Impressions of Canada – the Parliament of the World’s Religions/ PWR, Toronto – part 1

I had hardly hit the dust of Toronto on October 23, 2018, when I was being whisked off to the last meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions/PWR 2018, Toronto Steering Committee meeting. Connecting with the organisers in Chicago the last-minute details were being discussed. Are there enough volunteers to help out during the week? Is the app working? A sort of ‘calm panic’ ensued… As it turned out there were enough volunteers and the Parliament app was updated and worked. Many thanks for the tireless efforts of both committees! We often forget that events like this take so many, many months to organise.

PWR also depends on huge promotion – often again from people who work tirelessly and without financial gain. Quite often the promotion is also in the form of ‘Pre-Parliament’ events. In Toronto one of the groups who were most active in October was ‘Witchfest North’. They organised the “Into the Nights – Oct 1-31, 2018” festival, a collaboration with Womynspirit Festival.

I was honoured to be invited to the “Full Moon Opening Night Exhibition Event” on October 24. I gave my presentation “Etruscans Myth & Magic” which seemed to be received very well. So much so that there wasn’t enough time for the full moon ritual. Surrounded by some beautiful art work it was a delight to meet some witchy friends whom I had never met in person, only via email or social media. And of course it is always good to meet local people. Many thanks to Monica Bodirsky and her team for organising the whole evening. I would see Monica and many more witches on Wednesday Oct 31 as we gathered together for the Witch Walk. The event announcement on Facebook was: “Join Catherine Starr, Monica Bodirsky and the Broom Crew to celebrate the success of Witchfest North, remember and honour our Ancestors, and welcome the world to Toronto and the Parliament of World’s Religions. We will chant, dance and walk the labyrinth together as we celebrate Samhain and the diversity of our community.”

And so we gathered and then proceeded to walk through the streets of Toronto to Trinity Square. That was quite a feat manoeuvring along the busy rush hour streets but as we entered the Square a calmness befell us all. There we formed a large circle as Catherine welcomed us in. Surrounded by beautiful trees and huge skyscrapers with neon flashing signs such as EXCEL it was quite surreal. Many other people from all different walks-of-life joined us on this memorable evening, also known as Hallowe’en/ Hallows Eve.

(Selena Fox, from Circle Sanctuary and Morgana at the start of the Witchwalk)

Several Crones were called into the circle – including myself – to bless everyone. We were Crones of the Sky, of the Earth, of healing… and more. Leading the spiral dance Catherine, we circled past Rowan holding a cauldron of sacred water. Dropping  the herbs we had been given the cauldron was filled to make a sweet-smelling concoction.

As the ceremony drew to a close, we celebrated the end of the Witchfest ‘Into the Nights’ month  and the beginning of the PWR week November 1-7, 2018.

However before PWR started there was another ‘pre-Parliament’ event which I attended, namely  – “The alchemy of women’s collective wisdom and power”. Gathering at the Delta Hotel, just across from the South Building of the Toronto Metro Convention Centre/ TMCC, we were greeted by a couple of the ladies we had met online a few days earlier. We had been asked to bring a little water with us from home… or from a spot sacred to us.

On the website we could familiarise ourselves with the programme: “Core Committee welcomes all women and girls, and Live Streamers.”

Kahontakwas Diane Longboat, Teacher and Leader from the Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan, a traditional Teacher from Six Nations Grand River Territory, Canada, has been lovingly working with us from the beginning of our planning stages over the past 6 months. She will be with us with other Indigenous Elders to open or circle and welcome us all to the land. We are elevating Diane’s vision of a World Wide Web of Wisdom as we gather in this sacred manner. This is the intention and spirit which all attendees will be contributing to.

Rev. Aina-Nia Ayo’dele will guide us in a traditional African Sacred Water ceremony.

Everyone will participate in a Sacred Water Ceremony. While you contribute your water to our sacred vessel, we will also acknowledge and welcome your ancestors whose presence we will certainly feel.”

