The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People is on a fact-finding mission on reconciliation in Canada. Michael Swan

UN reconciliation review skips bishops

  • March 9, 2023

Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people is getting a check-up and Canada’s Catholic bishops want to be part of it. Whether or not they get the chance is still up in the air.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, José Francisco Cali Tzay, began a 10-day tour of five Canadian provinces March 1. Cali Tzay, a Mayan Cakchiquel from Guatemala, has a mandate from the UN to report on how well countries are complying with their obligations under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Canada formally incorporated UNDRIP into Canadian law June 21, 2021. 

Cali Tzay will meet with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, representatives of all three national Indigenous political organizations — the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Metis National Council — along with judges, human rights organizations, civil society and “relevant stakeholders.” But so far there’s been no meeting scheduled with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“We have not received an invitation to meet with the UN Rapporteur,” CCCB general secretary Fr. Jean Vézina told The Catholic Register in an email, though the CCCB “would welcome the opportunity.” 

Given the chance, the bishops would “share with him our commitment as a Church to walking with Indigenous peoples toward truth, justice, healing, reconciliation and hope,” he said.

Graydon Nicholas —Wolastoqey Indigenous elder, chancellor of St. Thomas University and member of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle — told The Catholic Register the bishops should get some face time with Cali Tzay.

“I’m a very strong advocate of them meeting with (Cali Tzay),” Nicholas said. “It would be a very good idea if they took along some Catholic Indigenous spokespersons.”

A month ago, in pastoral letters to Indigenous Canadians, the bishops committed themselves to “accompanying you in the pursuit of justice for your peoples, in the spirit of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and of Catholic Social Teaching.”

But Nicholas points out that the Church commitment to UNDRIP goes back much further. Just months after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued 94 Calls to Action in 2015, the CCCB released an eight-page response to Call to Action #48, which asked the Church “to formally adopt and comply with the principles, norms and standards of the United Nations Declaration.”

The Holy See has repeatedly endorsed the principles of UNDRIP. Pope Francis committed the Catholic Church in Canada to UNDRIP in his July 27 address at the Citadelle de Quebec.

“The Holy See and the local Catholic communities are concretely committed to promoting the Indigenous cultures through specific and appropriate forms of spiritual accompaniment that include attention to their cultural traditions, customs, languages and educational processes, in the spirit of the United Nations Declaration,” Pope Francis said.

Working in the spirit of UNDRIP is something Canadian Catholics should take very seriously, said Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen.

“The UN Declaration is a roadmap to a healthier and more just society,” Bolen said in an email. “The Church desires to stand in solidarity with the legitimate aspirations of Indigenous peoples in their pursuit of justice, in their efforts to maintain their cultures and traditions, in their desire to foster and uphold a life-giving relationship with the land and all of creation. The UN Declaration lays out principles which could guide efforts to stand in solidarity.”

Though currently laid up in a Mexican hospital recovering from a hip replacement, Bolen would welcome the chance to speak with Cali Tzay.

“I would like to learn more about how the pursuit of Indigenous rights in Canada relates to the pursuit of Indigenous rights in other parts of the world,” he said. “I would like to hear best practices from other parts of the world in terms of solidarity of faith communities with the Indigenous pursuit of rights, and would like to engage with him on the addresses of Pope Francis during his visit to Canada.”

There’s much common ground between Catholic social teaching and UNDRIP principles, he said.

UN communications staff supporting Cali Tzay’s tour did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, but instructed reporters to attend a March 10 press conference in Ottawa, where he will present preliminary findings. The Assembly of First Nations did not respond to calls for comment while Metis National Council spokespersons were tied up in a board of governors meeting.

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