Papal visit to Canada is a fundamental step towards reconciliation

The Pope’s visit to Canada is seen by many as a fundamental step in the process of healing begun more than three decades ago by Canada’s Indigenous Nations, a path that will hopefully lead to reconciliation.

Pope Francis has begun his pastoral visit to Canada. This visit was requested by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which gathered testimonies from former Survivors of abuses in the Residential Schools System set up by the Canadian government in the mid-19th century to “kill the Indian in the child,” leading to what many consider a cultural genocide. The Commission requested that the Pope make “an apology to the survivors… similar to the one made in 2010 to the Irish who were abused”, which should be delivered personally in Canada.

Aid to the Church in Need spoke to Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina, Saskatchewan, to better understand what this visit represents. The archbishop has wide experience of dialogue with the First Nations.

What is the relationship between the Catholic Church in Canada and First Nations today?

Relations between First Nation Peoples and the Catholic Church in Canada carry the burden of a complicated history that people are still grappling with. Colonisation and the government-funded Residential Schools System left First Nations Peoples [the earliest known inhabitants] with a legacy of marginalisation, where their languages, cultures, traditions and spirituality were suppressed. Catholic involvement in this system, and the waves of suffering experienced by so many Indigenous Peoples, including physical, cultural, spiritual and sexual abuses, have left deep wounds and trauma. There is much that the Catholic Church, the Canadian government, and society are accountable for.

Reality differs significantly throughout the country. In Saskatchewan, where there were many Catholic-operated schools, there is a need to address that history in a direct way.

Indiginous Chef Canada with bishop
Great Chief of the Cowessess First Nation and Archbishop Donald Bolen, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

We have been told to hear what the First Nations have to say. What should we be listening out for?

We are being called to listen to the suffering experienced by First Nations, Inuit and Metis Peoples, and we are asked to look at history from their perspectives. We are being called to look at the systemic injustices that Indigenous Peoples continue to experience, as indicated by poverty, access to health and education, and land rights. We are being asked to see the impact of intergenerational trauma, evidenced in high rates of incarceration, addiction, and suicide, and to support efforts to address underlying issues.

We are being called to support efforts to strengthen or recover Indigenous language, culture and spirituality. We are being invited to recognize the beauty and wisdom of Indigenous ways of seeing and caring for creation. Walking together means listening, so that we can be friends and allies in creating a better future for First Nations, Inuit and Metis Peoples, and for all who live on this land.

Last year, many churches and Catholic buildings were burned to the ground or vandalised. Why did this happen, and why did the Church in Canada not react as strongly as some would have liked when condemning these crimes?

Last year, ground-penetrating radar on the sites of former Residential Schools identified what could be unmarked graves, unleashing a response of anger, frustration and trauma. In a sense, this drew dramatic attention to all that had been shared through the Truth and Reconciliation process. In some places, anger led to violence and destruction, including the burning of churches. Many of these were built by and cared for by local Indigenous parishioners.

While many spoke out in dismay about the church burnings, there was also recognition that there is a reason for such anger, and that we need to address the injustices that Indigenous Peoples have experienced and continue to experience.

What did you learn from your experience of reconciliation with indigenous peoples?

As a bishop, walking with Indigenous people, with survivors of the residential schools, and also with victims of clergy sexual abuse, I find myself resonating more with what Pope Francis speaks of as “healing the wounds,” which was a central part of Jesus’ ministry, and has become a central part of mine.

It has been an enormous privilege to work with survivors of residential schools and with victims of clergy sexual abuse. Those I have had the opportunity to walk with, I have found to be wonderful people with many gifts, who carry much wisdom about how we need to move towards healing, and how we as a Christian community need to change. I believe that the Holy Spirit is really involved in this work.

What should be the next step after the Pope’s visit?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report made it clear that apologies are not an end, but a starting point for further actions. Conversations have begun about what happens “the day after the apology” of Pope Francis on Canadian soil.

First, there is a desire to move to a deeper understanding of the history of Indigenous people and their relationship with the Church. That involves supporting communities as they tell their story, including the experience of residential schools; ongoing apologies as we learn of wrongdoings, and accompanying first Nations communities in their healing.

Secondly, we are being asked to support the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples, given them by the Creator. Recognition of these rights is in the spirit of the Church’s social teachings.

Thirdly, we are being asked to support Indigenous people in their efforts to reclaim or strengthen their language, culture and traditions.

Fourthly – and this is something very dear to Pope Francis – we are being asked to respect and support Indigenous wisdom regarding creation and the created world. Indigenous spiritual traditions see every person as connected to the earth, to all other creatures, and to all other people, those who have gone before us and those still to come. We should not make decisions without considering the impact on the next seven generations. This understanding of creation has so much to teach us.

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