The Pope in Canada, Poisson: The Church’s Maximum Engagement Among the Natives

The President of the Canadian Bishops illustrates the Pope’s visit to the country and specifies the commitment of the Church together with the government to carry out movements of reconciliation. “We have never been absent from the life of the communities in the reserves”, emphasizes the prelate, who is convinced that the Pope’s gesture of solidarity will stimulate local projects for the mutual deepening of knowledge on a spiritual and cultural level.

Marine Henriot – Vatican City

Reconciliation and healing are at the heart of Pope Francis’ trip to Canada, which begins on Sunday, July 24 and ends on the 30th. A “penitential pilgrimage,” as the Pope himself defined it in the Angelus of July 17, “in the name of Jesus for ” to meet and embrace indigenous peoples,” “severely damaged” in the past by “policies of cultural assimilation carried out by many Christians.” The president of the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference, Monsignor Raymond Poissonfrom the diocese of Saint-Jérôme-Mont-Laurier, illustrates the genesis of the papal journey and the hopes it brings:

Monsignor Poisson, what do you expect from this visit?

This historic visit is part of a set of gestures that we bishops have been asking for since last September, to create a climate of reconciliation with our indigenous brothers and sisters. What happened in the elementary schools is a dark period in Canadian history, and it has to do with the whole issue of respect for their culture, but also our country, because we’re talking about people who were the first to inhabit Canada. We started working with them in field listening groups. Then, in December 2019, I started talking to the Holy Father about the possibility of a delegation coming to Rome and about the possibility of his trip to the country. This visit had already been requested in 2015 by the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation under the auspices of the government, and the Pope was then enthusiastic. After two postponements due to the pandemic, a representation of indigenous people went to the Vatican last March. And so a first gesture of reconciliation took place and the fact that it had been postponed twice only increased the interest in this delegation on the part of our native brothers and sisters. And that is the reason why we ended up with over 150 people at the hearing on 1 April. It was the occasion for the Pope to hear the testimonies of survivors and survivors, old and young. In union with us bishops of Canada, the Pope expressed his apology for the abuses committed by members of the Church during the historic period. The journey is therefore registered on this journey and is intended as a further step. It bears signs of reconciliation, perhaps more of reconciliation than apology, for the simple fact that the Pope is among us. At the site of one of these schools, he will meet survivors, celebrate public masses, on the occasion of the Sant’Anna feast, a very significant figure for everyone, emblematic of indigenous peoples, he will participate in an autochthonous and a non-autochthonous meet. It is therefore a question of concrete reconciliation movements, which we hope will follow up on the realization of our projects together with them. We have set aside a fund of 30 million Canadian dollars to support projects of mutual knowledge, their culture, their spirituality, their history, since the whole Canadian society is really far from the reality of our brothers and sisters. our native sisters and vice versa. We certainly can’t claim to know each other well. There is much work to be done, the visit of the Holy Father will help us.

It is useful to point out that Pope Francis’ trip to the indigenous territories is of symbolic importance to the local communities…

Yes, because the natives are very attached to their territories. Probably the concept of ownership and territory for us Westerners is limited to our homes. For them, however, it is a collective, community space, a territory close to nature. Therefore, it is really very important that the Pope will go on this ground to tell them ‘I am with you, I love you and all of us are sorry for what happened’. Moreover, we have chosen different signs or symbols on the occasion of the meetings or the two public Masses: gestures of Christian spirituality, which will however have the autochthonous color and flavor, especially through the dances, the music … These are all gestures of reconciliation.

How could the current relationship between the Church and the various indigenous communities in Canada be described?

In Canada, there are over 600 Indigenous communities: over sixty First Nations; then there are the Métis, who are organized in a national association, and then there are also the Inuit. All these people share neither the same culture nor the same language, each is different from the other. For the organization of the trip, we turn to the three national organizations that bring together First Nations, Métis and Inuit, so that everyone can participate in the event. Each bishop in his diocese has connections to the community living in his area. For example, indigenous communities are more concentrated in the West than in the East of the country. So it must be remembered that there are differences in the reports also according to the zones. But in general, the expectations among the local communities are quite enthusiastic and positive. Everyone is looking forward to this event. Not everyone will participate, because it is not possible, but everyone is interested. At the level of national organizations, other aspects play a role. In a crisis like the one experienced in Canada, the federal government is just as involved in its politics. We are therefore working side by side with the government to carry out reconciliation movements. We follow our pedagogy, which cannot be that of the government, but that of the church, and which consists in being close to people on a local and local level. We have never been absent from community life in the reserves, there are priests and missionaries on the ground who are present and continue to be present, albeit in a different way: we leave more space for their culture, their spirituality and we have the courage to admit this case.

When she came to the Vatican this spring, the Assembly of First Nations offered the pope part of a traditional cradle. After one night, Pope Francis asked you to return that cradle: can you explain the meaning of that gesture?

The part of the cradle which the delegation brought was to illustrate the whole question concerning children in secondary schools. Evidently the Holy Father accepted it: he did not know that he would receive this gift; then we talked about it and he asked me to return it. It was a way of saying ‘I come myself to see these places, to talk to you, to listen to you again’. I don’t know if there will be that cradle again at the next meetings …

Aboriginal people continue to be discriminated against in Canadian society. How will the Pope’s visit affect it?

Our hope is that this visit is actually another step that will help us turn the page, this page that was written from the very beginning by the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, which asked for an apology and a visit from the Pope. point, this step will have been taken and we can therefore move on. Without forgetting what happened yesterday, without forgetting the importance of an apology. It is necessary to make concrete movements of reconciliation and therefore make room for life, for life today and for tomorrow, and for this there is our reserve fund for the various projects. I believe that the Pope’s visit will allow us to turn the page in a book that we will not close, that we will not forget, and to write a new page with new projects. We must think of another language, the language of the future. In this sense, the church represents a service to Canadian society because the whole of Canadian society must be reconciled.

What do you think is the Church’s responsibility today with regard to the way its members cooperated in the past in the application of the Indian Act of 1876?

I cannot believe that the Church has been involved in the application of these laws, while instead we have been involved in the day-to-day running of the day schools. The system was government and federal. When there were laws about Indians and laws about the management of territories and reserves, the church was present in the sense that it was with the natives. But it is not responsible for these laws, it cannot answer for them: that is another thing. Nevertheless, we hope that our reconciliation movements will make the government reflect on, for example, access to clean water and education for indigenous people. This is a journey that we begin together in accordance with our special responsibilities.

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