Left, Harry Lafond; right, Graydon Nicholas Photos by Michael Swan

Indigenous Catholics seek more detail on bishops’ plan

  • February 15, 2023

If Canada’s bishops are setting an agenda in their letters to Indigenous Canadians, that agenda needs more detail, Catholic Indigenous leaders told The Catholic Register.

Deacon Harry Lafond of the Muskeg Cree First Nation believes the language the bishops employ in the letters is too general.

“They’re skirting the language that Indigenous people find necessary in order to move forward,” said Lafond. 

He wants to see the Church tackle the 15th-century Doctrine of Discovery head-on. During Pope Francis’ visit in the summer, the CCCB promised a statement from the Vatican on the Doctrine of Discovery sometime in the fall.

“Yes, we are working on this with the Vatican,” said Calgary Bishop William McGrattan, vice president of the CCCB. “We’re sensitive to the fact that this is an important issue that needs to be addressed.”

It can’t come soon enough for Lafond.

“Today, we live the Doctrine of Discovery,” he said. “What is the Indian Act but an element of the Doctrine of Discovery?”

Like Lafond, lawyer and legal scholar Graydon Nicholas was also looking for mention of the Doctrine of Discovery and the legal concept of Terra Nullius as he read the Pastoral Letter to First Nations. In particular, the Wolastoqey Indigenous elder and former New Brunswick Lieutenant Governor, who participates in the Guadalupe Circle of Indigenous elders and Catholic bishops, wishes the bishops had referenced Sublimus Dei — the 1537 bull from Pope Paul III which declared Indigenous peoples of the New World are “truly men.” From 1537 to Pope St. John Paul II’s speeches in Canada in 1984 and 1987 — where the Polish Pope insisted “Christ, in the members of His Body, is Himself Indian” — the Church in her teaching has rejected the Doctrine of Discovery over and over, even as members of the Church broke and ignored that teaching,  Nicholas said.

The promises from Canada’s Catholic bishops to First Nations, Metis and Inuit people are a “good start” but won’t immediately win over Indigenous Canadians, said Nicholas.

Lafond believes the bishops need to find other interlocutors than the national Indigenous political organizations. 

“We can’t hear from only the politicians — the established, political leaders of the Indigenous community — because they don’t necessarily speak for the spiritual people, the spiritual leaders of their communities,” Lafond said.

Identifying those spiritual leaders won’t be easy and the process might vary for different First Nations and for different Indigenous cultures, he said.

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