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In 2013, my colleague Fran Isaacs, a member of Temple Har Zion in Thornhill, Ontario, and I brought a resolution on First Nations to the URJ Biennial. Since then, we have worked diligently to educate our members about First Nations’ history and current issues, as well as to actively promote community-wide initiatives. Along the way our project has evolved into a meaningful initiative, thanks to a healthy dose of serendipity.
Two years ago, after Rabbi Stephen Wise of Shaarei-Beth El Congregation in Oakville, Ontario, spoke to his community about our focus on First Nations, member Jennifer Dockstator contacted the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism (CCRJ) office because she herself was involved in an economic development project for an indigenous, fly-in northern community. She wondered whether some retired Jewish businessmen might consider brainstorming innovative job creation solutions for the reserve.
A chance conversation with my brother, Ken Caplan, a marketing and economic development professional, led to a meeting that included Ken, several of his colleagues, and our team. It was there that the idea for the Cultural Tourism Showcase – a tourism development project designed to expand the economic capacity of Eabametoong (known as Fort Hope in English) First Nation and ultimately lead to a sustainable economy – was born.
In another bit of serendipity, we discovered that Sarah Diamond, daughter of Nina Diamond, co-chair of the social action committee at Temple Emanu-El in Toronto, Ontario, teaches elementary school in Eabametoong. (Listen to this radio documentary, “The Fort Hope Education of Sarah Diamond” about her experience in Eabametoong First Nation.) During early visits to the community, Ken and Jennifer not only offered seminars to prepare residents for cultural tourism visitors, but also delivered care packages from home to Sarah.
The kismet continued with a fateful conversation between Ken and Frank Scarpitti, mayor of Markham, Ontario, a small city northeast of Toronto, that has signed a cultural collaboration agreement with Eabametoong, the first-ever twinning of a northern fly-in community and a southern Ontario municipality. Sandy Levy, coordinator of CCRJ programming and administration for the Union for Reform Judaism, and I were privileged to attend the signing of the agreement at Markham City Hall last January. In May, Mayor Scarpitti, and two councilors visited Eabametoong First Nation for the first time to formally acknowledge Markham’s new relationship with the First Nation territory and to explore with the community’s residents how it can be developed in mutually beneficial and respectful ways.
In June, band members welcomed the first cultural tourists to Eabametoong and plans are underway for another cultural tourism trip in the coming months. In the meantime, we look forward to continuing our work with this exciting initiative and to promoting the twinning concept to congregations across Canada in the hopes that they will work with their own local municipalities to forge meaningful relationships with other indigenous communities.