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Righting wrongs begins with ‘truthful history’

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — Canadian bishops are calling on Catholic institutions to tell “a truthful history” of the church’s interaction with indigenous peoples.

On March 29, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council, the Canadian Religious Conference and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace released two detailed documents responding to Calls to Action #48 and #49.

The Catholic response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action are “a couple of steps in a journey that’s going to take a long time,” says Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller.

Miller was among 30 bishops, religious, and lay representatives of Catholic organizations at a March 14 meeting in Ottawa to reflect on a response to the TRC’s Call to Action #48 that asked faith communities to show how they plan to bring their policies in line with the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), and Call to Action #49 that asked for a repudiation of the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, and Terra Nullius, that gave “first takers” or “discoverers” the right to seize land belonging to indigenous peoples.

“I just hope more of our church and Canadians in general educate themselves about these issues,” said Archbishop Murray Chatlain of Keewatin-Le Pas, whose diocese is made up of 83 per cent First Nations and Métis peoples. 

One place to start is by making sure Catholic institutions tell a truthful history of the encounter with indigenous peoples, such as the effects of the residential school system, and the impact of ignoring or undermining treaties, the bishops said.

Other steps include: making interaction with indigenous communities part of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue; improving holistic health services; promoting a restorative justice model to combat the high incarceration rate of these communities; supporting the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women; helping indigenous communities build educational programs to promote their culture and experience; and reflecting on the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples so it can be supported and implemented.

Chatlain said the challenge is to “put into effect some of these clear goals.”

“It’s going to take time,” he said. “I just pray we take genuine efforts in all of our dioceses to move forward in a positive way.”

Chatlain said issues raised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have been high on the bishops’ agenda for a long time. He said “some of the philosophies and cultural practices” that went into Canada’s founding did not make a “level playing field at all” for indigenous peoples.

In their document, the bishops cited a long list of historical issues, including matters related to self-determination, self-government, land claims, treaties, oppression of cultural traditions and spiritual practices, education, social conditions, and, of course, residential schools.

Regarding the right of indigenous peoples to their own spiritual practices, the documents noted “the failure to uphold this right is a theme found throughout the TRC’s final report.”

Though there were historical instances of forced baptisms, in 1537 Pope Paul III declared evangelization of indigenous peoples “should only take place ‘by preaching the Word of God and by the example of good and holy living,’ ” the document said.

“While Christians have at times failed to live up to the standard to which they are called by God, the glaring failures to respect the identity and freedom of indigenous children, outlined in the TRC Final Report, are particularly saddening and must never be repeated.”

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