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Report gives voice to Canada’s Indigenous Christians, highlights need for religious freedom

May 17, 2023 Catholic News Agency 0
Members of the Sts’ailes First Nation at Holy Rosary Cathedral last year for the first Mass to integrate a First Nation language. A Cardus report presents the voices of Indigenous Canadians speaking about their faith and distinguishing it from the traditional spirituality they’re often associated with. / Photo courtesy Nicholas Elbers, 2022

Vancouver, Canada, May 17, 2023 / 14:15 pm (CNA).

A groundbreaking report published by the Ottawa-based Cardus Institute has given voice to Indigenous Canadians who are frustrated by secular society’s unawareness of — or unwillingness to accept — the fact that almost half of them are Christian. 

“I find that insulting to Indigenous people’s intelligence and freedom,” Catholic priest Father Cristino Bouvette said of the prejudice he regularly encounters.

Bouvette, who has mixed Cree-Métis and Italian heritage and now serves as vicar for vocations and Young Adults in the Diocese of Calgary, was one of 12 individuals interviewed by Cardus for the report “Indigenous Voices of Faith.

Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, left, leads a post-production discussion by Indigenous Voices of Faith participants. Photo courtesy of Cardus
Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, left, leads a post-production discussion by Indigenous Voices of Faith participants. Photo courtesy of Cardus

Prejudice against Indigenous Christians has become so strong, even inside some Indigenous communities, “that Indigenous Christians in this country right now are living in the time of new martyrdom,” Bouvette said.

Although that martyrdom may not cost them their lives, “they are ostracized and humiliated sometimes within their own communities if they openly express their Christian or Catholic faith.”

Statistics Canada reported last year that the 2021 census found that 850,000, or 47%, of Canada’s 1.8-million Indigenous people identify as Christian and that more than a quarter of the total report they are Catholic. Only 73,000, or 4%, of Indigenous people said they adhere to traditional Indigenous spiritual beliefs.

In a new report, Cardus wants to “amplify the voices of Indigenous Canadians speaking for themselves about their religious commitments, which sometimes clash with the typical public presentation of Indigenous spirituality.” Photo courtesy of Cardus
In a new report, Cardus wants to “amplify the voices of Indigenous Canadians speaking for themselves about their religious commitments, which sometimes clash with the typical public presentation of Indigenous spirituality.” Photo courtesy of Cardus

Ukrainian Catholic Deacon Andrew Bennett, program director for Cardus Faith Communities, conducted the interviews for the think tank last fall. He published his report in March at a time when Canadian mainstream media and many political leaders continued to stir division and prejudice through misleading commentary about abandoned cemeteries at Indian Residential Schools.

The purpose of the report, he writes, “is to affirm and to shed light on the religious freedom of Indigenous peoples to hold the beliefs and engage in the practices that they choose and to contextualize their faith within their own cultures.”

Too often, however, “the public narrative implies, or boldly declares, that there’s a fundamental incompatibility between Indigenous Canadians and Christianity or other faiths,” Bennett said. “[M]any Indigenous Canadians strongly disagree with those narratives.”

Father Bouvette is clearly one of those.

“We did not have Christian faith imposed upon us because of [my Indigenous grandmother’s] time in the residential school or her father’s time in the trade school that he was sent to,” Bouvette said. “No, it was because our family freely chose to receive the saving message of Jesus Christ and lived it and had continued to pass it down.”

Bouvette said his “grandmother was not tricked into becoming something that she didn’t want to be, and then tricked into staying that way for 99 years and 11 months of her life. She was a Christian from the day of her birth, and she remained a Christian until the day of her death. And so that was not by the consequence of some imposition.”

Nevertheless, Canadians continue to labor under a prejudice holding the opposite view. “I do believe that probably the majority of Canadians at this time, out of some mistaken notion of guilt for whatever their cultural or ethnic background is, think they are somehow responsible for Indigenous people having had something thrust upon them that they didn’t want,” Bouvette said.

