SASKATOON — A ceremony June 13 at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon marked the installation of a treaty plaque acknowledging Treaty 6 territory and proclaiming the importance of treaties to all Canadians.
The Bishop of Saskatoon and parish leaders joined First Nations and Métis elders and leaders and other community representatives in the celebration that included drums, dance and smudging, as well as words of reflection and hope.
An enlarged replica of a medal that was presented to participating First Nations chiefs at the time of the treaty signing, the plaque portrays a treaty commissioner grasping the hand of a First Nations leader. Between them is a hatchet, buried in the ground, and around the two figures are images of the sun and the land, symbolizing the promise of the treaty relationship “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow.”
The plaque is installed on the fieldstone fireplace in the church’s welcoming area, which was created with stones from parishes throughout the diocese. Signed in 1876, Treaty 6 covers 121,000 square miles of what is now Saskatchewan and Alberta.
An explanation beneath the plaque reads: “Newcomers to Canada and their descendants benefited from the wealth generated from the land provided in the treaties. They built their society in a place where some were looking for political and religious freedoms. Today, there are misconceptions that only First Nations peoples are part of the treaties, but in reality, all of us are treaty people.”
Holy Family pastor Rev. David Tumback described how the idea for the plaque was raised when a white priest and an Aboriginal woman were visiting over a cup of coffee. “Dianne (Anderson) asked if we would put a treaty plaque in our building and my immediate response was yes.”
The plaque is a gesture of friendship and a call to solidarity, said Tumback. “In this space, may all always find a listening heart.”
The act of unveiling the plaque has been some 140 years in the making, said Harry Lafond, executive director of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner.
Lafond described how in the Cree belief system there is an impetus to go forth and “make relatives” — to build relationship and connection with those who are not biologically related.
However, 140 years ago, “we would not have been able to meet in this way with open hearts, with open minds, with open arms to each other, with a genuine interest in becoming related,” he said.
“A hundred and forty years ago, the Cree (and) the Stoneys of this area were living in a world of trauma and that in itself made it impossible for them to be totally prepared to step into this new world. The people from Europe were coming, suffering from similar types of trauma: famines, oppression. They were coming to this country experiencing similar types of emotional and psychological situations in their families. And so we needed those 140 years to be prepared for this moment, when we can open the door.”
The province of Saskatchewan has also helped to open the door by allowing children to begin to know the history of Canada from different perspectives, Lafond said. “Those are perspectives that make Treaty 6 a wholesome story and allow us to open our hearts and open our minds, and to reach out to each other as we are doing this evening. It provides us with a sense of hope, a way of dealing with some of the hurts of our communities. It gives us a way to deal with issues of poverty, issues of how we share this holy ground that we agreed to share 140 years ago.”
Holy Family Cathedral is leading the way in the church community by placing the plaque, said Lafond. “It’s putting in a visible place a symbol that represents the connectedness of many different peoples; a diversity that continues to grow and grow.”
He added: “This is a window of opportunity that we need to cherish, pray about, and continue to keep our hearts open to the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Lafond invited those present to take a close look at the symbol. “Walk away from here realizing that you have a legacy to unpack, and unpack it. What does it mean for you? Why did your ancestors come here? And how do you want it to shape your future? How do you want your grandchildren to be shaped by the hope and the legacy of Treaty 6?”
Bishop Donald Bolen began his reflection by saying “a long overdue word of thanks” to indigenous peoples. “Thank you for welcoming us to this land. Thank you for signing a treaty with our great-grandparents, our ancestors.”
Bolen also emphasized the importance of learning what was suppressed in the past. “It is time now for us to learn about indigenous spiritual traditions. It is time for us to learn about your understanding of your relationship with the Creator of this land. It is time for us to humbly listen and to hear the traditions that were developed over centuries, over millennia; to enter into conversations about them; to welcome into our parishes indigenous elders who will tell us about the spiritual traditions which have given meaning and life to indigenous peoples.”
The bishop called for dialogue and to create what Pope Francis calls a culture of encounter. “Pope Francis would also add that he wants us to learn from you something about the care for the land, something about moving into the future, living in a relationship with the land that fosters a future, which doesn’t use up all the resources as though the present moment is the only moment in time. We need to learn a way of living on this holy land, and we have to learn that quickly, because our environment is hurting deeply.”
A final strand of the cord that will bind relationships is a commitment to walk together, said Bolen.
“The Truth and Reconciliation process has been a deep learning experience for the Catholic Church, and a humbling experience,” he said. “It is going to take us time to absorb the words spoken, the pain articulated, the waves of pain spoken by the thousands of witnesses who have come forward.”
During the treaty plaque celebration, greetings were brought to the gathering by MLA Eric Olauson. “This service and installation of this plaque remind us that we are all treaty people,” he affirmed.
Representatives of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish — which serves First Nations, Métis, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parishioners in Saskatoon — also participated in the celebration, with Elder Gayle Weenie leading a smudging ceremony, and their choir providing music ministry.