Breaking Bannock on City Streets

Article excerpt

ON A WARMISH Saturday morning in October, Rev. Andrew Wesley walks along one of Toronto's major thoroughfares, Bloor Street, carrying a plastic container of blueberries and a bag of flatbread. While most city dwellers are just beginning to enjoy the start of the weekend, Mr. Wesley is heading for his constituents--a group of aboriginal people who live in Bedford Park just across from the University of Toronto's football field.

The flatbread is bannock, a traditional Indian bread that is a taste of home for the people he would be meeting. He and a visitor are greeted in a friendly manner. Most of the group have just come from breakfast at a social centre. Their names are Eric, Marcel, Noreen, Joe, Jim, and some bear the marks of hard living--cuts, scars, missing teeth, a swollen eye--but not all do.

Mr. Wesley moves around to various members of the group, talking quietly one-on-one. The talk ranges over a story of jail--"I got bugs from a blanket from this jail in Guelph once"--to the question of where they will go when winter sets in. Shelters are all right, says Joe, "but they have rules there, like no drinking, no cursing, no fighting, and we like to do all that stuff." A latecomer joins the group with the words, "I'm under house arrest." "So what are you doing here, man?" asks Noreen. No reply and the newcomer sits down, pulls out a bottle of mouthwash, opens it up and takes a gulp. He is not freshening his breath. Mouthwash can contain as much as 27 per cent alcohol and at about $2, it is a cheap, though gut-churning, high. Another member of the group takes out a mickey of Southern Comfort.

Eric leans over to say that he is Sioux and Blackfoot, from near the North Dakota border. The talk turns toward attempts to find work. One man mentions roofing jobs. Joe hands a visitor a book, a copy of the New Testament. "My girlfriend gave it to me. She's a Christian," he says.

After spending an hour or so with the group, having distributed the blueberries and bannock, Mr. Wesley says good-bye. "Hey, next time bring some Klik," says Marcel, referring to a canned meat popular in many northern communities. Mr. Wesley, who is Cree and who grew up in northern Ontario, laughs.

These Saturday morning "walkabouts," as Mr. Wesley calls them, are part of a recent commitment by the diocese of Toronto to minister to some of the approximately 60,000 aboriginal people in the city. Mr. Wesley divides his time between the downtown Church of the Redeemer, known for its social justice activities, and the Toronto Urban Native Ministry office housed in an aboriginal service agency called Council Fire Native Cultural Centre.

He is counseling two members of the Bedford Park group, most of whom, he says, come from family backgrounds of alcohol abuse and violence. Help for alcohol addiction, guidance for job training and social services, leading worship services in native language are some of the activities Mr. Wesley pursues. Two members of the group went to church-run residential schools, a system widely publicized in recent years because of the abuse experienced by students in some of the schools. …