Anglican church welcomes Indigenous teacher who once renounced Christianity

The dean of Ottawa's Anglican diocese developed a deep friendship with an Indigenous spiritual leader in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Now, he's invited Albert Dumont to teach at Christ Church Cathedral.

Albert Dumont is the new spiritual 'teacher-in-residence' at Christ Church Cathedral

Albert Dumont is serving a two-year term as the Algonquin Spiritual Teacher In Residence at Christ Church Cathedral. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

More than 50 years after Albert Dumont renounced Christianity, the dean of Ottawa's Anglican diocese has welcomed him back — not as a believer, but as an Indigenous spiritual teacher-in-residence.

Dean Shane Parker, who is also the rector of Christ Church Cathedral, met Dumont in 2015 during an event connected with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.    

"Someone came to see me to say, 'There's a fellow here who wants to smudge. Is that OK?'" said Parker. "I just had this strong sense of wanting to stay in the room."

Since then, the two men have bonded over a shared belief in the importance of compassion and interfaith dialogue. 

Shane Parker, left, and Albert Dumont, right, stand in front of a stained glass window at Christ Church Cathedral that depicts Indigenous people and Chaudière Falls, a traditional Indigenous meeting place. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

Dumont's new role has already begun, with events including the launch of his new poetry book. It drew an audience of 100 people, Parker said, from a wide swath of the community.

"It struck me, as I looked around the room, that this was one of the positive outcomes of this new relationship — that people who would not normally rub shoulders were in the same room at the same time," Parker said.

Shaped by childhood events

The childhood experiences of both men have shaped their ideas about the path to reconciliation.

Growing up in northern British Columbia, Parker spent time in hospital when he was about five, and recalled becoming friends there with a Dene boy.

"One day we thought we'd had enough of being in the hospital, so we ran away together," Parker said. "We went way down the road ... into the bush, before anybody knew," he said.

"That innocent relationship of two children who didn't judge one another is what reconciliation is all about."

Shane Parker, Dean of the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, invited Albert Dumont to serve as an Algonquin Spiritual Teacher in Residence at Christ Church Cathedral. A plaque inside the cathedral acknowledges that Ottawa is built on unceded Algonquin Anishinabe territory. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

Dumont described that story as "the kind of experience Creator meant for human beings to have" — but also starkly different from his own as a 10-year-old boy.

That was when a teacher singled him out, Dumont said, with the question, 'What are Indians good for?'

Flummoxed, Dumont came up with a bit of wisdom from his father: that Algonquins made the best birch bark canoes.

The next day, Dumont said, the teacher presented him with a sheet of birch bark and instructed him to make one.

Then she ridiculed his efforts.

"She brought me up to the front and said, 'Albert told us what Indians were good for was the building of a birch bark canoe. Well, how would you like to be in the middle of the river in this thing? You would sink like a rock!'"

"She started to laugh, and every child in the classroom was laughing. And that's when I knew I was under attack."

Racism drove him from the church

After that, Dumont's eyes were opened to the racist attitudes around him.

"I would see people who were prejudiced and racist, then see them in church on Sunday. And that was contrary to what Jesus was all about."

At age 12, Dumont left the church, despite having been raised as Christian. He then left school after Grade 7 and was "totally off the rails" for years while he battled alcoholism.

For me to bring the hammer down on Christianity was wrong.- Albert Dumont

Embracing traditional Indigenous beliefs rooted in a reverence for nature and ceremony, Dumont said, has given him a new perspective on those childhood experiences.

"For me to bring the hammer down on Christianity was wrong," he said. "It was some people that didn't understand Jesus, and we don't paint everybody with the same brush."

Parker hopes the lessons for his congregation are just beginning as well. 

"We who live in a very built society, who do not inherit our spirituality from the land and from the seasons, have much to gain by listening to a teacher whose spirituality is attuned to the movement of creation, and the presence of God in creation."