An Interview with Elvira Cote
With Jennifer Kronelsen and Elvira Cote
I (Jennifer Kornelsen) visited with Elvira Cote one rainy day this spring. Elvira is from Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan and she lives in Winnipeg. Elvira serves God with Healing Hearts Ministries, and has been an Evangelical Mennonite Conference missionary for 25 years. Her home church is Braeside EMC. Elvira and I are sharing our conversation with you so that you can hear my questions (I’m a white settler), and Elvira’s wisdom (Elvira is Saulteaux).
A note about terminology: language is always evolving, and the names used for ethnic categories can be delicate. The Messenger uses Indigenous Peoples to refer to the original inhabitants of Canada; First Nations is also common in usage. Elvira has a personal preference for the term Native, and she uses this term most of the time.
Jennifer Kornelsen (JK): The EMC has traditionally been made up mostly of people with European ethnic backgrounds. You are First Nations. Describe what your experience has been.
Elvira Cote (EC): Well first of all, I have belonged to a mostly white EMC church and many of my friends are white Mennonites. We are life-long friends. Throughout my years raising my salary as a missionary, non-Native people have been very generous. The majority of my financial support has come from my white Menn onite friends and connections.
Whenever I visit other EMC churches to speak I receive an abundance of warm welcomes and hugs and I am assured that lots of people are praying for me. I really feel the Holy Spirit through the genuine care and love that I receive from EMCers.
Like other Native people, I have had my share of negative experiences in the church, including in our denomination. Most often this has happened when non-Native people have asked me questions that are ignorant. When I’m asked ignorant questions I feel that I’m being looked down on and that non-Native people have not made the effort to learn about me and my people. This makes me feel that we are not valuable and that we are being overlooked.
In general, Mennonite people are such hard workers. They will work the land till they can work no more! Perhaps if they didn’t work quite as hard they might look up and look around and notice their Native neighbours more. But I have had good relationships with people who took the time to get to know me and just be my friend.
JK: What would you like EMC people to know about First Nations people in Canada?
EC: Non-Native people (like long-time EMC missionaries Frank and Mary Braun) were the first to share Jesus among Natives, but a lot of Native people have come to Christ and have taken up the task of spreading the gospel. My niece Venus Cote and myself became believers through the witness of Frank and Mary and we both now serve as Native missionaries. In this way I have seen how God has multiplied the good news. Native people are still coming to Christ!
Native people in Canada are your neighbour. God calls us to love our neighbours. The EMC has invested a lot in overseas missions over the years, and this is great. But the EMC needs to keep looking in its own back yard and invest in Canadian Native people. One thing that would really help would be to support Native missionaries financially.
JK: How could non-Indigenous people become better at developing friendships with Indigenous People?
EC: Mennonites are naturally quite passive and they often stay in their little groups and comfortable settings. Its important to be willing to leave your setting to get to know your Native neighbours. The most important thing non-Native people can do is learn directly from Native people themselves, through relationships. It isn’t okay to just learn about Native people by reading about them in the news or learning from white experts and academics. Instead, take the time to be a friend to one Native person. This includes listening well, visiting, having tea and laughing together.
Don’t think of your Native friend as a project, and never be forceful with sharing the gospel. Instead, come alongside your Native friend. Invest your life by being a true friend to that one person. It doesn’t sound like much, but it would make a big difference. Friendship is the most important thing, not charity. In fact, charity is more often hurtful than it is helpful, if there is no genuine friendship.
JK: How do you suggest a white person could become friends with an Indigenous person? Give us some advice!
EC: Always say “hi.” Smile and connect casually with a Native person that you see on the street.
Remember that person, and recognize them when you see them more than once.
Ask a simple, friendly question like, “hey, you must live around here, I’ve seen you before.” Start some small talk and offer your name.
If you’ve begun to have some small talk, take the time to ask the Native person where they are from. Ask which reserve they are connected to. Native people appreciate being known in relation to their home communities.
Don’t be fearful. Native people are very perceptive and they won’t find it easy to relate to you if they feel you are afraid of them.
Follow up, and mean what you say.
Superficial relationships are a good start. Superficial relationships can deepen, especially if you learn where the other person lives.
Find ways to share. Native people appreciate giving and receiving gifts. I’ve had really good experiences sharing cartons of eggs with a woman I happened to meet, and a box of chocolates with a frazzled young mother. These were opportunities to build further connection.
JK: What are some of the gifts that Indigenous people have for the church, the natural strengths in First Nations cultures?
EC: There are so many natural strengths in Native people. These are of course generalizations, but Native people are very genuine. They are humble, putting others first and not needing to be in the spotlight. Many Native people have great discernment. They love to laugh and they have a great sense of humour. This includes being silly and teasing, but isn’t usually hurtful teasing because Native people don’t take things very personally.
The way they look at things is unique. They have a great gift for story telling. Jesus’ life demonstrates that story-telling can be a very good way of gently teaching truth and Native people are good at this.
And of course, just like other cultural groups, Native people love their traditional foods, like bannock, and they love to share food.
JK: What is God doing among First Nations people and how can the EMC support this and pray?
EC: There have been many great Christian Native leaders, but these are getting older and we need to raise up a younger generation of leaders and missionaries who are Native. We need to invest in the youth and help them to grow by supporting them to attend Bible school and especially to be taught by older Native Christians. Northern Canada Evangelical Mission (NCEM) is training Native missionaries and we need to support this. There should be a Bible school especially for Native people.
Inviting Native people to be speakers in EMC churches would really open eyes and would help non-Natives to learn about what God is doing among Native people.
It would be great it the EMC could maintain a faithful presence in the Native communities where there was ministry in the past, places like Sioux Valley, Manitoba and Kamsack, Saskatchewan.
I find it a privilege to serve in missions under the EMC. EMC has encouraged me from the beginning and has walked with me consistently. Please continue to support me and pray for me!