A statue of St. Jean Brébeuf at Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont., stands a reminder of the link with Indigenous communities that goes back centuries. Photo by Michael Swan

Building a future from the past

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  • September 10, 2021

Whether or not reconciliation with Indigenous people lies in the future, such a reconciliation is impossible without an unclouded view of our past, from first contact to the present, Indigenous and Jesuit scholars have told The Catholic Register.

“My grandfather taught me, when I was a boy and we were on a fishing trip, ‘If you’re heading out on a new trail, one you’ve never been on before, you should spend twice as much of your time looking over your shoulder where you’ve come from as you do where you’re going — so you will be able to fix the landmarks clearly in your memory the way they should appear to you when you turn to take the trail home,’” Mi’kmaq-Acadian scholar and founding chair of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies Terry Leblanc said.

Leblanc’s family memories stretch back to his ancestor Chief Saginaw Membertou, who, on signing a concordat with the Vatican, was baptized with 21 members of his family by Jesuit missionary Abbe Jesse Fleche as a sign of alliance and friendship, June 24, 1610.

“My folks were the first folks (in Canada) to be missioned by the Jesuits,” said Leblanc.

Leblanc carries on the traditions of his family as an Indigenous, Christian, Protestant with a stinging critique of modern, Western disregard for history.

“Western society, particularly post-Enlightenment, has found itself fixated upon an unknowable future — even the Church in its various eschatologies — on an unknown and unknowable future,” he said. “The moment it moves through the present into a momentary view of the future, the past drops off behind it.”

For Jesuit historian Fr. Michael Knox, director of the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont., the past must live in the minds and hearts of faithful Catholics, even if it’s a painful history.

“We cannot refashion ourselves in this narrative. It’s through truth and relationship that a transformation of the reality of that relationship can develop — if we want an authentic relationship,” Knox said.

Knox wrote his doctoral thesis at Oxford University on the Jesuit Relations, 17th-century accounts by French Jesuit missionaries, most notably by St. Jean de Brébeuf, of their life among the Algonquin-speaking people of New France.

Understanding the relationship between the Wendat people and the Jesuits in its context requires Catholics to abandon preconceptions and simplistic narratives. On the one hand the Jesuit martyrs were martyrs because they chose to stay with the Wendat people when they came under attack by Iroquois warriors. They helped, comforted and baptized people they had lived among, even as the village burned and war raged around them. On the other hand, they were not the only ones to die.

The Iroquois were proxy soldiers in a colonial war over trade routes and trading monopolies between England and France. The Jesuit missionaries were deeply tied into France’s colonizing project.

“There’s no question that when the French arrived and placed their flag in the regions we now call Quebec and Ontario, they believed that that land was now for France. We cannot deny that. They were establishing a colony,” said Knox.

But following Samuel de Champlain’s model, the French colonial effort in North America stood in contrast to the brutal, genocidal Spanish conquest of South and Central America.

“The French did not come with a fully armed force of regiments, large regiments of soldiers, with guns who would enter radically into villages, cultures and communities and, basically by force of the gun, take them,” Knox said.

For many years Brébeuf and his companions lived as guests in the homes of individual Wendat families. When the Jesuits were allowed to build their own compound, they were still there as guests. They needed the permission of Wendat leaders to remain. The Jesuits, like the French settlers throughout New France, were dependent on Indigenous people, not only for their welcome but for their very survival.

“That’s very different from a defeated people having a European village or colonial project being established in the heart of their land. That sets a tone, right away,” said Knox.

While the Jesuit mission may not have been backed up by military might, it was interwoven with alliances, trade and the geopolitics of the day.

“Eventually, Christian Wendat were given more privileges in trade and so on under the colonial rule, or in the relationship with France,” said Knox.

Leblanc warns we should be cautious about any notion of a kinder, gentler colonialism. “They were better than the Spaniards, better than the British. The French were more likely to engage in the cultures of Indigenous peoples,” Leblanc said. “But there was still a sense in which there was a feeling of superiority and the need to civilize. … ‘These heathens must first be civilized before they can be fit receptacles for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’ That’s still the attitude you find (in the 17th century) with the Jesuits, albeit a bit more open to the cultures of the Indigenous people.”

Well before modern anthropology arose as a science, Brébeuf in particular made great efforts to carefully observe and describe Wendat culture. He documented burial rituals, wrote out myths of origin and creation, described daily life and most particularly wrote and studied the Wendat language.

“The goal there was not to study for dissection, but rather to come to understand,” Knox said. “To enter more deeply into conversation with them about their own society and also, obviously as missionaries, about the presence of Christ in that society.”

While it’s possible to find instances of condescension and even contempt for Indigenous culture in the pages of the Relations, what’s more astounding is the sincere attempt to understand the people the Jesuits had come to live with, Knox said.

“There are terms like ‘barbarians’ that are used. There are savage attitudes,” said Knox. “At the same time, a couple of pages or books later, there are beautiful testimonies to burial rituals and explanations of their mythology and creation narrative.”

Leblanc’s own reading of the Relations leads him to a different conclusion.

“One would think that they would see God in all things, and yet that certainly wouldn’t be the case with Indigenous folks,” he said. “Here they were as inclined to recognize the presence of Satan in Indigenous cultures as they were the presence of God.”

What drove the Jesuits was first astonishment that Satan had come to take possession of the New World before Christ, and then a determination to take this new dominion away from Satan on behalf of Christ, Leblanc said.

It’s a very complicated history that cannot be understood outside of its context, said Knox.

“Obviously, any attempt at a colonial project we know now is harmful and destructive. That being said, the Canadian Martyrs seem to stand at some kind of crossroads in that reflection. It’s hard to pin them in one space, on one side or another,” he said.

Leblanc warns against assuming that there was a relationship between Indigenous and the colonizing cultures that can now be repaired.

“There is an assumption that there was a relationship,” he said. “While that might be true on an individual basis, and in some cases an individual-to-community basis, the broader compass of Western society engaged with Indigenous peoples in North America has never had a relationship. So you cannot reconcile something that didn’t exist. … Reconciliation requires that there has been a previous relationship.”

In Leblanc’s view, knowing our history might equip us to write a new story.

“What we can do, if we’re people of integrity, is we can clearly articulate what lays ahead of us in the past — how we got to the present moment — and say, ‘What was the good, the bad and the ugly of that? How do we retain the good, redeem the bad and dispose of the ugly so that we don’t do it again?’”

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