From left, Edmonton archbishop Richard Smith, CCCB president Bishop Raymond Poisson, and Calgary bishop William McGrattan, give statements and answer questions at a press conference September 29, 2022, at the conclusion to the CCCB plenary meeting. Catholic Register screenshot

Relations with Indigenous Canadians a top priority for Canada's bishops

  • September 29, 2022

At their first in-person meetings in three years, Canada’s bishops spoke about concrete steps toward reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians — concrete steps that include an $18.6 million bill for Pope Francis’ apostolic visit in July, continued efforts to raise $30 million over the next five years, easier access for residential school survivors and their families to diocesan archives across the country and forging personal relationships between bishops and Indigenous leaders.

Canada’s bishops are following the example of Pope Francis, and the priority he placed on meeting with Indigenous people, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith told a press conference at the end of four days of plenary meetings of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Cornwall, Ont.

“I don't think it overstates it to say, it was a pivotal moment in the history of this country,” Smith said of the Pope’s pilgrimage of penance across Canada. “This was an historic moment, hopefully a moment of healing and moving things forward on this journey.”

Smith pointed to the sacrifice Pope Francis made to be in Canada, despite his health issues, to fulfill the promise he made in March to visit Indigenous people on their land during the Feast of St. Ann.

“We could see — being close to the Pope — that he was in continual pain. But he wanted to be here, and before he ever spoke a word, his presence was the message,” Smith said.

The Pope’s presence translates into a mandate for Canada’s bishops, said Calgary Bishop William McGrattan.

“The apology in words was important. But he (Pope Francis) also stressed to us that we needed to support that by concrete actions,” McGrattan said.

Among those concrete steps are a series of planned pastoral letters to the First Nations, Inuit and Metis people. Smith emphasized that the proposed letters will emerge out of extensive consultations with Indigenous leaders, but would not commit to a timeline on when the letters might be expected. A pastoral letter to Indigenous Canadians has been on the bishops’ agenda for years, but delayed by other issues, COVID and then the Pope’s visit.

“Now, it's back in the forefront and we do want to carry forward the initiative with a letter that would be adjusted to the First Nations peoples, to the Metis peoples, to the Inuit peoples,” Smith said.

Consultations, debriefings and continued conversations with Indigenous people will determine when the pastoral letter will be published, he said.

“Just writing a letter is insufficient. If we have learned anything, we've learned much from this journey that we're on with Indigenous people, it is the centrality — the central foundational, importance — of relationship. … We would want to approach this with the understanding that the bishop himself is the letter,” Smith said.

At their meetings, the Canadian bishops agreed it should be easier for residential school survivors and their families to access whatever records are in diocesan archives, said McGrattan. The bishops approved a set of guidelines for diocesan archivists to speed up the release of records.

On the $30 million healing fund pledged over five years, the bishops report they are “on track to raise funds in excess of its $30-million target.” So far the fund has collected $5.5 million from the 73 dioceses across Canada.

At the plenary, the bishops said they would inject more face-to-face encounters between seminarians and Indigenous people into formation programs for future priests.

“We hope that this support will result in more direct encounters with Indigenous communities where clergy and lay people hear the history of this land from an Indigenous perspective,” the bishops said in a press release.

The prelates also committed to putting more resources into the cross-generational effects of residential schools.

“We will work together with local community leaders to address social challenges, including addictions, suicide, violence, poverty and incarceration,” the bishops said in a release.

In a letter to Pope Francis, sent as the bishops began their meetings, CCCB president Bishop Raymond Poisson emphasized how relations with Indigenous Canadians are at the top of the bishops’ agenda.

“There can be no question that it (the Pope’s pilgrimage to Canada) has left a profound and lasting mark on Canada, Indigenous peoples and the local and universal Church,” Poisson wrote. “Your presence among us, as well as your words of healing, reconciliation and humanity have helped all of us to take significant steps forward as we walk together toward a more hopeful future.”

The $18.6-million tab for the Pope’s visit will be covered by “donations from parishioners, contributions from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, also some contributions from dioceses across the country,” Smith said.

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