynx, pike, trout, whitefish, pickerel and perch. Most families in Constance Lake live very close to the land; fishing, hunting and trapping are important to their livelihoods.

The lake that gives the community its name is extraordinarily beautiful, but tragically polluted. For many decades, a nearby sawmill/planing mill soaked logs in the lake to soften and loose the bark, and the residue formed a blanket several metres thick on the bottom of the lake. It killed all aquatic plant and animal life, except for algae blooms that made the lake water too toxic for drinking or swimming. Until about three years ago, the community depended on tanker trucks for water.

Constance Lake First Nation describes itself as “a progressive and active community that encourages, supports and promotes local business development, job creation and economic development as keys to our success”. One example of that is its new water purification plant that draws water from aquifers. The Band Council did its homework very thoroughly, and the plant they installed provides the purest drinking water in Ontario!

Our journey to Constance Lake was nine years in the making. In 2008, St. James’ approached the Bishop of Moosonee, Archbishop Caleb Lawrence, about the possibility of becoming a companion parish with a First Nations church in his diocese. After several months, he connected us with St. Stephen’s Constance Lake, and we started looking for ways to build a relationship.

It is a long way between Constance Lake and Stratford: The team picture in North Bay.

It is a long way between Constance Lake and Stratford, and long-distance relationships are not easy! We read about Constance Lake First Nation on line. When St. Stephen’s started a Facebook page, we followed that. We exchanged photographs. We prayed for St. Stephen’s and Constance Lake. We had two memorable Sunday visits from the Rector of St. Stephen’s, the Rev’d Deborah Lonergan-Freake (now Archdeacon of Moosonee). She spoke to our congregation about the Constance Lake church and community. She asked if we would help provide materials for a new Vacation Bible School at Stephen’s, and folks at St. James’ had lots of fun putting together a huge bin of craft supplies.

But until this summer, we had not managed to go there ourselves or to get to know people in parish. Rightly or wrongly, we felt that we had to be invited. Having a bunch of Settlers from down South descend on them uninvited, full of curiosity and who-knows-what agenda, might not be something they would welcome! But we never gave up on the hope of visiting Constance Lake.

Then last summer Rev’d Larry Armstrong, who had become Rector of St. Stephen’s the year before, came to St. James’. He was in the South for another event, and said he wanted to come and find out who the heck these people in Stratford were and what they were about! He had dinner and stayed over with parishioners on Saturday, and preached at St. James’ on Sunday. He ended his sermon by inviting us – however many could go – to Constance Lake.

When we drove into the community on Friday, July 21, and then walked into St. Stephen’s Church that we knew from pictures, it was a moment of grace overflowing. After nine years, we were there! We really did not know why we were there, what God might have in mind by calling us there, but we knew that God was in it. We had to be there. Before we went, when people asked me about the purpose of the trip, my answer usually was something like. “To listen and learn, hopefully make some friends and follow the leading of the Spirit.” Of course, that was awfully vague, but suddenly, standing in the nave at St. Stephen’s it became very real.

St. Stephen’s Anglican Church

One of our group, Mark Allwood, described the moment this way: “There is a lasting picture in my mind of Standsinwater’s warm smile greeting me when I entered St. Stephen’s. I felt already known. That warmth never diminished but spread amongst us and was carried further by Harvey and Stanley out at the bush camp.”  The arrival at St. Stephen’s was just the start of an unforgettable day.

Rev’d Larry had decided that if we were to have any understanding of the Constance Lake people, we needed some direct experience of their connection with the land. After unloading food and supplies for a pot-luck supper at the church, we got back in the cars and headed out over a maze of logging roads, many kilometres into the bush, to a camp at Brave Lake.

The families of Constance Lake each have an area of the land that is handed down, generation to generation, where they hunt, fish and trap. Their year-round homes are in the community, but (except in winter) they often stay at their camps and come to know the land intimately – the fish, birds and animals, the lakes and streams, the trees and plants. Brave Lake and the surrounding bush are extraordinarily beautiful.

Standsinwater Sutherland, who greeted us at St. Stephen’s, is a Lay Reader there. Stanley Stephen is an elder of the community and People’s Warden – and as we learned later, was awarded the Order of Military Merit last year by the Governor General. Harvey Ferris is another elder and long-time Lay Reader. They were our welcoming hosts at the camp. Stanley told us about the land we were on, and how it sustains the people. Someone asked what they do if a bear shows up. Stanley grinned and held up the whistle he was carrying on a lanyard around his neck. “Black bears don’t like whistles”, he said. We were only slightly reassured!

We shared lunches that we packed in the morning, and then Standsinwater began to speak. Larry told us later that Standsinwater had never done anything like this before. It was hard to believe that, because what he did that day was so wonderful. It was reminiscent of what the Bridge Builders in our diocese do: “telling the truth with love”.

