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Relationships First: the Youth Ambassador of Reconciliation Trip

The Youth Ambassador of Reconciliation Program has officially begun! Two CRC members (Israel Cooper and Thea deGroot) and two CRC staff (Bernadette Arthur and Shannon Perez) have recently left for a week-long stay in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation, a fly-in community approximately 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. They were invited there by the youth of the community in order to learn together and grow in relationship, breaking down the division that often exists in Canada between on-reserve communities and other communities, between Indigenous people and settler Canadians. When they return, they will in turn lead their home communities in reconciliation efforts.

As Thea deGroot said in an interview for a local paper about the trip,

“It's not for doing charity work, and if it was, I wouldn't go because we've done too much damage that way. First Nations know how to fix their problems. We just have to walk alongside them, and the more that we can do that by having personal relationships, the better it is.”

Read on for Thea and Israel’s pre-trip thoughts:


Thea deGroot

For as long as I can remember, I have deeply felt the need to respond to the words and pictures of Matthew 25: 34-40 first encountered in the children’s Bible – “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink…” My work experience, first as a teenage summer counsellor in local parks and later in community settings, have kept me regularly in contact with people whose lives were often marginalized and in which those biblical words came through loud and clear, not as a warning to assure my place in heaven but as a call of a loving God to treat all people as fully loved and created by the same God that loved and created her.

I am looking forward to the upcoming trip to KI, an opportunity not to be missed since the best way to learn about those who are different than you is to live with them.

It always interests me to learn about someone else’s life. I grew up as an immigrant kid in the Brantford area. I know what it feels like to be a stranger – I was eight when we moved to Canada from the Netherlands with just my own immediate family. My family was intact all my life and we were supported by a faith community. When I began to work at Aamjiwnaang First Nation as an adult upgrading and literacy instructor, I was reminded of the community in which I grew up and although the Christian Reformed Dutch community was far removed from a First Nation community, I found many similarities between them. So I’m looking forward to once again being in a tight-knit community that cares about one another, even though that also can be stifling at times.

I am looking forward to living with a community that lives close to the land. I am interested in the plants that grow in KI and how the people use what’s available to them, in the food that will be shared and to learn about how it’s prepared, in the role of the elders in a First Nation community and also in learning from them. As a senior citizen myself, in a culture that does not generally respect aging, I think I have a lot to learn from a culture where age is respected. I’m also interesting in knowing about the ceremonies that are held and what a culture that has left ceremony and rites largely in the past, what can be learned from a culture that actively holds ceremonies and rites of passage.

I look forward to living with a KI family. Although a senior, I am quite able to live in whatever accommodations are available and am very willing to adapt to whatever is needful. One of our daughters and her family have lived in Haiti for many years and in visiting them several times, it became quite normal to not have water or hydro available at times. I can live with these conditions but will continue to speak up to my government that those inadequate conditions in many First Nations need to be addressed sooner than later in a country as rich as Canada.

I am very interested to hear about KI’s experience and reality of climate change in their land-based activities and how they understand the long-haul changes that are happening in our world. I have lived now on the same two acres for more than 40 years and have been an active gardener, growing most of our own vegetables and enjoying the bounty of cultivated and native plants. I want to learn what it is like to have histories on the same piece of land for many generations.

I am looking forward to taking in the wonder of the north and reflecting on what I can bring back to my community of the richness of the land and the people who’ve made their home there for generations.

My commitment to serve the God that loves me and I love and this moment in Canadian history lead me to actively stand in solidarity with my Indigenous neighbours and to move more fully toward the basis on which original treaties were signed – the sharing of the territories we live on and walking alongside one another. There are many ways that modern societies seem to have lost their way and being exposed more intimately to a civilization that has lived sustainably on this land now called Canada for thousands of years may enable us all to open our eyes to what ails us and give us the insight to move together in ways that bring blessing to all life on earth.


Israel Cooper

I was born in the United States, but my family moved to Canada in 1994 so my Dad could pastor Meadowvale CRC, a growing church in Mississauga. In our years at Meadowvale my brother and sister were born, and the members of the church became our extended family. 

My siblings and I attended a local Catholic elementary school near our church. This is one of my earliest memories of interacting in community with a group of people who had a (albeit only slightly) different religion and faith than I had. In high school, the classes I grew most interested in were world religions, anthropology, and world history. Then came the difficult time of choosing my major, and which university I wanted to attend. Despite my interest learning about different cultures, studying history and examining structures of society, I chose to study Kinesiology. I knew that I wanted to become part of a group that was working towards helping others through the health care system. I graduated from the University of Western Ontario with an honours specialization degree in Kinesiology in the spring of 2015.

While attending Western, I often chose First Nations studies as my elective courses. My parents have a history and shared interest in working with First Nations people, and my church has been very involved in building relationships with the First Nations in Mississauga. Personally, the more I learn about the different groups of First Nations in Canada and their ties to the land, the more I fall in love with these rich cultural groups. I believe we as the church and citizens of Canada have so much to learn from First Nations people. I also believe that building relationships between and within our groups will be important for change to happen.

Since graduation, I have been trying to find my next path in life. With my education in health care and passion for helping the oppressed, I was very eager to start working. However, I couldn’t seem to find jobs that fit my interests or a place where I wanted to grow my career. I decided to take the year off to figure out my next steps, or what we call in sports my game plan. It was because of this time off that I was able to join the Youth Ambassador of Reconciliation Program to KI. As soon as I heard what the trip was about, I knew it would fit in perfectly with who I am, and what I want to start doing with my career.

The amazing opportunity to live on a First Nations reserve and learn from the community is something I believe will be emotionally and spiritually moving. The first hand experiences we will have on this trip will be something I remember for my entire life. The cultural education and the knowledge I hope to absorb will help me grow as a person, and is also something I can use as inspiration as I move forward in finding a job and choosing a career. The moments that have made me grow most as a person thus far have been times when I was open to learning from someone else, and when I have allowed myself to experience certain things from another person’s perspective. As the anticipation for this trip builds, I feel utterly blessed that I am loved by a God who always looks out for me and listens to my prayers.


Hear more reflections and pictures from Israel and Thea, as they are posted, by liking the Facebook page of the Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee

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