The sins of our fathers: The healing journey between Indigenous peoples and the Catholic Church begins in Rome

As an Indigenous permanent deacon in the Catholic Church, I see the trip to the Vatican as a starting place to actively seek reconciliation between native people and the church, writes Rennie Nahanee.

The church needs to do more than listen and talk; there needs to be mutual consultations, similar to a treaty

Two fiddlers lead the Métis delegation out of a private meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Monday. The Indigenous survivors of residential schools meeting with the Pope this week are not the defenceless, voiceless children of yesterday, writes Rennie Nahanee. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

This column is an opinion by Rennie Nahanee, a member of the Squamish nation and a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As Indigenous survivors of residential schools gather in Rome to speak to the Holy Father, they must be thinking of their own experiences and the effects of Indian residential schools on themselves and their families. 

They are not the defenceless, voiceless children of yesterday. These former students of the Catholic-entity institutions who ran the schools have found dignity in who they are as Indigenous peoples and want to speak about reparations from the church, which would help in their healing journey. 

The healing journey is about relearning language, culture and spirituality, reconnecting to their communities, and to the families who didn't understand why parents were behaving so erratically and couldn't connect it to the sexual abuse, mental abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse that was so traumatic to them as children. 

As an Indigenous permanent deacon in the Catholic Church, I see the trip to the Vatican as a starting place to actively seek reconciliation between the native people and the Catholic Church in Canada. The church needs to develop protocols when engaging or inviting native people to their events. Native people need to develop Church protocols when engaging the church on matters relating to churches on reserves. 

Due to the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, and the Pope's upcoming visit to Canada, the church needs to do more than listen and talk; there needs to be mutual consultations between both parties, similar to a treaty.

History of relationship

Being involved at St. Paul's Church on the Squamish nations reserve since childhood, I've come to think that at an early time, before the residential schools, there was a good working relationship between the church and the Squamish nation. The priests lived in our community. Some of them spoke the language, performed baptisms, taught the Catechism in the language, and helped with first communion, confirmation, weddings and funerals. They had many friends in the community who took care of the church, and they even interceded when some people tried to take our land away. 

The government of the day demanded police-enforced enrolment of the children in schools far away from the community. Some people resisted, but because it was the law there was little they could do. 

WATCH | Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron describes meeting with Pope:

Métis leader describes 'comfortable' meeting with Pope

3 months ago
Duration 3:17
Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron said Pope Francis spoke of 'truth, justice and healing' during a meeting with Métis survivors of residential schools. The Métis delegation was the first of three Indigenous delegations to Rome to meet with the pontiff.

As a young person in St. Paul's Indian Catholic Church, I saw my elders serving the Lord with joy! These elders became my mentors. But they didn't speak about their residential school experience. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) started recording the stories of former students of the boarding school and all the terrible stories came out, I was angry, but I remained loyal to the church and my elder mentors.

I needed to understand more of the history of the Catholic Church before settlement in the Americas and I found out that two Vatican papal bulls (essentially, edicts from the pope) caused a lot of problems for the Indigenous people in the Americas. The papal bulls led to the Doctrine of Discovery (the international law that gave license to explorers to claim vacant land in the name of their sovereign) and terra nullius (the declaration that Indigenous lands belonged to no one), which the early settlers of the United States of America and Canada included in their legal systems to take away land from the Indigenous peoples. 

When the Squamish people were put on reserves, our ancestral lands became vacant lands and were sold off by the government, with none of the money given to the original owners. 

Connecting to culture

I have been involved in St. Paul's Indian Catholic Church for over 30 years, mostly in the music ministry. When I was ordained as a deacon in 2015, I was fortunate to be placed in my people's church, and I was given authority to proclaim the Gospels and preach to the congregation. 

In my journeys as First Nations ministry coordinator at the Archdiocese of Vancouver, I travelled a lot across Canada and saw a lot of native churches containing Indigenous cultural items. I watched congregations singing country gospel songs, and even heard some of the masses conducted partially in Indigenous languages. 

At home, taking part in our funerals in the recreation centre, I heard the Indigenous Shaker minister speaking in his language to the attendees. But there was no Squamish language spoken. 

It was in my mind to correct this and the way to do this was to have our Sunday missal translated into the Squamish language. The archbishop was okay with that, and money was given from the archdiocese to pay for the translation of the missal from English to Squamish. 

I feel optimistic that Pope Francis would do well to convince the Catholic Church to let Indigenous people have masses in their own language, and increase efforts to help connect them to their culture and spirituality, after people learn to speak their mother tongue. 

His apology needs to include reparations, and he must convince Catholics to help Indigenous peoples find healing through contributing to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishop's reconciliation efforts and paying for language instruction. 

Finally, it is essential that the church in Canada act on the TRC's calls to action.

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Rennie Nahanee is an Indigenous permanent deacon in the Catholic Church. For 30 years, he served at St. Paul's Indian Church on the Squamish Mission Reserve in North Vancouver.