Cree, Christian, and questioning the Catholic church: one man's journey in faith

Harrold Lafond is Cree, from Muskeg Lake. He is also a lifelong Christian who both loves and questions the church that raised him.

With still no apology from the Vatican for residential schools, it falls on individuals to build bridges

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church is the Catholic meeting place for the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Four people show up at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Muskeg Lake for a January mass, but there's enough room for many more. Every time someone enters the church, the heavy door swings all the way open, letting in a gust of frigid Saskatchewan winter. 

Where some Canadian churches display artworks with white faces, most of the figurines and paintings at Our Lady of Guadalupe are of brown faces. The stations of the cross show Jesus on his journey, helped along the way by people with pigmented skin. After mass, Father Frederik Akah asks in African-accented English how to wish the congregation a happy New Year in Cree.

The Catholic church looks different in this rural setting 170 km north of Saskatoon than it might in a bigger city, or in an urban diocese. The effort is clear, but there is still work to be done. 

"You don't practice racist policies for years and then expect them to change overnight," said Harry Lafond, one of the handful of people who still attends mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

"There certainly is personal tension, but where do I want my grandchildren to be, and how do I get there?"

Two of the stations of the cross at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Muskeg Lake, Sask. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

The Catholic Church in Canada seems to be asking the same question.

For more than a century, Indigenous children were removed from their families and communities to attend residential schools, funded by the government and run by churches, including the Roman Catholic Church.

During that time, generations of Indigenous people lost their language, their culture, their spirituality, and in many cases, their childhood. Students at the schools suffered sexual and physical abuse, and some call the schools part of a cultural genocide.

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission identifies one Call to Action specific to the Catholic Church, number 58, which calls for an apology from the Pope to survivors of abuse in residential schools, and that the apology must happen on Canadian soil.

An apology, as specified in the Calls to Action, will not be forthcoming. Recently, Pope Francis announced he could not personally respond to Call to Action 58.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI read an expression of sorrow and regret to a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations visiting the Vatican. Some found comfort in it, but others still demand an official apology. 

Call to Action 59 urges churches that were involved in residential schools to develop education strategies so parishioners understand their church's role in colonization and why apologies were necessary. Call to Action 60 calls for church leaders to collaborate with Indigenous spiritual leaders to develop curriculum for student clergy and prevent spiritual violence.

Call to Action 61, the final call specific to churches involved in residential schools, calls on them to provide funding for community-controlled healing, language revitalization and relationship-building projects.

In 2016, a miscommunication by the federal government led to Catholic orders being allowed to renege on their financial commitment under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to raise money for such projects.

The church was called upon to raise $25 million; Catholic orders donated just over $2 million.

Change certainly will not happen overnight, as Harry Lafond expressed, but progress has been especially slow-going.

A personal reconciliation

Harrold Lafond performs a reading during mass at his home church in Muskeg Lake. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

When he reads from the prayer book, Lafond's voice is strong, and echoes through the mostly empty church. He wears his winter coat still, with a thin scarf draped over his shoulders. This mass is serious, but not showy — no need for Sunday best in Muskeg Lake.

Later, Lafond holds a chalice with care and gently wipes the rim. As an elderly woman, also dressed for the cold, approaches him to drink the wine, which Catholics believe has been transformed into the blood of Jesus, he bends and makes sure she has a good hold on the gold cup.

The chapel was built in 1949, replacing a log structure from 1881, built by Oblate missionaries. Lafond has served the Catholic church since he could walk, and his Cree nation since he learned he had a voice. He is a living reconciliation of Indigenous spirituality and Catholic teachings.

You can be fully Cree and Christian at the same time."- Harry Lafond

The experience has not been easy.

In the 1950s, the church on Muskeg Lake Cree Nation was run "like a French-Canadian church in Quebec," he said, with mass recited in Latin and French.

Sometimes, a priest from off-reserve was able to muster up some Cree. 

A young Harry served during the mass every Sunday, when the church bore the name of Our Lady of Pontmain — a moniker that always offended him. "Pontmain" is close in pronunciation for the Cree word for "giving up." The name persisted until the 1990s.

Harry Lafond and his younger brother, Lionel, in their 'Sunday clothes,' ready to go to church in Muskeg Lake in 1958. They travelled there by horse and Bennett (wagon with rubber tires). (Submitted)

Its next incarnation — Our Lady of Guadalupe — was Harry Lafond's suggestion, after joining Oblates on a trip to Guatemala to talk about the role of the order in Indigenous communities. The name refers to a revelation of God's presence in the Americas.

"It was never intended to be the colonizing force that it became," said Lafond.

"The intent was to recognize the value of Indigenous spiritualities and the gifts embedded in those cultures, that were very complementary to the original message of Christ."

The idea of Catholicism and Indigenous teachings co-existing side by side has been a driving force throughout Lafond's 68 years.

His first inkling of what true reconciliation might look like came in the 1970s, after a trek across the country to the Stoney Nations near Morley, Alta., in the time of the American Indian Movement.

"That was really my first encounter with people from different parts of North America, gathered to speak about life issues and Indigenous spirituality."

One speaker marked Lafond forever.

"He spoke only in Cree, and I was just beginning to relearn my own language. He talked about the connection between social ills and spiritual development, and much of what we were experiencing in our home communities," he said.

"I was on a quest. I was out there looking for something. It helped me focus my direction."

Lafond believes experiences like his have helped shape the current generation of Elders in Indigenous communities across the country.

