Deacon Rennie Nahanee ministers in the Archdiocese of Vancouver. Nahanee has recently retired from Vancouver’s First Nations Ministry, though he will continue to lead it on a contract basis. Photo courtesy The B.C. Catholic

Walking the path to reconciliation

By  Agnieszka Ruck, Candian Catholic News
  • September 10, 2020

VANCOUVER -- For nearly 11 years, Deacon Rennie Nahanee has experienced extreme highs and lows as co-ordinator of First Nations Ministry for the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

He has marched down the streets of Vancouver with tens of thousands of people playing drums in support of reconciliation efforts.

He has cheered on Indigenous singers and dancers performing as part of Canada 150 celebrations.

And he has quietly sat and listened to the stories of many Indigenous who have been abused, neglected and shamed.

Nahanee, of the Squamish First Nation, retired as co-ordinator of the archdiocese’s one-man First Nations Ministry Office this summer, but will continue leading the ministry on a contract basis, focusing on Listening Circles and KAIROS Blanket Exercises. He will also remain an active member of the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Council.

Though a one-man office, Nahanee says one of the most important aspects of the job has been collaboration.

“As individuals, we can only do so much,” he said. “When you can only do so much, you find other people that can do more and are better at it” and work with them.

Since he took the position in 2009, his involvement with various groups and organizations has led to some powerful encounters. Among them are serving on the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council of the Canadian bishops’ conference as well as the Urban Indigenous Peoples Advisory Committee for the City of Vancouver.

Among the highlights was Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017. When plans began to form, Vancouver’s advisory group was made of about 16 people, and some younger Indigenous people wanted nothing to do with the celebration.

“But others, including me, with calmer heads, thought we should celebrate Indigenous history as it is today, who we are as Canadian Indigenous people,” he said. “We advised the City of Vancouver that we should go ahead with the 150 year celebration, but call it 150+ because native people have been in Canada for longer than 150 years.”

Thanks to their teamwork, the city saw a “nine-day extravaganza of the best of the best Indigenous artists, models, poets, singers, dancers, entertainers, near the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. I was very proud and happy to be part of the group at that time. It was really something special.”

Nahanee also supported the Walk for Reconciliation, a dream in the mind of Chief Robert Joseph, a hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation in the Queen Charlotte Strait and a special advisor to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The dream became a reality in 2013 as 70,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people marched together through downtown Vancouver to show their desire to work toward reconciliation.

Nahanee’s work on reconciliation began long before the march, when Joseph’s Reconciliation Canada was a fledgling organization few had heard about.

“I met with different denominations of churches for two years before the event would take place,” he said, seeking their participation and donations.

These connections will move reconciliation between First Nations peoples and the Catholic Church forward, he said, but connections on an institutional level are not enough. At Truth and Reconciliation events in Vancouver and across Canada, Nahanee met people one-on-one or in small groups and listened to their heartbreaking pasts.

“I was asked to meet with somebody who was abused as a child. He wanted to tell his story to two people: myself, and one of the sisters there,” he said.

“He was abused as a child and beaten. Move ahead 50 or 60 years, he goes down to the United States, he marries, and he hears about Indigenous people suing the government of Canada and the churches and comes to find a lawyer.”

The man located his abuser and sent his lawyer to visit him with a written testimony of the abuses he faced. The abuser, without looking at the document, said he agreed with everything that was written.

“He said: ‘I just want to talk to the person who I abused as a child and I want to ask for forgiveness.’ They did get on the phone together and the Indigenous man abused as a child forgave him. You can imagine the relief that came for both of them. The man who was an abuser, he died not too long after that. The man who was abused as a child broke the chains from a long time ago.”

The stories don’t always have such inspiring endings. Nahanee recalls horrific accounts of sexual, emotional and physical abuse that made him uncomfortable wearing a cross around his neck.

“I was shocked at hearing those things. I’m part of a Church that did some of those things to my own people? It was very difficult for me to be there. But at the same time, it was a learning thing for me.”

Gerry Kelly, an advisor for various national reconciliation efforts, attended seven of nine small groups with Nahanee as part of a Canadian bishops’ initiative to host listening circles. On each visit, from Edmonton to Le Pas to Halifax to Northern Ontario, Kelly and Nahanee would spend a day or two meeting the local bishop and then sit down with groups of 10 to 20 Indigenous people from the Catholic community.

“Rennie was very present and he was able, in a really wonderful way, to be a compassionate presence and an attentive listener,” said Kelly. “What I found particularly inspiring is he never shied away from where the pain was, yet never lost sight of grace in the midst of that.

“He could name the grace moments without denying, without minimizing, the pain. He had an ability to be very present … and to value both his Catholic spiritual tradition and to value what was coming alive for him again, it seemed, in his own Indigenous traditions.”

As far as his replacement is concerned, Nahanee believes it’s less important to have someone of Indigenous descent than someone well informed and aware of Canadian history and ongoing reconciliation efforts, as much remains to be done.

“There needs to be reconciliation not just between Indigenous people and the Church, but all of Canada, because the people living in Canada need to know the history of Indigenous people. They need to know why we are in the situations we are in right now.”

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