A statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha on the grounds of the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont. Photo by Michael Swan

Reconciliation journey opens new doors

By  Fr. Peter Bisson
  • June 6, 2019

If Canada wants reconciliation with its Indigenous citizens, Canada has to change. If the Church wants reconciliation with the Indigenous people it has harmed, the Church has to become more deeply, more truly, more fully what it is.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha knew herself to be Mohawk and Algonquin. She knew herself to be Christian. Those weren’t two different things and she didn’t become two different people when she was baptized. In her flesh, she was one person. Her body was part of the body of Christ. The body of Christ in Canada, the Church, needs to follow St. Kateri’s example.

The good news is that the Church in Canada is learning St. Kateri’s lesson of wholeness and unity. Every Catholic school girl and boy in Canada is learning Canada’s history from an Indigenous point of view. Parishes from coast to coast are suddenly aware of the Indigenous-settler divide in our country. We have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s exhaustive, five-year examination of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools to thank.

In May 2012, I attended a large public meeting in Toronto of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Survivors of Indian residential schools could testify publicly about their experience in the schools. The testimonies were often emotional. Taken individually or as an accumulation of horrors suffered by children, they were gut wrenching. I had been advised the Catholic Church would be sparsely represented at the Toronto gathering, so it would be important that I attend and do so visibly — that is, dressed as a priest. So I did.

What a mistake! My Roman collar was not a symbol of peace, mercy or the Good News. It was instead a reminder of traumatic memories of various kinds of abuse by priests, religious brothers, sisters and Catholic lay teachers who staffed the government-sponsored residential schools. 

I tried to “dress down” by removing my tab and rolling up my sleeves, but it didn’t work. People still looked uncomfortable with me. I in turn felt ashamed and exposed. I was tempted to hide in the company of other Church folk, but recognized the importance of experiencing this discomfort. Without it, how could the Church begin to assume its responsibility for our own roles in the residential schools and in the government’s colonizing intentions — whether we shared those intentions or not? What especially broke my heart was that even though people were uncomfortable with me, no one was rude. Indeed, some even tried to make me feel welcome. This was unexpected and made me feel like a prodigal son.

The courage to persist through this humbling experience was not entirely my own. It came from a decision made in the mid-1990s by my religious order, the Jesuits. In the 1980s, Indigenous people in communities where we had been for almost 150 years began telling us stories of sexual and other forms of abuse committed against them in the past by some of our men, in our parishes and in our residential school in Spanish, Ont. 

We reacted at first with disbelief and indignation. When we didn’t listen, people sued us. We responded defensively in the courts. 

After a while we started to realize we were treating old friends like they were enemies. Many of the stories had the ring of truth. Then we started really to listen and to do so in ways that were not judgmental or defensive. 

In spite of lawyerly advice, we began to admit responsibility, to apologize and to try to make amends. Admitting responsibility was risky as it could have invited more litigation. Instead it led to new relationships. Old relationships deepened and new relationships arose.

This shift from defensiveness to simple listening was the beginning of a transformation for the Jesuits — and a healing. 

But the process of reconciliation did not stop there. After a while we noticed that while people had legitimate and serious complaints against us, no one was asking us to leave. The longer we listened, the deeper and franker the conversations became. And the more we were being changed. Less and less were we seeing ourselves as “ministering to” Indigenous people, but more and more as “ministering with” Indigenous people.

Listening to the Holy Spirit and building the Kingdom of God isn’t the Church changing. It is the Church becoming what Christ founded.

Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Indigenous people have addressed Canada in their own voices. Such self-assertion, part of what many call an Indigenous resurgence, is essential to the ongoing reconciliation process. Control over their story draws them closer to equal partnership in Canada. 

In September 1984 St. John Paul II said in Midland, Ont., “Christ, in the members of His Body, is Himself Indian.” On June 22 the annual First Nations Pilgrimage to the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland will reclaim the pope’s prophetic declaration. The residential school question is finally teaching us, in the flesh of our Church body today, what the pope meant. St. Kateri, pray for us!

(Fr. Peter Bisson is the former provincial superior of the Jesuits in English Canada.)

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