(At the drum circle – Morgana)

Grouping together in small circles (and yes, I randomly picked number 13 …) we first introduced ourselves and greeted each other. And what a diverse group of women it was. Diversity was a word we would hear constantly at Parliament but we weren’t only honouring the differences but also acknowledging the land we were standing on and the people who had lived there for centuries. It was noticeable how often at the beginning of sessions the indigenous people and Canadians acknowledged the Spirits of the Land, a practice which many pagans and heathens also do automatically.

As the water was collected, we heard where it had come from and why the water was sacred to the person who brought it. As I poured my water into the jug, I told my story of the water coming from the Netherlands and the great rivers which flow into the Netherlands – the Rhine, the Meuse. Later I would join the Indigenous folk at the opening outside the convention centre at the tipi they had set up for the duration of PWR. Although the fire was a sacred focal point in the opening ceremony, I couldn’t help thinking it was the Rain Gods who were blessing us that afternoon.

Bob Goulais, Anishinaabe, hosted the opening and introduced several Elders who told their stories. Diane Longboat, Mohawk, was also present. Both Diane and Bob would be present during the Parliament week not only introducing other Elders but also giving their own speeches and facilitating workshops. I would have loved to spend more time with Diane but as so often the case at Parliament there is never enough time to speak with everyone. Fortunately Diane is connected to URI and I am sure our paths will cross again.

(The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love, was the theme of the Parliament of World’s Religions (PWR),held in Toronto, Canada from November 1st – 7th, 2018.)  

And so the procession to the Opening Ceremony began. It is always amazing to watch everyone coming in dressed in their robes, national dress and costumes.

(Opening ceremony PWR 2018)

Chief Ava Hill gave one of the opening speeches:

Chief Ava Hill Commends Interfaith Relationships & Reconciliation

(Six Nations Chief Ava Hill, photo courtesy of the Hamilton Spectator)

At the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto on Nov. 1, Ava Hill – Chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve – graced the program with a beautiful welcome to the traditional lands on which the #2018Parliament was hosted on Nov. 1 – 7. In her opening address, she recalled vast and moving experiences working with a wide-range of religions in the work of reconciliation and told us the Parliament “is so important as it provides a venue for us to share our traditional spiritual knowledge that will provide inspiration and guidance for all of humanity as we continue to struggle with so many challenges in today’s world.”

Over the following 7 days, the 8300+ international attendees of the Parliament explored, “The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation and Change”. One of six major sub-themes was led by Indigenous Peoples, called “The Spiritual Evolution of Humanity and Healing Our Mother Earth”.

During the Parliament I represented both URI and PFI(Pagan Federation International). One of the happy coincidences was that the Meet & Greet areas of both URI and the Pagan Community were next to each other. This made it very easy for me to meet people from both families.

At this Parliament the presence of pagans was more evident than the Parliaments I had attended in 2004/ Barcelona and in 2015/ Salt Lake City. Many more indigenous voices are also being heard. The common denominator is our love of the Earth and our concerns about Climate Change, the lack of and access to fresh water and fresh clean air, sanitation and many other ecological issues. Sometimes the problems can be overwhelming and we feel powerless – however as we saw at this Parliament – literally every drop of help and action helps.

One of the first things I did was to lead a guided mediation during the morning Pagan Worship sessions. We had been designated Room 201 E in the North Building. It was clear even after my session – when about 45 people attended  – that the room was too small! I would come back during the week to hear other pagans and heathens – and every time the room was overflowing. The room was NOT small by-the-way 😊

The theme of my guided mediation was “Autumn”, with an emphasis on Samhain, or Hallowe’en, when we call our ancestors to join us. This is the time when we reaffirm life by acknowledging the passage through the veil. Everyone is subject to aging and the inevitability of death. However death is also a birth into a different reality. Often, we find solace with ancient trees and in autumn we can be inspired by the wonderful colours of Autumn. Knowing we are never really alone.

