Jesuits and Mi’kmaq came together in 2010 to re-enact the French landing on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, where Grand Chief Membertou was baptized in 1610. Photo by Michael Swan

Concordat confusion: One thing remains certain, the Mi’kmaq remain a Christian nation

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  • November 12, 2021

When Pope Francis steps onto Canadian soil he will also step into the nexus of pain, sorrow anger and regret that has come to define the relationship between the Church in Canada and Indigenous people. But these failures were not our starting point.

For the Mi’kmaq people, whose traditional territory envelopes most of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula and the Maritime provinces, the starting point is a 1610 concordat between Grand Chief Membertou and Pope Paul V. The concordat was sealed with Membertou’s baptism, along with his family, followed by baptisms of as many as 300 of Membertou’s community.

Through 500 years this concordat has lived on in the memories of Mi’kmaq, who have called themselves a Christian nation since the time of Chief Membertou. The Mi’kmaq, because they are Catholic, came to the aid of Catholic Acadians when the British expelled them from Nova Scotia in 1755. Mi’kmaq people gathered on Potlotek (Chapel Island) to celebrate their Catholic faith, even through nearly a century when the British refused to send a priest to serve in their territory.

“There is an oral tradition my cousins and I used to talk about, and other men who have since passed away. This oral tradition that we had been told and yet nobody had been told where it originates or who first said it,” Mi’kmaq theologian Terry Leblanc, co-founder of the Indigenous theology consortium known as NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies, though it no longer uses the full name). “But the idea is that on baptism, Membertou talked about Christianity, about the teachings of Jesus, as taking him in the direction that they were already travelling but helping them arrive at a place that they did not ascertain or could not reach.”

The idea of the 1610 concordat has sustained Mi’kmaq identity and faith through generations, but in a legal sense it may not exist.

“No matter how close Mi’kmaq-Catholic relations historically were, they did not amount to a concordat, or treaty between the Vatican and a people,” wrote James Rodger Miller in his 2009 book Compact, Contract, Covenant. “The Holy See did not regard the First Nation as the sort of organized society with which the papal state could or would have a formal relationship. Although relations between the Mi’kmaq and the Catholic Church were close, the link that joined them was not a concordat.”

Based on oral tradition, Mi’kmaq historian and legal scholar James Sakej Youngblood Henderson wrote an entire book which comes to the opposite conclusion. His 1997 book, The Mikmaw Concordat (Mi’kmaq spellings vary), insists that the path to reconciliation begins with recapturing the 1610 concordat.

Mi’kmaq scholar Marie Battiste in her 2013 book Decolonizing Education reports that “Chief Membertou gave his promise to bring all Mi’kmaq into alliance with the Holy Roman Empire, a feat that was completed in the mid-18th century.”

Battiste cites Henderson when she asserts that the concordat was commemorated with a wampum belt. However, this wampum belt has not been found.

Vatican Museums spokesperson Lucina Vattuone told Catholic News Service’s Cindy Wooden that while the Vatican does have a wampum belt from 1831, they have nothing from the 1600s.

Roger Lewis, curator of Mi’kmaq culture and heritage collections and research at Nova Scotia Museum, explained that “There was a court-ordered visit to the Vatican archives in the early 2000s.” But it seems the delegation mistook the 1831 belt, which may be Huron in origin, for the record of a 1610 agreement.

“Reliable sources suggest there has never been a concordat between Chief Membertou and Pope Paul V or the Vatican. I have not heard of any wampum commemorating such an event,” Lewis said in an e-mail.

Canadian Catholic historian Mark McGowan warns it would be bad scholarship to simply dismiss oral tradition. Oral history is real history and written records are often selective and incomplete.

“I suspect that there was an agreement between Membertou and the French, with the clergy playing a central role,” the University of St. Michael’s College professor wrote in an e-mail. “The important thing is that memory has preserved an agreement between the Mi’kmaq and the Catholic Church, forming the basis of an alliance with mutual responsibilities. Whether it was a concordat as the Vatican defines it may be in question, but the records are scant for the period.”

Since 1988, when St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Halifax began celebrating a Treaty Day Mass every Oct. 1, the 1610 concordat has been central to how Mi’kmaq and non-Indigenous Catholics remember their shared history. Every year the archbishop celebrates the Mass, whose program is set by representatives of the Membertou First Nation. The Mass is attended by the Grand Chief and members of the Grand Council.Smudging, prayers and music are offered in the Mi’kmaq language.

The legal definition and function of concordats has shifted and evolved over the course of history, points out King’s College professor Robert Ventresca, an expert in the history of Vatican diplomacy.

“The concordat, or some version of it as an instrument of papal diplomacy, has been around for a long time, going as far back as the 11th century according to some scholars,” Ventresca said. “The modern concordat system dates to the 1800s, to the decades after the French Revolution. It was in the 20th century, and especially in the years just after the First World War, that the Vatican began to use concordats in an extensive and systematic way.”

These concordats weren’t always the most glorious chapters in Catholic history. Concordats with Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany were political straight jackets for the Church, allowing it limited control over its own institutions in exchange for remaining silent on matters of state.

But even in these circumstances, a concordat is more than a treaty or a legal contract.

“It’s more accurate to think of it as an agreement or a convention or even a covenant if you will,” said Ventresca. The biblical concept of covenant is certainly much closer to the Mi’kmaq understanding of the 1610 concordat, said Leblanc. The starting point for the concordat is the Mi’kmaq concept of Pjila’si, which might be translated as welcome but runs much deeper than that, he said.

“It’s the idea of sharing and providing welcome,” said Leblanc. “It’s more than, ‘nice to see you.’ It’s a hospitable welcome… a welcome to share in, not simply the resources in a commodification of resource kind of way, but to share in the resource, in the abundance of the land.”

The Mi’kmaq understanding of the 1610 concordat also encompasses much more than merely a political alliance between two nations, because it also includes the land. It’s an agreement based in and on creation.

“When Paul in Romans 8 talks about the creation groaning in travail, awaiting the revelation of the sons and daughters of God — or groaning in travail, awaiting its own redemption even as we also do, it moves away from an anthropocentric interpretation to something else,” said Leblanc.

To understand the 1610 concordat from the Mi’kmaq point of view requires us to understand that “one does not own the mother upon whose breast (the land, creation) one is nurtured. One is sustained by those resources, but one does not own those resources. One does not own the land upon which one walks, but one is expected to treat it with dignity, care and respect.”

A concordat of shared faith requires that we recognize these truths.

“The point is that there’s this continuity of faith tradition,” said Leblanc. “There’s an engagement with Catholic Christianity that continues to the present day.”

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