Indigenous elder John Robinson of Toronto’s Native People’s Mission passed away May 26. Photo by Michael Swan

Respected elder passes unexpectedly

By 
  • June 10, 2022

Nobody was expecting Indigenous elder John Robinson to die.

“He hadn’t been feeling well for a few days. I finally told him, ‘Enough, you have to go to the hospital,’ ” his grieving daughter Jessica Robinson-Sibbald told The Catholic Register. “He had a massive heart attack at the hospital.”

Mr. Robinson’s death came as a shock to Fr. Wilson Andrade, who was in the midst of arranging to honour Mr. Robinson, 68, for his 50 years of service to the Native People’s Mission at St. Ann’s Church in Toronto. The arrangements were just about in place, and Andrade wanted to tell his close confidant and friend about it face-to-face. That’s when, on May 26, he got the call from Robinson-Sibbald.

“I left everything and I ran, and I was praying to God that I may reach him on time,” Andrade said. “Exactly at the time I reached him there, he passed away. I gave him the last rites.”

Andrade has been the priest in charge at the Native People’s Mission since 2013, but his work with between 60 and 70 regulars at the Indigenous-themed Masses and with the broader Toronto Indigenous community depended on the advice and encouragement he received from Mr. Robinson.

“I remembered that when the elder dies the library of wisdom dies. That is what my feeling is now,” said the Holy Cross Father from India. “I feel like a sheep without a shepherd.”

Mr. Robinson was part of the founding of the Native People’s Mission in 1972. That year, as a 19-year-old stranger in the big city, Mr. Robinson reconnected with his old parish priest from his home town of Goulais Bay, northwest of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. With former Goulais Bay missionary Jesuit Fr. Barney Mayhew, who would preside at Mr. Robinson’s wedding to his sweetheart Anne Marie, the Robinsons and a few other Indigenous families began celebrating Mass in the basement of St. Ann’s.

As years passed and Mr. Robinson worked his job at BRC Business Enterprises Ltd. building furniture, the soft-spoken, shy man came to play an important role in the Indigenous Catholic community.

“The priests always would call my father and ask for his opinion. ‘What should we do about this? For Kateri days?’ Or whatever. They always called him,” Robinson-Sibbald said. “He lived for that church. He loved that church. He loved going there and he loved being with Fr. Wilson and with the Sister (Patricia Lourdes “Petite” Lao, RNDM) that was there. He would go every single Sunday. It wasn’t like he would ever miss a day.”

Andrade and Mr. Robinson would make a couple of trips a year to participate in Indigenous Catholic conferences, sharing the long drive to Ottawa.

“I really relied on him for his wisdom and motivation. He was my mentor,” said Andrade.

As Toronto’s Native People’s Mission learned about the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 and faced the findings of unmarked graves at former residential school sites across Canada in 2021, Mr. Robinson played his role as elder and spokesperson, giving media interviews, offering prayers with Cardinal Thomas Collins in St. Michael’s Cathedral, participating in listening circles for Indigenous and non-Indigenous at St. Ann’s.

While he was deeply connected to Indigenous spirituality, Mr. Robinson’s own experience in Indian day school had left him unable to speak his own Ojibway language. He received some compensation from the Indian Day School Settlement class action, but his greatest desire was to find peace.

“It was hard for him to be with the Church and to try to work past it, to be forgiving and loving to everyone. That’s what he wanted most,” said his daughter.

He found a way where others did not.

“Some members of my family want absolutely nothing to do with the Catholic Church at all,” said Robinson-Sibbald. “My father was like, ‘OK, I respect that. But I choose to stay with the Church.’ ”

Collins greeted news of Mr. Robinson’s death with prayers for him and all those who mourn him.

“I am grateful to elder John Robinson for offering devoted spiritual care to the Native People’s Mission over many years. He was a true servant of Our Lord and a great spiritual leader for the Indigenous Catholics in Toronto, and for the whole community,” Collins said in an email.

As he offered sweetgrass and smudging, praying publicly for the people, the one phrase Mr. Robinson used over and over was “in a good way.” Robinson prayed that people will always “walk in a good way” and look upon one another “in a good way.”

“I think that is what John wants for us, to go walking in a good way,” said Andrade.

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