Senator Murray Sinclair

Church leaders, not teaching, at root of Indigenous abuse

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • December 10, 2020

WINDSOR, Ont. -- It’s not Christian teachings that have been at the root of discrimination and oppression in the way whites have treated Indigenous people, but how Church leaders have interpreted those teachings, Senator Murray Sinclair said.

Speaking at an ecumenical event hosted virtually by Windsor, Ont.’s Assumption University Dec. 3 on whether Christians and Indigenous peoples can co-exist, Sinclair said those leaders “have wrongly interpreted the true teachings of the Church.”

Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and who had been appointed the first Aboriginal judge in Manitoba and the second in Canada, said “reconciliation” between Indigenous and the Church is a “dialogue we need to have.”

Sinclair, who grew up on a reserve north of Winnipeg, was raised Catholic and was told “my future was to become a priest.” A seminary had even been chosen for him. But that plan was sidelined as he grew older and realized “it actually was girls who attracted me.” But the Catholic teachings he learned under a Jesuit brother dwell in him to this day. What he learned “about humanity, life, about who we are as people, are not so dissimilar to the teachings of traditional Indigenous elders.”

But Sinclair — who will retire from the Senate early in 2021 — said when it comes to the oppression of Indigenous the Church teachings have been used to justify white supremacy. Faith leaders in the past “have wrongly interpreted their responsibility” and applied religious principles “in a way that was harmful to the people.”

Sinclair said much of Canadian and Western history has been one where the Church aided and abetted widespread discrimination, even genocide.

“The Doctrine of (European) Discovery was a very Christian principle,” he said. “It was perpetrated by the pope, initially, and was used in order to authorize the authority of various nations — the Christian nations as they were called — to claim land around the world from Indigenous people who were not considered to be at the same level, in some cases not even considered to be human, because they were not Christian nations.”

He referred to the “hue and cry” raised in 1520 by Dominican missionary Bartolomé de Las Casas who had implored the Vatican to do something about the treatment of Indigenous peoples by Columbus’ Conquistadors. The Church concluded natives were indeed human beings “but they were of a lesser kind... and continued to claim their lands.”

Sinclair said the problem for someone like him raised as a Catholic was that the entire legacy of oppression and manifestation of discrimination in daily life “was consistent with the teachings of Christianity that had been espoused for so long.” And they were “certainly part and parcel of the residential schools’ system” of which he is “one of its victims.”

But the senator said that true Christian teachings of equality and love as equals can be found not just in Indigenous spirituality but in other religions as well.

“It’s the loss of the purity of the teaching that often results in things going wrong,” he said.

Sinclair remembers a conversation with a priest who told him Indigenous “believe in too many gods.” Sinclair agreed, noting that Indigenous talk to the Earth, the trees, animals.

“You have to understand that one God has put His spirit in all of us, in all of creation,” he said.

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