Asking questions and challenging thinking

Harry Lafond leads with love and a fierce, questioning intellect. So when he was introduced to the spirituality of his ancestors, he retained his love of the Catholic church and its teachings — though not all of its practices.

Residential schools and the pain the church created within their walls will continue to be a cross borne by the faith, but Lafond believes that while it is a source of adversity and suffering for many Indigenous people, it is a piece of the puzzle, and not the whole issue.

He identifies with survivors, and was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, having spent time in a sanatorium which he calls "unsafe for young boys." He's still angry, but believes that violence to the person is the absence of love, intended to destroy relationships.

Harry Lafond at 15, outside his parents' house in 1960. His clothes had been recently purchased using the Indian Affairs Clothing Allowance, and he is about to board the train from Marcelin, Sask., to North Battleford to attend St. Thomas College. (Submitted)

"It's only in continuing to keep those doors open and being unafraid to ask questions, and challenge thinking, that we're going to establish a culture of reconciliation."

He worries those doors are not open for everyone.

Many bishops in Western Canada are open to change, but Lafond believes those in larger centres don't have the desire to change the relationship between the church and the nation's Indigenous Peoples.

Young people, too, have turned away from a Catholic God.

"They're looking for something but the church doesn't know how to work that. In our case, that vacuum is being filled by Cree spirituality," said Lafond

"But you can be fully Cree and Christian at the same time."

The belief system, he says, is strong, and the word of Christ is good. It's the administration that wasn't.

'We need bridges'

Policy and faith, though, are not irreconcilable. Lafond is a member of the Western Catholic Bishops Advisory Group, and works closely with them to bring about reconciliation.

Harry Lafond and his eldest son, Sarain, in 1977. Around this time, Lafond was completing his teaching degree. (Submitted)

"If there is no common understanding of how to proceed together, we're in for a long and difficult ride," said Lafond.

Another advisory council, Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle, made up of the country's large, powerful Catholic groups like the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Women's League, as well as bishops, was formed in 2016 with the goal of responding to the Calls to Action. It does not yet have a concrete plan to do so.

Most involved are anxious about the process, and eager for action. The consensus is that progress will be slow.

"I think we're all feeling some impatience and frustration that it's slow," said Archbishop Murray Chatlain, a longtime supporter of incorporating Indigenous spirituality into the Catholic service.

"We need the focus of putting a lot of years, and working in a positive way. It's taken years to get where we are, and it's going to take some time to address it."

An official church policy is missing from reconciliation so far, but on a personal level, in some parts of Canada, priests and bishops like Chatlain have prioritized relationships between the church and Indigenous Catholic communities.

"Most of us are called to be bridge-builders, to try to bring together different cultures and peoples," said Chatlain.

"We need bridges. It's not easy."

In several parishes Chatlain oversees as Archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas, there's an optional smudging before mass begins, to cleanse the space, and the prayer of the four directions is often recited at the elevation of the host.

"We do it to be more understanding and appreciative of the spirituality that was there long before we came," said Chatlain.

Chatlain spent years serving the inner-city in Saskatoon, then Black Lake and Fond-du-Lac in Northern Saskatchewan, where most parishioners are Indigenous. Chatlain learned the Dene language during a year-long sabbatical in La Loche and spent time with Elders in the community.

Recognizing 'the darkness and sickness'

The "truth" in Truth and Reconciliation may prove harder to speak, especially for the devout.

In a 2014 letter to parishioners, Archbishop Chatlain recognized "abuse that has been done by some priests, religious sisters and lay people," and addressed the protocol for allegations of misconduct.

"Our Catholic Church, like many other Churches and groups, is working to make our Church a safe place for children and the vulnerable," the letter read.

"This has been a tremendously painful part of our history, but I really believe that God is trying to use this. I think it is making us have some difficult conversations; to recognize the darkness and sickness that can be part of anyone. I think God is also trying to use it to work at some healing in this area in all our families as well."

Bishop Murray Chatlain is the Bishop for Keewatin-The Pas, and former bishop for the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith. (The Catholic Diocese of Keewatin-Le Pas)

For countless reasons, the church can be seen as an unsafe place, but Chatlain is attempting to reverse the perception and help his parishioners heal.

"They're difficult conversations, and many people have had those with me present. Apologies have been made by myself and other bishops."

He concedes that not all bishops would be ready to utter apologies to residential school survivors and their families. Not all survivors would be ready to hear them.

It may be late to do these things, but I think it's still helpful.- Archbishop Murray Chatlain

"We try to take people at the place they are, and hear them, and move forward," said Chatlain.

"It may be late to do these things, but I think it's still helpful."

Chatlain's best advice to other non-Indigenous Catholics hoping to foster reconciliation is to "be willing to go and participate in Aboriginal spiritual practices."

He and two other archbishops participated in a Sun Dance in 2016. He has also fasted and participated in a vision quest.

Muskeg Lake Cree Nation has been fostering similar relationships with non-Indigenous people. Harry Lafond has invited representatives from the nearby Mennonite, Chinese, and Muslim communities.

"It's helpful in breaking down the image of the reserve, which is one of our greatest challenges. It doesn't protect us. It isolates us," he said.

And so the reconciliation continues, for Lafond, his church on the reserve, and those he draws into a web of understanding, respect, and mutual education.

"I can't be satisfied. If I become satisfied, it leads very quickly to complacency."

And complacency is something the movement for truth and reconciliation cannot afford.

This story is part of our project Beyond 94: Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Read more stories in the series and look for further coverage this week.