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Shaken. And stirred?

What Does Canada’s Catholic Church Owe Its Indigenous People?

In this season of waiting, COVID has forced the delay of a meeting in Rome between representatives of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and Pope Francis, just one more disappointment in the sorrowful saga of the relationship between the Catholic Church in Canada and Indigenous communities.

Earlier this week, Canada’s Catholic Bishops, the Assembly of First Nations, the Metis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an organization representing Canada’s Inuit, issued a joint statement to say the meeting, to take place just days from now, would be postponed until 2022. Citing concerns relating to the vulnerability of elderly delegates who live in remote communities and the still numerous unknowns about the Omicron variant, the statement labeled the decision as “heartbreaking” and expressed a desire that the meeting be rescheduled for as soon as possible in the new year.

Worries are now being voiced that the postponement of the trip to Rome will further delay the pope’s promised visit to Canada, a critical step in beginning the arduous journey to make amends for the travesty of the country’s residential school system, a system in which the majority of schools are run by Catholic religious orders.

The delay is yet another in an ongoing series of disappointments that have plagued the relationship between Canada’s Indigenous communities and the Vatican. Just days earlier, a piece in the Globe and Mail revealed that the Vatican holds a valuable trove of Indigenous objects in its museum vaults, including a rare sealskin kayak from the Western Arctic. While the artifacts were gifted to the Vatican, Indigenous leaders are calling for the return of at least some of the items because they are important reflections of community history.

The Canadian Bishops’ statement of apology came this past September, months after the first of many discoveries of thousands of unmarked graves at residential schools. It was an important step but many are asking why the pace can’t be quickened. While some religious communities have volunteered to release key documents, for example, to help families find the remains of loved ones, the pace remains slow—as slow as the details on the church’s financial reparations have emerged.

The past year has been shocking and disappointing for Canadian Catholics. Already reeling with ongoing claims of clergy sexual abuse, we faced non-stop revelations from an array of media outlets on how church-run schools for Indigenous children were dehumanizing, from the moment the children were ripped from their families through to being unceremoniously buried in an unmarked grave.

Yet we should not be shocked. Indigenous communities had been telling us these details for some time. Calls to Action 71-76 in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, issued in

2015, called for action on the unmarked graves. And yet somehow, many of us overlooked this searing issue.

I am old enough to remember a time when Advent wasn’t just the bridge between Halloween and Christmas, but a time of preparation that included a penitential component, efforts to truly prepare to celebrate the Incarnation. While most of what I celebrate in my church is forward-looking, I am nostalgic for an era of that degree of deliberate mindfulness.

I know many Catholics who see the issue of residential schools as a tragedy of history—“this was before my time!” (even though the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996) or “why should I donate to cover the bad actions of the church?”—and accept no responsibility for the actions of the institutional church over the 116-year history of residential schools.

But if we are the church, we must all make amends, even for sins not personally committed. COVID has placed limits on so many of our activities that now is not the time to call for communal services, but we all have vital gifts we can offer if we are sincere in seeking to heal the sorrows visited on Canada’s Indigenous peoples by our church.

  • We can lobby church hierarchy and government officials for more support for issues such as the intergenerational trauma that can be traced back to earlier generations’ suffering in residential schools, or we can target an issue such the lack of clean drinking water on many of Canada’s reserves.
  • We can donate funds—and for those who are unwilling to give to church collections, feeling it to be good money after bad by covering the church’s shortfall in reparations, find a good local or national Indigenous-run charity.
  • We can pray for forgiveness and guidance—for ourselves and for our church. In this season of hope, we must remain hopeful that we can all honestly begin the process of reconciliation.
  • Finally, we can listen. What happened in residential schools should not be news to us. An inquest into the death of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who died of exposure and hunger after running away from his residential school, took place in 1966, with a story on Chanie in a national news magazine shortly thereafter. It shouldn’t have taken another 45 years for the truth to sink in. Like Thomas, we should have believed and acted. Let this Advent be a time for that action, long overdue, to find new life.

Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

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