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Canada – A fundamental step towards reconciliation

The Pope’s visit to Canada (July 24th-29th) is seen by many observers as a fundamental step in the process of healing begun more than three decades ago by Canada’s Indigenous Nations. A path that will hopefully lead to reconciliation. 

The papal visit is, in fact, a request from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which from 2007 to 2015 travelled the country to gather testimonies from those known as Survivors because they survived the Residential Schools System set up by the Canadian government in the mid-19th century to “kill the Indian in the child,” creating what many consider to be nothing less than a cultural genocide. The Commission concluded its work with 94 Calls to action, including Call 58, which calls on the head of the Catholic Church to make “an apology to the survivors…similar to the one made in 2010 to the Irish who were abused… to be delivered by the Pope in Canada”.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) asked Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina, Saskatchewan, to answer its questions in order to better understand the magnitude of what this represents for the country. For many years, Archbishop Bolen has been involved in dialogue with the First Nations of his region, a province located in the plains of Canada, whose motto is The Land of the Living Skies.
Mgrs. Donald Bolen, archbishop of Regina. We are being called to stand in support of efforts to strengthen or recover Indigenous language, culture and spirituality. We are being invited to recognize the beauty and wisdom of Indigenous ways of seeing and caring for creation. Walking together means listening so that we can be friends and allies in creating a better future for First Nations, Inuit and Metis Peoples, and for all of us who live on this land. (Photo: By courtesy)

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(ACN) – According to your experience, today, what is the relationship between the Catholic Church in Canada and First Nations?

(Mgrs. Donald Bolen) – Relations between First Nation Peoples and the Catholic Church in Canada carry the burden of a complicated history- a history that people are still grappling with and are still trying to understand. Colonization, the Indian Act, and a government-funded Residential Schools System all left First Nations Peoples with a legacy of marginalization, where their languages, cultures, traditions and spirituality were suppressed. Catholic involvement in the Residential Schools System, and the waves of suffering experienced by so many Indigenous Peoples in that system, including a wide range of physical, cultural, spiritual and sexual abuses, have left deep wounds and a legacy of intergenerational trauma. There is much that the Catholic Church, the Canadian government, and Canadian society are accountable for. Over the last 15 years, the Truth and Reconciliation process has brought that legacy of suffering to light, and the strained relationship with the Catholic Church is being passed on to future generations. The Papal visit will seek to address that and to take steps towards healing.

The relationship between the Church and Indigenous Peoples also differs significantly from one part of the country to another. Here, in Saskatchewan, where there were many Catholic-operated schools and where the impact of the Residential Schools System is strongly felt, there is a need to address that history in a direct way.

As Catholics, we have been told many times to listen to what the First Nations have to say. Why should we listen and what should we listen?


The colonial approach that coloured settler relationships with this continent’s Indigenous people was largely one of an imposition of foreign culture and practice. This lack of a willingness to listen and understand the worldview of Indigenous people in the earliest days of settling, paved the way for the many disastrous initiatives, such as Residential Schools, the ‘Pass’ system*, and subsequent suppression of language, culture and spiritual practice.

Today, we are being called to listen to the suffering experienced by First Nations, Inuit and Metis Peoples, and we are asked to look at history (and the history of relations with the Catholic Church) from their perspectives. We are being called to look at the systemic injustices that Indigenous Peoples continue to experience, as indicated by high rates of poverty, challenges in accessing health and educational resources, and land rights. We are being asked to be an ally in the rightful pursuit of justice, and in standing in solidarity, as we seek to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We are being asked to see the impact of intergenerational trauma, which is evidenced in high rates of incarceration, addiction, and suicide, and to support efforts to address underlying issues.

We are being called to stand in support of efforts to strengthen or recover Indigenous language, culture and spirituality. We are being invited to recognize the beauty and wisdom of Indigenous ways of seeing and caring for creation. Walking together means listening so that we can be friends and allies in creating a better future for First Nations, Inuit and Metis Peoples, and for all of us who live on this land.

Bishop Bolen with Grand Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess Nation. ((Photo: By courtesy)

Last year, many churches and Catholic buildings were burned to the ground, attempted arson or vandalized. Catholics were in shock, and some even felt persecuted following these crimes. Why these happened and why the Catholic Church in Canada did not react as strongly as some would have liked, for instance, by condemning these crimes very publicly?

