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Francis among Canada’s natives, treading on traumatized lands

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In recent years, as more and more children’s graves have been discovered in residential schools across Canada, the world is discovering the trauma of a population that suffered for decades under a system designed to “kill the Indian within the child. It is in this martyred land that Pope Francis is making a penitential pilgrimage from July 24 to 30.

Marine Henriot – Special Envoy to Edmonton, Canada

In 1990, Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations broke the silence and denounced for the first time publicly the cases of abuse in the residential schools run by the Canadian federal government and supported by the Catholic Church. In the 2020s, the discovery of the graves of hundreds of children in the vicinity of these institutions provoked a wave of indignation and awakened Canadian and world opinion to the realities of Canada’s Natives communities. “In recent years, we have gone from a great ignorance and indifference on the part of the Canadian population towards the native people, to an openness,” notes Jean-François Roussel, a researcher attached to the University of Montreal, anthropologist and specialist in native cultures.

It is therefore a traumatized population that Pope Francis has come to meet on their land in the summer of 2022. A violence experienced in the residential schools, which crosses generations. Some native people have decided to cut ties with their families, with the community, because it is too difficult,” continues Jean-François Roussel, “others have never understood why their parents showed so little love, and the insecurity is reproduced between generations. It is very difficult to deal with this history, with reflexes that we don’t understand very well. Others still, did not have the words to talk about what they suffered: “There is shame and anger turned against oneself”, explains the anthropologist.

Being indigenous and Catholic

The Catholic Church has had a relationship with Canada’s Aboriginal peoples since the 17th century. In 1998, the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council was created within the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) to offer information and recommendations about Aboriginal communities and thus begin a healing process.

In 2009, during an exceptional audience, Benedict XVI received Aboriginal representatives in private. The Bavarian Pope expressed his regret for the role of the Church in the forced assimilation of Aboriginal children: “The Holy Father expressed his regret for the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of certain members of the Church and offered his sympathy and solidarity in prayer. His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society,” the Holy See press release said at the time.

The Canadian Church officially apologized in September 2021 and six months later announced the creation of a $30 million fund to finance various reconciliation projects across Canada. In the spring of 2022, receiving more than 150 members of an Aboriginal delegation at the Vatican, Francis expressed his shame and indignation: “For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask God’s forgiveness and I would like to say to you from the bottom of my heart: I am truly grieved.
Today, the official website of the national organizers of the papal visit states, “the Catholic Church has a responsibility to take authentic and meaningful steps to accompany the indigenous peoples of this country on the long road to healing and reconciliation.

image 9 - Francis among Canada's natives, treading on traumatized lands
Sacred Heart Church of the First Nations. Edmonton, Canada

Elder Fernie Marty is the Elder of Sacred Heart First Nations Church and will welcome the Pope to Edmonton on Monday, July 25. This sunny man, with a ponytail and deep eyes, defines himself as Catholic and Aboriginal. Born in Edmonton, he belongs to the Papaschase First Nation. “I feel blessed to live in both worlds,” he said during the final preparations to welcome Francis, “my mother made sure I was baptized at birth, and my mother’s family made sure I stayed close to our Aboriginal culture. I was able to blend these two cultures that I was born into.
According to the last major Canadian census conducted in 2011, 36% of Aboriginal people said they were Catholic and 31% said they did not belong to any religious group. A non-mandatory census, however, nuances Jean-François Roussel, “all researchers agree that this census is not very reliable”, but it is currently one of the only statistical tools available to determine the proportion of Catholics among Aboriginal people: “The Catholic faith remains an important reference among Aboriginal communities and in the family memory. There is an existential dimension to the Christian faith, an attachment to Christ with local community forms.

Moreover, if some indigenous people feel that they have been betrayed by the Church, respect for the choice of individuals and religious freedom are highly valued in the indigenous culture.

Attachment to the Land

Land is intrinsically attached to the Indian Act of 1876. This same land on which the 139 residential schools were built, this same land confiscated by the Canadian federal government, divided into reserves “to solve the Indian problem”, explains Jean-François Roussel. Thus, although Alberta is the traditional territory of the First Nations, the 138 reserves represent today only a little more than 1% of the total surface of the province, sheltering the members of the 47 First Nations of Alberta.

Reserves managed with humiliating texts. For example, some stipulate that these despoiled territories must not measure more than 2.6 square kilometres for each family of five. Many generations of natives have grown up on coveted, confiscated land, “the land is linked to a suffering experience”, explains the anthropologist, “the residential schools were created to transform the mentality of the children, to remove this relationship to the land and make them into Canadians like any other, who mixed with other Canadians”.

Finally, the land also represents the motherland, the shelter of the buffalo, the source of food and the basis of nomadism, before their gradual disappearance and the arrival of famine in certain regions. “Yes, I heard the apology of the Pope in Rome, and it was essential, but it is much more important precisely here, because this is where everything happened. I don’t know what healing looks like that we’re talking about, but whatever happens, I’m ready to follow it!”, concludes Elder Fernie Marty.

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