He spoke about the residential schools, and how deeply their legacy continues to affect his people and himself. He told us about the Sixties Scoop, how on the flimsiest of excuses, child welfare agencies took Indigenous children from their families and scattered them across Canada, even to European countries, where some of them are now reconnecting with their ancestral cultures. He spoke of his own story, his long-time turning away from the church, his many years living and working in Toronto, his personal struggles and his return, only a few years ago, to Constance Lake. While still in Toronto, Standsinwater was accepted to Ryerson University in Anthropology, where he planned to study Indigenous culture. Then he decided that the best place to do that would be in his own community, with his own people. He spread his arms to the bush around us, and said. “This is my school now!”

Standsinwater said he spoke no Oji-Cree when he returned to Constance Lake; this fall he will start at the local school teaching Oji-Cree to the children. He was baptized Allan when he was a child; the spirit name he goes by now spirit was given to him by a traditional Medicine Man. The whole name (English version) is Spirit Who Stands in Water.

Standsinwater performs smudging ceremony.

Standsinwater then explained the meaning of smudging as a rite of purification, and led us in a smudging ceremony. He sang and drummed a traditional Prayer of the Four Directions, summoning ancestral spirits to gather with us. He led us in blessing gifts of tobacco in our hands, gathered them together and spread them on the surface of Brave Lake as a blessing of the water. He did all this with warmth, humour and gentleness, with truth but not judgment, and with deep reverence for the lands and the traditions and evident love of the Creator. The images and stories are different than those in Christian tradition, but the message that that we all are children of one Creator, that the Creator is present all around us, that we are meant to live in love and harmony with Creation and one another is the same. We have much to learn from Indigenous peoples about how to live that message. Thankfully, there are many who are willing to share their wisdom with us.

By the time Standsinwater finished speaking, we felt we were in the presence of a gifted teacher who clearly is called to do important things for his people. Lori Colbeck of our group wrote afterwards, “I had experienced a smudging before, and although it differed slightly, I still felt a parallel to having taken Communion. It was a truly spiritual experience. The other thing was the sincerity of Standsinwater as he shared some of his personal journey and the cultural and spiritual story of his People. I believed he really wanted to share with us so that we might understand, and I felt truly honoured. It was a very generous gift.”

Upon leaving Brave Lake, we returned to the community and visited their K-12 school.  After all we have learned about the cultural genocide in residential schools, it was good to see how Indigenous language and traditions are incorporated into the building and the curriculum today. In a round conversation pit in the lobby, the floor is covered by a yellow, red, black and white medicine wheel. Around the tops of the walls are gorgeous Indigenous art works and colourful depictions of the Seven Sacred Teachings, or the Seven Grandfather Teachings as they often are called, that are common to most Indigenous nations in Turtle Island: Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Wisdom Truth and Humility. Each has its own animal symbol. Everywhere we saw posters with Oji-Cree words in Cree syllabics – their “alphabet”. It is a fine school building, and they have some Indigenous teachers, but teacher turnover is continuing challenge. Because funding for schools in Indigenous communities is so much less than in the non-Native public education system, teacher salaries also are much lower in schools on-reserve. We also learned that after secondary school, most young people leave Constance Lake for employment or higher education.

Next, we visited the Sunrise Elders’ Centre, an attractive supported living residence beautifully located on the shore of Constance Lake. In the central lobby, under a ceiling painted with a medicine wheel, are the photographs of elders who had lived there, including Standsinwater’s mother and father. Mary Lou Kingham of our group wrote afterwards that it stood out for her how the community is providing for its future through the school for its young people and the residence for its elders.

The Seven Sacred Teachings

The day still had many good gifts to give us. We returned to St. Stephen’s Church, sat together in downstairs in the cool of the church hall to rest and to talk. This is where activities for children and youth take place, and here too, the Seven Sacred Teachings are displayed on the walls. There also were posters in Cree syllabics with the sounds of each symbol written in Roman letters beneath. Standsinwater challenged us to decipher the first line, and we all failed. We were embarrassed to learn that it said, “O, Canada”! The posters were of the national anthem in Cree.

The gathering grew as people from the community gradually assembled for dinner. New conversation groups formed; the buzz in the room grew ever louder. There were people of all ages, from children to elders.  Marion Fox of our group said, “The welcome received was amazing!! Everyone was so friendly, so easy to talk with.” The conversations before, during and after the meal were precious gifts for us; we pray that they were for our hosts as well.

After dinner, we gathered in the church for a workshop/rehearsal under the direction of St. James’ chorister James Colbeck for a “Musical Holy Communion” on Saturday night. That story will have to wait for Part 2 of “First Date in Constance Lake”. But James’ wrote a fitting last word for about our first day in Constance Lake:

“Revisiting so directly the Seven Grandfathers – Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Truth, Wisdom, Humility, the very essence of Indigenous spirituality – while at Constance Lake First Nation, and being cleansed once again in a smudging while out at Brave Lake, filled me to overflowing with an inner joy and sense of peace.”