First Nations chief calls for reconciliation with Catholic Church

  • September 24, 2008
{mosimage}CORNWALL, Ont. - Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine made an historic plea for reconciliation with the Catholic Church while speaking to a gathering of Catholic bishops here Sept. 22.

“What I want to talk about here is the future,” Fontaine told about 80 bishops attending the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual plenary.

Fontaine said he hoped the church could use its influence and experience to help lift First Nations out of poverty, acknowledging that in the past First Nations and the church had accomplished much good together, despite the legacy of abuse at native residential schools.

“I believe the Catholic Church has a significant role to play in helping us pave the way to something absolutely better,” he said.

“I wonder whether we can ever do enough to heal broken spirits. But that is the past.”

He described Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for abuses at the residential schools last June as a “momentous occasion” and an “opportunity to fix what has been a terrible wrong.”

Reconciliation will require “big hearts, forgiveness, trust and confidence,” he said.

“For our people, reconciliation means the eradication of First Nations poverty,” he said, noting that doing so would require “the support and engagement of all Canadians.”

He said First Nations people did not need the Catholic Church for its money, but for its influence, experience and commitment.

“You understand us as well as anyone in this country,” he said, noting the church knows “what is important to us and where we want to take our communities.”

“There are too many who don’t believe in us, who see us as a relic of the past, who believe we have to be transformed in order to be significant to this country,” he said. “We know that you don’t believe that.”

Fontaine spoke about a recent visit to the Cherokee nation in the United States and the positive experience they have had with boarding schools.

“I see no reason why the Catholic Church shouldn’t be involved in the education of our people,” he said.

In a news conference afterwards, Fontaine was asked whether the Catholic Church should apologize for the abuse in residential schools. He said the prime minister “was speaking on behalf of all Canadians.”

“Our big challenge is reconciliation,” he said. “We will never achieve reconciliation until poverty is eradicated.”

He said First Nations peoples had noted Pope Benedict XVI’s expressions of regret to aboriginal peoples in the United States last April and to those in Australia while in Sydney last July. He said he hoped the Pope would make a similar gesture towards Canada’s First Nations peoples.

Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber, president of the CCCB, said he looked forward to working with the First Nations in creating “a new community where everyone is respected.” He noted the importance of the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission that will be starting its work soon.

Weisgerber said the partnership with aboriginal peoples was a “major aspect about the history of the evangelization of our country.”

“As part of the story of the Paschal Mystery, it too is a history marked by both glory and tears, deeds of generosity and betrayal, the dawning of new light and continuing shadows of darkness,” he said.

Though pointing out the CCCB was “not historically involved with the former Indian residential schools,” the archbishop outlined the many apologies and expressions of regret over the years that various dioceses and entities have made, starting with the 1991 apology from bishops and religious superiors whose dioceses or religious communities had been involved in running schools.

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