Let aboriginal reconciliation, healing begin

  • January 30, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - The Catholic Church’s historic mission to the native people of Canada is a big issue, and getting bigger. For the first time Statistics Canada reports there are more than one million Canadians who claim native ancestry. The aboriginal population grew 45 per cent between 1996 and 2006 — six times the growth in the Canadian population as a whole.

Though aboriginal Canadians are young, half of them under the age of 27, the growth isn’t just a baby boom. People who once shied away from their native identity now embrace it, said demographers at Statistics Canada.

The new statistical picture of aboriginal Canada should matter to the church, said Oblate Father Gerold Winkler, one of fewer than a dozen native men in Canada who are Catholic priests. A successful mission to Canada’s native peoples has to begin with acknowledgement of who the mission is for, he said.

“With the increase of native people in the cities, those ministries will be more important for the church as it reaches out to native people,” Winkler told The Catholic Register from his office in Newman Theological College at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he teaches theology and native issues.

The 2006 Census found 60 per cent of aboriginal people living off-reserve, and 76 per cent of off-reserve natives living in cities.

Raised as the adopted daughter in a white family, 31-year-old Tina Zinner and her two children, 10-year-old Jack and six-year-old Rebecca, are part of the 45-per-cent boom in native Canada. Zinner didn’t always embrace her native identity or her Catholic identity, but both became more important to her after her marriage broke down and she faced the challenges of parenting alone. Now she’s a regular at Toronto Native People’s Mission at St. Anne’s Church in downtown Toronto.

The Sunday afternoon Mass at St. Anne’s incorporates important elements of native spirituality, beginning with a purification ceremony using sweetgrass smudging that replaces the asperges, or “sprinkling rite.” The smell of sweetgrass, the sound of the drum, prayers that acknowledge the cardinal directions and their spiritual significance, and the use of an eagle feather to connect the congregation with heaven are all forms of ritual that unite Catholic identity with native identity.

While Zinner wants her kids to grow up with the sense that these things — Catholic and native — belong together, and that native ancestry is something to be proud of, there aren’t many young faces seen in native parishes across Canada.

“If you talk to young people today, even in their early 20s, they’ll talk as if they were in the residential school. They’re so vehement about it,” said Winkler. “They think of the church as the ones who ran these schools. That has to be healed.”

Many young people have grown up with an image of the church as the adversary of native culture and identity, Winkler said.

“The residential school legacy is such a huge, symbolic issue for native people — of the desire to assimilate them, to take away languages and cultures,” he said.

The church and all of Canada will be given the opportunity again to tackle the residential school issue as a truth and reconciliation commission begins cross-country hearings this year. The national history lesson may or may not end in reconciliation for people who have come to see their Catholic and aboriginal identities as opposing realities, said Sr. Kateri Beaudry of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood and a regular at the Native People’s Mission.

“I do think we have a problem,” she said.

Reconciling Catholic ritual and native spirituality is an important first step in helping native people see the church as an ally on the side of their traditions and culture, said Beaudry. But the church also has to acknowledge that young natives are very mobile and unlikely to adopt the settled identity of regular, registered parishioners.

Many native people move frequently back and forth between the city and the reserve looking on the one hand for education and career opportunities, and on the other returning to their roots for weddings, funerals, baptisms and other major events, said Beaudry.

“We have to make the church more feasible for them,” she said.

The church is beginning to see native ministry that looks a little more like youth ministry, said Fr. Philip Kennedy, president of Catholic Missions In Canada. About 60 per cent of the $4 million a year CMIC raises goes to native ministry.

“We see it in family and community events,” said Kennedy.

A lot of native ministry is now keyed on pilgrimages, such as the gathering of around 40,000 people at Lac Ste. Anne west of Edmonton each July. At last year’s pilgrimage, young native people were the first to arrive. They cut and stockpiled wigwam poles, which they then sold to pilgrims to raise money to help them attend World Youth Day in Australia this summer.

Kennedy also sees an increased emphasis on native ministry in cities, where the native parish can be a place where aboriginal people can feel at home in the city.

“It’s not just a place where they celebrate Mass,” he said.

The most important change in native ministry has been the growing appreciation of native culture, said Kennedy.

“When we began it was more of an evangelical function, of converting native people with very little thought or respect for their culture,” he said.

Bob White, a 62-year-old Mi’Kmaq, sees a world of difference in how the church responds to native culture today.

“This is a community around the Catholic Church, a Catholic Church that respects who the people are,” he said.

But White worries that just as the church has begun to see its relationship with native people more realistically it has less time for the issue.

“Do they think it is relevant? They don’t,” he said.

Whether the church chooses to be involved or not, Canadians are going to see more conflict over land rights and other issues between native Canadians and the rest of the country, said KAIROS aboriginal rights expert Ed Bianchi.

“Aboriginal people are no longer isolated, whether physically by living on reserves or sociologically by being marginalized in society,” Bianchi said.

The conflict in all its legal, historical and political dimensions involves the church, said Winkler. The church’s basic commitment has to remain a commitment to reconciliation, which includes the past. Taking his cue from Pope John Paul II, Winkler refers to the process as “the mending of the past.”

While some Canadians may at first resent being saddled with the burden of the country’s colonizing history, a Catholic view of history would recognize the rights and responsibilities of communities stretching back through generations — a kind of communion of saints which transcends time.

“We were entitled to promises that were never fulfilled, ever. We’re still working on those, and we still want those promises to be fulfilled,” said Winkler. “History has an important part in all of this, and we are all a part of it.”

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