Skip to main content

Much has been made about the solitudes that characterize Canada. To a large extent, the relationship between its first nations and its Jewish community fit very much into that pattern, even though there are so many commonalities of our respective traditions that should have brought us into close and meaningful interaction. For too long, the nature of the relationship between our communities betrayed an almost complete lack of awareness of what made the other tick. There was little or no meaningful interaction to break the mutual isolation, particularly among the grassroots and certainly between the national leadership through the Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Jewish Congress.

Ironically, it took the anti-Semitic ranting of David Ahenakew and first nations' unflinching condemnation of this aboriginal leader to sharpen the focus of both communities and create a new paradigm of understanding, friendship and solidarity. Out of this ugly situation came something quite beautiful: an unhesitating commitment by the Jewish and first nation communities to walk the journey of peace and reconciliation together. Once embarked on this road of mutual respect and good will, the myriad of community commonalities came into sharper relief. But so did the gulf of ignorance that desperately needed bridging.

We acknowledged our shared connection of ancient ties to ancestral lands. We took stock of the ageless value in our traditions of heritage languages and culture and how we transmit them to successive generations. We compared notes on our spiritual connections to our creator. And we reminded ourselves of our other unfortunate common ground as two communities that have experienced the full gamut of persecution, from racist jokes and stereotyping through societal discrimination and attempted genocide. In this context, the government's recent apology for the horrors of the residential schools was most welcome.

At the same time, it became clear that both communities needed to take concrete steps to educate the other on the unique and specific ways our commonalities actually played out - both in our histories and in our contemporary daily lives. In this way, we would learn essential information about each other that would be useful for its own sake but indispensable in underpinning the new vision of co-operative interaction.

The starting place for this new journey was Israel: the ancient homeland of the Jews and a 21st-century multicultural, multifaith, scientifically advanced state. CJC and the AFN jointly led a group of 20 first nations chiefs to Israel, where the profound and fervent attachment of Jews to their ancient land resonated powerfully with the visiting delegation. With an empathy born of dispossession and marginalization, the first nations leaders innately grasped the narrative of Israel and its centrality to the modern Jewish experience in Canada.

They saw with their own eyes the possibilities for the rebirth of an ancient people, with its indigenous language, in this case Hebrew, reborn and modernized. They observed useful models of retention and intergenerational transmission of ancestral culture and traditions. A second delegation to Israel of first nations women further solidified the connection. Based at the progressive Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center in Haifa, they learned firsthand from experts and through visits around the country about empowerment, entrepreneurship and women in leadership roles, Israeli-style. This knowledge, too, is already being put to good use back in Canada in first nations communities.

At the same time, the Israel missions have set the stage for the second part of our journey together. As first nations leaders have chosen to stand on the heritage homeland of the Jewish people, Canadian Jewish community leaders must stand on first nations land and acknowledge our responsibility to work with first nations as they strive to reclaim their past and develop their future. CJC has gladly accepted this invitation, and plans are under way for senior representatives to visit several northern reserves.

Together, the insights gleaned in the Israel missions and the reserve visits in Canada will forge a greater level of understanding between the two communities. This will pave the way for increasingly informed joint action on issues from poverty alleviation to combatting anti-Semitism and anti-native bigotry. In this way, we will intensify the emerging relationship of trust and reconciliation that we yearn for and cherish, and that will contribute to a Canada in which solitudes will be replaced by harmonies.

Phil Fontaine is national chief, Assembly of First Nations. Rabbi Reuven Bulka and Sylvain Abitbol are co-presidents of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Chief Fontaine recently delivered the keynote address at the CJC's annual general meeting.