First-Nation Christians Look to Israel for “Inspiration”

Norway House Cree Nation Trip to Israel in 2012

The Norway House, a Christian Cree community of some 6000 on the shore of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, has just brought a group of their youth to Israel for the third time in five years.

In April 2012, the community’s Youth Leadership Development Mission got their first taste of Israel. Speaking back then to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, chief of the Cree Nation Ron Evans explained what he as leader of this initiative was hoping to accomplish. “The objective is to help develop leaders among First Nations youth. I visited Israel for the first time last year (2011) and I was overwhelmingly inspired,” remembered Evans.

The Cree elder saw many similarities between the two peoples. “The Jewish people are the historic, indigenous people of Israel. For Canada’s First Nations, Israel’s story demonstrates how an ancient people can maintain their heritage while embracing the modern world, and in so doing achieve self-determination.”

Shelley Faintuch, the director at the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg who helped Chief Evans make his first connections in Israel, was also enthusiastic. “The future of Canada’s First Nations depends on building the next generation of ambitious, dynamic and innovative First Nations leaders,” Faintuch told JTA.

The experiment was apparently a solid success. In February 2016, on the eve of their third trip, Evans told the Canadian Jewish News that his community was learning a great deal “by looking through the lens of Israel’s inspiring story. Israel is first and foremost the land of the heritage of the Jewish People, who have achieved self-determination in a modern democracy and diverse state.” The Cree leader admired how the Jews had recovered their roots after thousands of years. “Those of us from First Nations communities can appreciate the fascinating balance between modern and ancient that we see in Israel, and especially the sense of connection to the land of one’s ancestors.”

The spiritual kinship with Israel created by the Cree community’s Christian faith was an extra incentive. Evans noted that because of their knowledge of the Bible, “a visit to Israel will resonate more with my people than a trip to a theme park such as Disneyland.” Each year, along with their experience of modern Israel, the First-Nation youth tour the world-famous sites and archeological finds from both Jewish and Christian history.

This year’s mission focused on Israel as the “start-up nation,” a nickname acquired by the country’s global leadership in high-tech, medicine, water recycling and other entrepreneurship. “We want to see what we can learn from Israeli innovation,” Evans explained, adding that ideas for economic cooperation would also be explored.

When asked about safety concerns, he responded that those worries evaporated pretty quickly. “In the beginning there was fear about war and violence.” But the first trip went so smoothly, Norway House had no trouble recruiting a group the following year. The 2016 mission was filled to capacity, reported Evans, and now other First-Nation leaders are asking him how to organize similar trips.