Sault Ste. Marie Bishop Thomas Dowd. Photo by Michael Erskine, the Manitouling Expositor

Recognition, honour, respect

By  Bishop Thomas Dowd, Catholic Register Special
  • March 20, 2024

I first heard about Holy Cross Mission in Wiikwemkoong not long after I became Bishop of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie. My first official visit to the Mission was to celebrate confirmations and to bless a new altar.

The ceremony was to take place shortly after Pope Francis came to Canada on his penitential pilgrimage related to the Indian residential schools. I got word that the newly elected Chief of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory wanted to speak at the end. We went a bit further and received her using the Church protocols for the presence of a head of state at a liturgy. This took some people by surprise, but the time of preparation for Pope Francis’ visit had taught me of the deep desire of First Nations to be recognized and treated as proper nations, engaging in a “nation to nation” relationship with Canada. Chief Rachel Mantitowabi understood the gesture we proposed, telling me that it wasn’t an honour for her, but a sign of respect for her people. Her words at the end of the liturgy were very moving. Evoking Matthew 5:24, I proposed that the altar we just blessed be seen as an “altar of reconciliation.”

When the 150th anniversary of Bishop Jean-François Jamot’s arrival in northern Ontario was approaching, I thought it would be another chance to demonstrate respect. Bishop Jamot had been installed in a ceremony held Aug. 2, 1874, in Wiikwemkoong. It was the earliest (and, at the time, largest) Catholic community in northern Ontario. The Chrism Mass seemed to be a good occasion for a commemoration: the bulk of our priests would be present, and delegates from around the diocese could come representing the parishes. It would be a chance to return to our spiritual roots, and to give thanks for the faith and generosity of spirit of so many of the Anishinaabe people.

Still, it was important that the sudden arrival of 150 priests and delegates from outside the territory not be seen as an imposition, but as an opportunity for mutual encounter. I wrote to Chief Manitowabi, and in a meeting offered her a gift of tobacco, expressing my hope that the Chrism Mass might be well received and be an opportunity for partnership. The Band, in response, organized a morning of cultural presentations, so that all the delegates at the Chrism Mass might go home enriched. The vast majority of delegates had probably never been to Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, and even just the simple fact of showing up empowered them to become bridge builders.

I believe the Catholic Church has a lot to learn from the struggles of the various First Nations for self-determination. Simply put, the Church has herself long struggled to have her legitimate sovereignty respected by the secular powers of the day. This includes in Canada, both in the past and in recent years. The Loyola High School case from Montréal showed an example of a secular government agency attempting, ultra vires, to tell a Catholic school how to do Catholic teaching. Still, I sometimes find we Catholics have adopted a “colonized” mindset, meekly accepting intrusions into our affairs by secular powers, or worse, being transformed into agents of that power, as we saw in the history of residential schools.

As Catholics, we cannot follow this path without losing ourselves. Jesus is called “Christ” because the oil of chrism was used to anoint the Hebrew kings of old. Jesus is not an ideology, but rather our King, and he must be our first loyalty! Of course, as we will hear on Good Friday, His Kingdom is not of this world — but it is definitely in it, present in the Church. As a diocesan bishop, it is my honour to be an ambassador of this Kingdom. This includes to the First Nations on whose traditional territory my diocese is located. 

A nation-to-nation relationship between the Church and First Nations has precedents going back to 1610, as recorded in a wampum collar preserved by the Mi’kmaq people. The Anishinaabe concept of treaty, recorded and preserved in wampum, parallels the Hebrew concept of covenant. The foundations are there, so perhaps some day we will have new treaty relationships between the Church and First Nations, in mutual recognition, honour and respect.