OTTAWA (CCN) — It is easy to offend and to be offended when one does not understand cultural differences, Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Murray Chatlain told his fellow bishops Sept. 27.
“Whenever we’re doing cultural work, there’s a way in which we offend each other and step on each other’s toes,” the archbishop said during a panel with members of the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council (CCAC) at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We have to find a broader attitude and understanding.”
He told of an incident in which he and an indigenous woman from his office drove eight hours to visit a remote community in the Northwest Territories.
“You came on the wrong weekend,” said the woman who greeted them. “Too many people are gone.”
The archbishop’s staff member was shown a nice room in the woman’s home, but he was shown a room in the dilapidated church building. When he asked about a bathroom, he was told, “The environmental people made us take down the outhouse.”
He then was shown a closet and inside was a bucket — “the bishop’s throne.”
He admitted the greeting and the accommodations made him “cranky.”
But his staff member explained to him that the reason why he was told he arrived on the wrong weekend was because she was so concerned about the visit and “wants it to be perfect.”
The reason the archbishop was not offered a room in her house was because her husband had recently died, and “for you to be the only man in the house would not be appropriate.”
“What about the bishop’s throne?” he said he asked. She responded. “Suck it up, Princess!”
“That lady helping me from the office totally changed my attitude,” he said. “That weekend could have been very negative because of the way I was feeling.”
Chatlain pointed out the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) call for respect toward indigenous spirituality “in all its forms.”
He said he, Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon, and Saint Boniface Archbishop Albert LeGatt participated recently in a Sundance ceremony put on by a “very Catholic” indigenous community.
“It was a remarkable experience,” he said. The Sundance ceremony requires participants to fast from both food and drink for several days. “It was really stretching ourselves to go beyond our comfort zone.”
“It was a different style of praying, or trying to connect with God and asking for forgiveness and help,” he said.
“A couple of years ago, I was pretty ignorant of Sundance and what it really means,” he said. “I understand more.”
Participating in ceremonies can help educate pastors to help them understand indigenous spirituality, he said. “I’m not saying everyone should participate or that every part of the theology of Sundance is kosher with Catholic theology.”
But participating whenever possible helps us “become better spiritual leaders of our communities,” he said.
Sometimes even the best efforts to help, even those that produce a lot of good results, can still leave some hurt and misunderstanding. Chatlain gave the example of Brandon College, in the NWT, “one of the best examples of residential schools” that gave a good education to the top indigenous students from Grade 8 to Grade 12. “It was a very positive school,” he said. The NWT premier, many members of Parliament, and almost all Aboriginal leaders in the region went through the school.
However, a First Nations man named Danny told him: “Despite all the good that happened, somehow the message came across that what my grandmother and my grandfather were trying to teach me wasn’t really relevant.”
Chatlain said that “message underneath” helps us to understand the complexity and the challenges for one group educating another, even whether it’s French and English or English and Ukrainian.
CCAC member Harry Lafond, a Catholic Cree from Saskatchewan who attended as an observer at the synod on the Americas in 1997, said the western bishops host a gathering of indigenous elders every two years where the elders can speak on the “spiritual and social issues dear to their hearts.”
They have discussed the poverty in their communities, the disappearance of many children who are being adopted into homes not in the community, he said. These meetings have come alive after the TRC process.
The prayers and reflections of the four days centre on the need for a spirit of reconciliation, he said. The meetings also express: “This is what we do in our community; this is what works for us; this is what we dream about.”
“They express eloquently their desire to see change in a country and church that has historically undermined their identity; a country that still systemically colonizes their existence through its schools, prison system, and government policies,” he said. “These people come together with hope to build a better future for their grandchildren.”
“Events like this give bishops of Canada an opportunity to become engaged, and to use tools made available to us I believe by the Holy Spirit,” he said.
CCAC member Irving Papineau, a Mohawk from Akwesasne, straddling the Quebec, Ontario and U.S. borders, described how when he worked for the federal government he was asked to help devise a program to enculturate nurses who would be serving in remote northern communities because so many left after only a short time there.
“We came up with a cultural orientation program,” he said. It consisted of two days of experiencing an Alpha and a Beta culture, and having to arrive at solutions to problems.
“That was very revealing to them, because you need to look at a culture through a different set of lenses and become aware that we act differently from what we speak,” he said.