Last year, the work of ground-penetrating radar (GPR) on the sites of former Residential Schools, and the identification of ground disturbances which could be unmarked graves, unleashed a huge response of anger, frustration and trauma. In a sense, the GPR work drew dramatic attention to all that had been said and experiences of suffering which had been shared through the Truth and Reconciliation process. In some places, anger gave rise to acts of violence and destruction, including the burning of churches. Many of the churches affected were in Indigenous communities, built by and cared for local Indigenous parishioners.

While many – Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, inside and outside of the Church – spoke out in dismay about the church burnings, there was also a recognition that there is a reason for such anger, and that we need to address the systemic injustices that Indigenous Peoples have experienced and continue to experience.

The logo was created by Shaun Vincent for the papal visit. In a circle, several animals – a herd of bison, a flight of eagles, Artic Blue -, the keys of St. Peter, the Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove, symbols of peace. (For more information: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSlDAcyfJuE)

As a pastor, what did you learn from your experience on the path of healing and reconciliation with First Nation and Métis Peoples?  

As a bishop, walking with Indigenous people, with survivors of the residential schools, and also with victims of clergy sexual abuse, I find myself resonating more and more with what Pope Francis speaks of as “healing the wounds,” which, of course, was a central part of Jesus’ ministry. Listening to and walking with people who have been deeply wounded, especially those who have been wounded by people within the Church, has become a central part of my ministry.

It has been an enormous privilege to work with both groups of wounded people—with survivors of residential schools and with victims of clergy sexual abuse. Those I have had the opportunity to walk with and work with, I have found to be wonderful people who have many gifts and who carry much wisdom about how we need to move forward towards healing, how we as a Christian community need to change. They have enormous courage. And they are teaching me how to take a Gospel posture of humble listening and learning to walk together in a good way. I believe that the Holy Spirit is really involved in this work.

What will be or should be the next step forward after the visit?  

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report made it clear that apologies are not an end point but a starting point for further actions. Conversations have begun about what happens “the day after the apology” of Pope Francis on Canadian soil. Here are some of the things I have been hearing from survivors.

First, there is a desire for ongoing truth-telling, to move to a deeper and better understanding of the history of Indigenous people and their relationship with the Church. That involves supporting Indigenous communities as they try to tell their story, including the experience of residential schools, with archival material. This will involve ongoing apologies as we learn of wrongdoings, and accompanying first Nations community,
survivors and intergenerational survivors, in their work of healing.

Secondly, we are being asked to support the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples, rights giving them by the Creator. The recognition of these rights (as articulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) is really in the spirit of the Catholic Church’s social teachings. We are being asked to be allies in the pursuit of justice.

Thirdly, we are being asked support Indigenous people in their efforts to reclaim or strengthen their language, culture and traditions.

From 2008-2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was held all over Canada. Here in 2013 in Montréal. (Photo: Mario Bard)

This is well articulated in Call to Action 61 of the TRC: “to establish permanent funding to Aboriginal people for: i. Community-controlled healing and reconciliation projects. ii. Community-controlled culture-and language revitalization projects. iii. Community-controlled education and relationship-building projects. iv. Regional dialogues for Indigenous spiritual leaders and youth to discuss Indigenous spirituality, self-determination, and reconciliation.”

It is hoped that many of the projects funded out of the $30 million commitment made by the bishops of Canada would address these areas.
Fourthly, and something that is very dear to Pope Francis’s heart, we are being asked to respect and support Indigenous wisdom regarding creation and the created world. Pope Francis uses in Laudato Si’ the language of being interconnected, we’re all interconnected. Indigenous spiritual traditions see every person as connected to the earth, to all other creatures, and to all other people, those who have gone before us and those still to come. We should not make decision without considering the impact on the next seven generations. Indigenous people’s understanding of creation has so much to teach us.

These are some of the steps we are being asked to take as we move forward from apology to a new way of walking together.

*A process by which Indigenous people had to present a travel document authorized by an ‘‘Indian’’ (as indigenous were called in Canada) agent in order to leave and return to their reserves. 

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