“We did not have Christian faith imposed upon us," Father Cristino Bouvette says in a Cardus report on Indigenous faith. Photo courtesy of Cardus
“We did not have Christian faith imposed upon us,” Father Cristino Bouvette says in a Cardus report on Indigenous faith. Photo courtesy of Cardus

“But I would say, give us a little more credit than that and assume that if there is an Indigenous person who continues to persevere in the Christian faith it is because they want to, because they understand why they have chosen to in the first place, and they remain committed to it. We should be respectful of that.”

The executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, Christian Elia, agrees and says society should grant Indigenous Catholics the respect and personal agency that is due all Canadians.

“Firstly, I am not an Indigenous person, so I cannot speak for our Indigenous brothers and sisters, but neither can non-Indigenous secularists who choose to ignore that Indigenous people in Canada continue to self-identify as Christian, the majority of these Catholic,” Elia said in an interview with The B.C. Catholic.

He said his organization has heard from many Indigenous Catholics who are “growing weary of the ongoing assumption that somehow they have been coerced into the faith, that it is inconceivable that they wish to be Catholic. This condescending attitude must stop.”

Deacon Rennie Nahanee, who serves at St. Paul’s Indian Church in North Vancouver, was another of the 12 whom Bennett interviewed. A cradle Catholic and member of the Squamish First Nation, Deacon Nahanee said there is nothing incompatible with being both an authentic Indigenous person and a Catholic.

“I’m pretty sure we had a belief in the Creator even before the missionaries came to British Columbia,” he said. “And our feelings, our thoughts about creation, the way that we lived and carried out our everyday lives, and the way that we helped to preserve the land and the animals that we used for food, our spirituality and our culture, were similar to the spirituality of the Catholic Church.”

“I believe that’s why our people accepted it. I don’t think anybody can separate themselves from God, even though they say so.”

Interviewed later by The B.C. Catholic, Nahanee said he is not bothered by the sort of prejudice outlined by Bouvette. “People are going to say or do what they want,” he said.

Voices of Indigenous Christianity

Bennett, program director of Cardus Faith Communities, interviewed 12 Indigenous Canadians, most of them Christian, about their religious commitments, “which often clash with the typical public presentation of Indigenous spirituality.” Here is a selection of some of their comments: 

Tal James of the Penelakut First Nation in Nanaimo spoke about the relationship between Indigenous culture and his Christian faith:

Tal James and wife Christina. Photo courtesy of Project 620 -  James Ministry
Tal James and wife Christina. Photo courtesy of Project 620 – James Ministry

“I think … that our [Indigenous] cultures were complete, and in Jesus they’re more complete. I think that’s a big thing and a big step for a lot of us. You’re going to have a lot of non-Indigenous people look at you and question your actions based on your Aboriginal heritage. Don’t take that to heart. They’re the ignorant ones who don’t want you to flourish. Those of you who are Christians, First Nations Christians, you come to the table with the same gifting that non-Aboriginal people have. For them to say, ‘We want to make room for you at the table,’ correct them. You are already at the table, and encourage them to step back and allow your gifts to flourish. Because it’s one in the same spirit.”

Rose-Alma McDonald, a Mohawk from Akwesasne, which borders New York, Ontario, and Quebec, talked about re-embracing her Catholic faith:

Rose-Alma McDonald. Photo courtesy of Cardus
Rose-Alma McDonald. Photo courtesy of Cardus

“I surprised everybody, including myself, in terms of embracing Catholicism after 20 years away. So I’ve had a few epiphanies in the sense that this is why my mother made me do so much in the church growing up. When I’m working, volunteering, and doing stuff in the church, I remember that. I keep remembering I’m Catholic and I’m still Catholic. I will stay Catholic because of the way I was raised.”

Jeff Decontie, a Mohawk from the Algonquin First Nations who lives in Ottawa, talked about being a person of faith in a secular world:

Jeff Decontie. Photo courtesy of Cardus
Jeff Decontie. Photo courtesy of Cardus

“Secular worldviews can sort of eat up everything around them and accept a whole wide range of beliefs at the same time. For example, you have the prevailing scientific thinking alongside New Age believers, and people in society just accept this, saying, ‘Oh, whatever it is you believe in, all religions lead to the same thing.’ No one questions it. How can these contradictions coexist? … Then we ask an [Indigenous] elder to lead prayer? Any other religion would be a no-no, but you can ask for an elder who’s going to pray a generic prayer to some generic Creator, and it’s not going to ruffle any feathers. I think that’s the danger of secular thought creeping into Canada: It goes unnoticed, it’s perceived as neutral, but at the same time it’s welcoming a whole wide range of beliefs. And it doesn’t just influence Indigenous thought. It’s influencing Christianity.”

