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Michael Swan

You can be Indigenous and Christian, speakers insist

  • May 5, 2023

OTTAWA -- At the Ottawa offices of Cardus, coinciding with the 343rd anniversary of the death of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, four Indigenous Canadians spoke to a mixed crowd of what it means to be both Indigenous and a person of faith.

The April 17 event, sponsored by the Archdioceses of Calgary and Ottawa-Cornwall and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, marked the release of a series of interviews between Andrew Bennett, program director of Cardus Faith Communities, with 12 Indigenous Canadians. Those interviews form the heart of the Cardus project, Indigenous Voices of Faith.

Bennett traced the origins of the project to a conversation with a friend who was both a First Nations Canadian and a Baptist. His friend had remarked, “sometimes I’m not supposed to be a Baptist.”

Bennett spoke of the Cardus initiative attempting to provide a thoughtful response to “the secular elite narrative that asserts that you cannot authentically be an Indigenous person if you are also a Christian.”

The first panel of the evening consisted of three Catholics, Fr. Cristino Bouvette, Maria Lucas and Dr. Rose-Alma MacDonald. The three panelists hold a common Catholic faith, but also share backgrounds made up of a multiplicity of cultures and traditions.

Lucas was baptized in the Slovak Greek Catholic Church and is of Black-Metis heritage.

“I was a bit of a cultural orphan,” said Lucas. “I knew that we were Black, and I knew that we were Metis, but I didn’t fully understand what that meant culturally. What are our practices? What are our traditions?”

Those questions were further complicated by being a cradle Catholic. She asked, “How does my family integrate being Catholic with being a Black-Indigenous family?”

Lucas said she has taken a “circuitous journey” to reach her home in the Catholic Church. Along the way, she discovered that the emphasis placed in Indigenous cultures on the centrality of spirituality to everyday life was entirely consistent with her Catholic faith. Faith should, Lucas says, “inform everything that you do.”

Bouvette and MacDonald can both claim a family lineage rich with Christian faith and witness. Bouvette, a priest of the Archdiocese of Calgary, has Italian-Canadian, Metis and Cree-Ojibwe lineage. His great-great-great grandfather, Rev. Henry Bird Steinhauer, was a Methodist minister, an Ojibwe from southern Ontario who relocated to Alberta “to proclaim the Gospel to his own people.” Steinhauer was responsible for the translation of biblical texts and hymns into the Cree language.

MacDonald is a Mohawk from Akwesasne. Her great uncle was Msgr. Joseph Bourget who for 42 years was the pastor at the St. Regis Mission Church at Akwesasne. He translated the prayers and hymns into Mohawk. Despite this family history, MacDonald did not learn Mohawk growing up. She says it is only because the current pastor, a Filipino who is “brown like us,” has re-introduced Mohawk into the liturgy that she knows a little of her language.

The second conversation of the evening was between Bennett and Melissa Mbarki, a Cree woman who in her 20s embraced the pipe carrier traditions of her maternal grandfather. Mbarki, adopted and raised by her grandparents, said her “upbringing was unusual.” Her grandmother was a residential school survivor and a devout Catholic. Her grandfather practised the traditional ways. Mbarki believes her grandparents modeled the true meaning of reconciliation. She said that they, in turn, “wanted me to be a bridge, to be a voice of reconciliation.”

The question period at the end covered a range of topics, including the difference between inculturation and syncretism, church burnings and the role and meaning of land acknowledgements. In each case, the panelists gave thoughtful and, at times, unexpected answers. That diversity in the responses served to underline that many Indigenous voices are not always represented in the public square.

Bennett has said that going forward, he “will be sharing the booklet and the interviews therein with faith leaders across the country over the coming months to help shape the discussion on Indigenous Canadians and faith.”

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