First Nation peoples, the original inhabitants of Canada, are the most studied but least understood group in Canadian society.
“We believe, that when armed with appropriate resources, Native peoples hold the capacity and ingenuity to ensure the sustainable economic, spiritual, and cultural well being of their communities.” (First Nations Development Institute)
More First Nation peoples live in urban centres in Canada than on reserves. Two-thirds of Canada’s First Nation peoples live in western Canada and four of the five cities with the highest proportions of First Nation peoples are in the west.
Numerous studies show that the socio-economic conditions of First Nation peoples are different from those of other Canadians. These are attributed to public policies and societal attitudes. The Salvation Army continues to build bridges in communities as they partner with Aboriginal Peoples across Canada.
British Columbia has nearly 200 Aboriginal groups. Oliver and Deborah McNeil work with The Salvation Army in Gitwinksihlkw, British Columbia.
The population of this modern Indian village is approximately 400. In 1927 Salvation Army Major Carruthers changed the name of the village to Canyon City, which was easier for visitors to pronounce. On September 11, 1989 the residents of that community officially changed the name back to Gitwinksihlkw.
“Our work in Gitwinksihlkw is to bring salvation to our people and see them united,” states Aux-Captain Oliver McNeil. “We also want to bring ownership back to the people and make them feel that they have a purpose.”
Volunteers have stepped forward and people are becoming more involved in the church. “It belongs to them, not us.” says Oliver. The chief of the village donated a keyboard for the church that he plays himself. The people of Gitwinksihlkw want their own people to be leaders. Oliver and Debbie know the culture and language. “We understand our people and can get more involved in their lives.”
Even though other villages are Anglican, The Salvation Army is often called on to be present in their communities, especially when it comes to memorials, sicknesses, tragedies or death.
“People are touched by my wife’s music ministry,” comments Oliver. “With her singing and my preaching in the Nisga’a language we are able to reach out to the people of Gitwinksihlkw and those in the surrounding villages.”
Even though they are Salvation Army pastors the McNeil’s are still part of the Nisga’a Nation. Being a sub-chief makes it easier for Oliver to speak at feasts and share God’s Word. Debbie always has requests to sing at feasts, memorials and in homes.”
Oliver concludes his vision and that of The Salvation Army. “I want to see the people of Gitwinksihlkw reconciled to God and each other through the church.”
The Salvation Army reaches out to people as people. There are no divisions. Through education they are breaking down common stereotypes surrounding First Nation societies.