Rosella Kinoshameg, a member of the Wikwemikong Reserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, spoke about being Indigenous and Catholic:

Rosella Kinoshameg. Photo courtesy of the Catholic Register
Rosella Kinoshameg. Photo courtesy of the Catholic Register

“Well, I can’t change being Indigenous. That’s something that is me. I can’t change that. But to believe in the things that I was taught, the traditional things, the way of life and the meanings of these things, and then in a church, well, those things help one another and they make me feel stronger.”

This article was originally published May 10, 2023, in The B.C. Catholic, a weekly publication serving the Catholic community in British Columbia, Canada, and is reprinted here on CNA with permission.


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U.S. and Canadian bishops join Vatican’s condemnation of colonialist ‘doctrine of discovery’

March 30, 2023 Catholic News Agency 4
Pope Francis address representatives of Canada’s indigenous peoples at the archbishop’s residence in Québec City. / Vatican Media

Washington D.C., Mar 30, 2023 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

The U.S. and Canadian bishops released statements Thursday praising the Vatican’s repudiation of the “doctrine of discovery,” which has been used in the past to justify European colonialism in the Americas and throughout the world.

The doctrine of discovery is a philosophical, political, and legal theory that posits that European colonizers have the right to expropriate indigenous lands and property.

The theory has been said to have its origin in certain 15th-century papal bulls including Dum Diversas, Romanus Pontifex, and Inter Caetera, and has been invoked by many, including the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh.

On Thursday, a joint statement of the Vatican’s Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development formally denounced the doctrine of discovery, saying it “is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church” and that the Church “repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples.”

In an official statement, the secretary for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Archbishop Paul Coakley, responded by saying: “We welcome the [Vatican] statement’s renewed repudiation and condemnation of the violence and injustices committed against Native and Indigenous peoples as well as the Church’s ongoing support for their dignity and human rights.” 

“In the centuries that followed the papal bulls at issue, many popes boldly proclaimed the God-given rights owed to all peoples, but we must also confront those moments when individual Christians lacked such boldness or clarity,” Coakley said. “There were times when Christians, including ecclesiastical authorities, failed to fully oppose destructive and immoral actions of the competing colonial powers. In this regard, we too express deep sorrow and regret.”

“These papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples,” the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) said in an official statement, adding that the bulls “were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers; and that Indigenous peoples suffered the terrible effects of the assimilation policies of colonizing nations.” 

Echoing the Vatican’s statement, the Canadian bishops recalled Pope Francis’ words during a Quebec address in which he said: “Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.”  

During what he described as a “penitential pilgrimage,” Pope Francis spoke with Indigenous Canadians and listened to their complaints regarding their treatment by colonizers and the Catholic Church.

The CCCB also praised the Vatican’s recognition of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which if implemented, the CCCB says, “would help to improve the living conditions of Indigenous peoples, to protect their rights, as well as to support their self-development in continuity with their identity, language, history, and culture.”

Both the U.S. and Canadian bishops echoed the Vatican’s sentiment expressed in the joint dicastery statement, saying though the Church has defended the rights of the weak and poor throughout history, “many Christians have committed evil acts against Indigenous peoples for which recent popes have asked forgiveness on numerous occasions.”

According to both bishops’ statements, the USCCB and CCCB, with the encouragement of the Vatican, are “exploring” the establishment of an academic symposium for continued dialogue between indigenous and Catholic scholars.

“As a Church, it is important for us to fully understand how our words have been used and misused to justify acts that would be abhorrent to Jesus Christ,” Coakley said. “We hope for more dialogue among Indigenous and Catholic scholars to promote greater and wider understanding of this difficult history.”

“May God bless with healing all those who continue to suffer the legacy of colonialism, and may we all offer true aid and support,” Coakley concluded. “By God’s grace, may we never return to the way of colonization but rather walk together in the way of peace.”