Nova Scotia

Why a 400-year relationship between Mi'kmaq and Catholic Church is under pressure

Some Mi'kmaq have turned away from the Roman Catholic Church over the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools, but others have maintained their faith.

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

Membertou Heritage Park general manager Jeff Ward says it was easy for the Mi'kmaq to ally with Catholics in the 1600s because they both recognized the cross as a spiritual symbol. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

The close relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Mi'kmaq in what is now Atlantic Canada — an alliance that dates back more than 400 years — is being sorely tested after recent discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential school sites.

Some have turned away from the church, but others have maintained their faith.

"It's just sad that what happened in residential schools should never have happened," said Jeff Ward, general manager of the Membertou Heritage Park in Membertou First Nation, near Sydney, N.S.

"Those that hid behind religion, they have to answer to the Creator. They have to stand before God.

"My mom is a survivor. I'm a son of a survivor, so she told me the stories, and she's still with us today and she shares those stories with our family and it's very hard."

Starting Monday, Inuit, Métis and First Nations representatives from across Canada will be in Rome to ask Pope Francis for an apology for the intergenerational trauma created by the Roman Catholic Church's residential schools.

The Mi'kmaq started welcoming Catholic missionaries in the 1500s and formalized their connection with the church in 1610 with the baptism of Grand Chief Membertou.

Today, almost every First Nation in the Atlantic region has only one church and it is almost always Catholic.

Grand Chief Membertou allied his people with the 17th-century missionaries partly because it seemed like a pragmatic political move, said Ward.

Ward greets visitors to the heritage park with the Mi'kmaq Welcome Song, which has deep meaning, he said.

A plaque on the bust of Grand Chief Membertou outside the heritage park says the spiritual leader was also known to have the powers of healing and prophecy. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

"When I sing that song, I think of Grand Chief Membertou," Ward said.

"Our motto today is 'Welcoming the world' and sometimes I believe it's not by accident. I believe the spirits work through us today and we continue that same teaching, that same vision, that Grand Chief Membertou had."

The Mi'kmaq readily accepted the Catholic faith, Ward said, because the cross had already been an important spiritual symbol in their culture for 1,000 years before Jesus Christ.

For them, it has long represented the four directions and the balance between physical, spiritual, emotional and mental well-being.

To demonstrate that, Ward flips over his drum and points out the hand-hold is a cross.

"So when they came over with their cross, and some had circles with that cross, we said, 'Oh, they know the teaching,' so it was easy for us to welcome them," he said.

Stephen Augustine, a hereditary chief, says Roman Catholic missionaries saw value in learning to live with the Mi'kmaq and were impressed with their devoutness in the early 1600s. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

Stephen Augustine is a hereditary Mi'kmaw chief, historian and associate vice-president of Indigenous Affairs at Cape Breton University. He said Grand Chief Membertou was already a powerful figure who wanted to increase his stature by allying himself with the church.

The European newcomers also saw the value in learning to live with the Mi'kmaq, Augustine said. He noted that Jesuit missionary Father Pierre Biard was impressed with the devoutness of the Mi'kmaq in the early 1600s.

"He said the Mi'kmaw people are living the life of what Jesus would have epitomized as Christianity, espousing the values and principles of Catholicism," Augustine said.

That long-standing relationship is recognized twice a year when the Mi'kmaq travel to the small island of Mniku, also known as Chapel Island in the southeastern corner of the Bras d'Or Lake. They gather there to hold grand council meetings and church services as they have done for centuries, and also hold an annual pilgrimage to worship in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Que. 

Jeff Ward says those who have lost faith in the Roman Catholic Church need to separate the religion from the people who ran the schools, but admits that has been very difficult for some. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

Ward said the abuse inflicted on residential school students — and increasing evidence of deaths with unmarked graves found at former school sites in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia — have caused some people to lose faith in the Catholic Church. 

It has been difficult for some to separate the religion from the people who ran the schools, Ward said.

"I still help with the church," he said. "I'm part of the church committee here, but when it comes to prayer, I pray the way my elders have taught me and I conduct the ceremonies the way my elders have taught me."

Katy McEwan says some people are angry over the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools, but says Mi'kmaw spirituality helps strengthen her Roman Catholic faith. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

Katy McEwan, 78, is a lifelong parishioner at St. Ann's Church in Membertou.

She has not lost her Catholic faith.

"There may be some that are very angry and I think it's because of the graves, the unmarked graves that are found now," McEwan said.

Her sister, Pauline Bernard, 90, said the congregation is aging and dwindling, much like it is everywhere.

Pauline Bernard says mass was held last week at St. Ann's Church in Membertou for the first time since the pandemic closed the church and there was a good turnout. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

But mass was held last week for the first time since the pandemic closed the church and she said there was a good turnout.

"Their faith is strong, you know, and I am really proud of them and I am so glad that they're not shaken by any of this," Bernard said.

Having a solid foundation in Mi'kmaw spirituality also helps strengthen the women's Catholic faith, both said.

"No matter what faith you belong to, your native spirituality strengthens that faith," McEwan said.

Stephen Augustine says the Mi'kmaw people do not break promises and wouldn't want to break with the vision of Grand Chief Membertou, seen here in a Membertou Heritage Park display. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Augustine said it is not a surprise that some Mi'kmaq have maintained their devotion to Catholicism after more than four centuries.

"I think in some sense the Mi'kmaw people, the soul and the heart of the Mi'kmaw people, they're not treaty breakers, they're not promise breakers, so they don't want to break the agreement that the grand chief had with the church," he said.

Augustine is hopeful, but not optimistic, that the delegation in Rome will come away with good news.

"Pope Francis is very liberated in terms of his theology," he said. "I think he would be open, but we're talking about the church, the Vatican, so I think it would be really a miracle if they get an apology from the Pope."

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools across Canada, most of which were run by the Catholic Church.

Jeff Ward says the residential school system is still an open wound, but true healing is possible with an apology from the head of the Roman Catholic Church. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

That experience is still an open wound, said Ward, adding that one family member who was invited to travel to the Vatican this week declined.

But true healing is possible, he said.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: apology needs to come right from the leadership, right from your top person," Ward said.

"Forgiveness will start when it's recognized. When it's truly recognized, it will help heal entire nations."


Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 36 years. He has spent half of them covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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