As part of the URI Communications team – with Sari Heidenreich, Erin Tamayo and Patrick Horn – we did livestreaming every morning. That was quite a learning curve, not to mention figuring out how to hold the phone to get the image vertical 😊

(NB See the links to the recordings at the end of this report…. part 2 )

Every morning at about 08:20 we did 30 minutes of broadcasting via Facebook. We aimed at interviewing speakers of the day. Our guests included Sarah Oliver from the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, Aline LaFlamme from the Interspiritual Sustainability Society, Emerson Finkle from the Interfaith Chapel at the University of Rochester, Valeria Vergani from the Inspiritual Sustainability Council, Girish Shah from the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, Greg Davis from Safe Alliance of Interfaith, Rebecca Prows from Interfaith Cafe on Storytelling in Interfaith Engagement, Rev Lauren Van Ham from the Chaplaincy Institute on Building a Global Environmental Network, (the URI EN CC panel), Besha Blondin from Pull Together Now and Rev. Fletcher Harper from Green Faith.

(Livestreaming with Patrick Horn and one of our guests, Besha Blondin from Pull Together Now)

On Wednesday we closed the livestreaming with the presentation of the World Peace Flower, created by Leo Lebendig, Germany, to the URI Family worldwide.

(John Huculiak, Rowan Fairgrove and Morgana with the World Peace Flower) 

At the Meet and Greet area there were many folders with information about the various URI CCs and of course there was chance to meet many of the people involved in URI. There was also a quiet area for contemplation and (reiki) healing. There were 30+ events where URI people were involved. Frederica Helmiere, Multiregion Coordinator, made time to talk with many of the people involved in the CC’s.… and many photos were made. Here is an impression:

(Frederica, Martha Gallahue and Joy Elkayam)

(Frederica, Morgana and Catherine Starr) 

I was involved in 2 panels – the first one was about “Equipping Schools and Teachers to Provide Interfaith Education”. Lead by Heidi Rautionmaa, the panel consisted further of Arto Kallioniemi, Shlomo Alon, Abraham Karickam, Ann Aisatullin, Swamini Adityananda Parmarth, Navleen Kaur. As educators it was interesting to hear how the problems connected to a multifaith society are being tackled. More often than not it is the carers/parents and teachers who need the Interfaith education!

I talked about the book “Interfaith education for all Theoretical Perspectives and Best Practices for Transformative Action” Editors: Duncan R. Wielzen, and Ina ter Avest, ISBN 978-94-6351-170-4 – launched in 2017. Duncan wrote, “Living together in the midst of diversity is an issue of pivotal importance all over the world, in particular for people involved in the education of the younger generation. The search intended in this publication is to find the means to go beyond mere tolerance of differences. Education as envisioned in this book engages learners in active citizenship and enables pupils and students – young people – to transform their social environment. Learning about the other, and – to a certain extent – appreciating the other’s perspective, together with acquiring dialogical skills, are key elements for learning to live together with people from different cultural backgrounds and with diverse religious and secular worldviews. Hence, faith development, dialogicality and citizenship are central themes in this publication.”

After the panel discussion we all met later to discuss how to proceed further. Education is important on so many different levels that it is hoped to create a larger pool of interested people.

(Interfaith education for all with Heidi Rautionmaa, Navleen Kaur,  Abraham Karickam and others.)

End of part 1… to be continued in part 2.


Over Morgana

"Morgana is Anglo/Dutch and lives in the Netherlands. She is a practising Gardnerian HPS. Over the years, she has facilitated a variety of Wiccan groups. She is co-editor of the international and bilingual "Wiccan Rede" magazine, which was launched in 1980 and is coordinator of Silver Circle, a Wiccan network in the Netherlands. As International Coordinator for PFI she travels extensively giving talks and workshops about Wicca and Paganism."
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