More than 100 years ago, Winnipeg businessman Harry Henteleff used to make it a practice to get out of town and do some hunting and fishing in the dense forests and pristine lakes that were plentiful on the Manitoba-Ontario border.
Henteleff was usually accompanied by guides from local First Nations communities, and the friendships he struck up stayed with him for life.
More recently, Henteleff’s grandson, Michael Dan, has been making his way into a nearby area in Northwestern Ontario, not far from the Manitoba border, which was ceded by Anishinabe-speaking peoples to the Crown in what is known as Treaty 3.
Like his grandfather, Dan respects Aboriginal culture, but it’s not hunting and fishing that brings him there.
Dan, president and CEO of Gemini Power Corporation, is promoting a hydro-electric project that he believes will benefit his company, as well as pay handsome dividends for local First Nations bands for generations to come.
“My family has a connection to Treaty 3 [lands] that goes back 100 years,” said Dan. “Now his grandson has come back with several million dollars and is [developing] a hydro station in the area.”
Dan is far from the first contemporary Jew to take an interest in Aboriginal well-being. Late last year, the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ), meeting in Sand Diego adopted a “Resolution on First Nations” advanced by a committee of the Canadian Council of Reform Jews/URJ. The resolution recounts the many social, economic, health and education challenges facing First Nations communities. It calls on Reform Jews to “continue to develop and strengthen relationships with the First Nations community.” It also calls on the federal government to urge provincial authorities to teach First Nations history and to work with First Nations to address the challenges facing Aboriginal Canadians.
Meanwhile, Ve’ahavta, the Canadian Jewish humanitarian and relief organization, is partnering with Aboriginal communities in the Treaty 3 area to improve the health of First Nations peoples.
With a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the support of philanthropist Larry Tanenbaum; Phil Fontaine, former chief of the Assembly of First Nations; and former Prime Minister Paul Martin, Ve’ahavta will send young people to communities in the Kenora area, near the Manitoba border, to support local community health programs.
In interviews with Dan, Sarah Zelcer, Ve’ahavta’s director of national and international programs, and Martin, the longstanding ties of the Jewish and First Nations communities were stressed.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we were like them, second-class citizens in the countries we live in,” Dan said.
The hydro project that Gemini is promoting – it’s still seeking bureaucratic approvals – will over time be turned over to local First Nations communities, providing an income stream while encouraging financial self-sufficiency, he said.
“It’s much more than just a business deal,” Dan continued. “It’s trying to help this community become more self reliant. It’s taking all the smarts and knowledge we have on Bay Street and applying it to a community that was left to fend for itself without much success.”
“It’s much more than a project now. It’s a lifelong connection to the community,” he added.
Zelcer, of Ve’ahavta, said, Bri’ut (Hebrew for health) is a capacity-building program that will co-operate with the Kenora Chiefs Advisory to support community led health promotion programming in seven Anishinabe reserves over the next 3-1/2 years.
The program will see seven graduate students studying public health or social work under the direction of their host communities to promote health.
“We see Bri’ut as our entry point into building meaningful relationships with Aboriginal communities which are based on partnership, collaboration, mutual respect and trust. Our goal is to develop more programs which focus on supporting Aboriginal communities in Canada in the areas of health and education,” Zelcer said.
Ve’ahavta is hoping to involve Toronto synagogues in “a movement within the Jewish community that seeks to better understand the issues affecting Aboriginal Canadians, to build partnerships with Aboriginal communities, and to work hand in hand toward promoting a more equitable Canada.”
Contacted at his office in Montreal, Martin noted that “the Canadian Jewish community has for some time shown a great interest in the plight of Canada’s indigenous people. This is very much to the credit of the Jewish community.”
Martin, who spearheaded the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, which includes a five-year pilot project funded in part by the Judith and Lawrence Tanenbaum Family Foundation, said Aboriginal Canadians are the youngest and fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population. He urged young Canadian Jews to “get involved with young Aboriginal Canadians. That will lead to better understanding,” he said.
Tanenbaum said his involvement in Native issues can be traced back to a visit to the White Dog Reserve in northern Ontario nearly five years ago. Accompanying Martin at the time, he said he “was moved by what I saw and what heard that day.
“I take great pride that the Jewish community is engaged with and working on behalf of Canada’s Aboriginal people in many facets.
“The former Canadian Jewish Congress was deeply involved in programming with First Nations [and] the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs… participated in the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, as well as mentoring Aboriginal leaders in advocacy and leadership.
“I think we all view this work as part of our community’s tradition of tikkun olam. It is very basic, but so essential. We seek to make our community, province and country a better place. It begins with helping others, and it is something that is rooted in the traditions of our people that were taught to me by my parents.”
Martin will discuss his education initiatives at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple on April 10, while Dan is scheduled to speak at Temple Emanu-El on April 6 on First Nations’ traumatic memory and economic marginalization.