Report gives voice to Canada’s Indigenous Christians, highlights need for religious freedom
Members of the Sts’ailes First Nation at Holy Rosary Cathedral last year for the first Mass to integrate a First Nation language. A Cardus report presents the voices of Indigenous Canadians speaking about their faith and distinguishing it from the traditional spirituality they’re often associated with. | Photo courtesy Nicholas Elbers, 2022
A groundbreaking report published by the Ottawa-based Cardus Institute has given voice to Indigenous Canadians who are frustrated by secular society’s unawareness of — or unwillingness to accept — the fact that almost half of them are Christian.
“I find that insulting to Indigenous people’s intelligence and freedom,” Catholic priest Father Cristino Bouvette said of the prejudice he regularly encounters.
Bouvette, who has mixed Cree-Métis and Italian heritage and now serves as vicar for vocations and Young Adults in the Diocese of Calgary, was one of 12 individuals interviewed by Cardus for the report “Indigenous Voices of Faith.”
Prejudice against Indigenous Christians has become so strong, even inside some Indigenous communities, “that Indigenous Christians in this country right now are living in the time of new martyrdom,” Bouvette said.
Although that martyrdom may not cost them their lives, “they are ostracized and humiliated sometimes within their own communities if they openly express their Christian or Catholic faith.”
Statistics Canada reported last year that the 2021 census found that 850,000, or 47%, of Canada’s 1.8-million Indigenous people identify as Christian and that more than a quarter of the total report they are Catholic. Only 73,000, or 4%, of Indigenous people said they adhere to traditional Indigenous spiritual beliefs.
Ukrainian Catholic Deacon Andrew Bennett, program director for Cardus Faith Communities, conducted the interviews for the think tank last fall. He published his report in March at a time when Canadian mainstream media and many political leaders continued to stir division and prejudice through misleading commentary about abandoned cemeteries at Indian Residential Schools.
The purpose of the report, he writes, “is to affirm and to shed light on the religious freedom of Indigenous peoples to hold the beliefs and engage in the practices that they choose and to contextualize their faith within their own cultures.”
Too often, however, “the public narrative implies, or boldly declares, that there’s a fundamental incompatibility between Indigenous Canadians and Christianity or other faiths,” Bennett said. “[M]any Indigenous Canadians strongly disagree with those narratives.”
Father Bouvette is clearly one of those.
“We did not have Christian faith imposed upon us because of [my Indigenous grandmother’s] time in the residential school or her father’s time in the trade school that he was sent to,” Bouvette said. “No, it was because our family freely chose to receive the saving message of Jesus Christ and lived it and had continued to pass it down.”
Bouvette said his “grandmother was not tricked into becoming something that she didn’t want to be, and then tricked into staying that way for 99 years and 11 months of her life. She was a Christian from the day of her birth, and she remained a Christian until the day of her death. And so that was not by the consequence of some imposition.”
Nevertheless, Canadians continue to labor under a prejudice holding the opposite view. “I do believe that probably the majority of Canadians at this time, out of some mistaken notion of guilt for whatever their cultural or ethnic background is, think they are somehow responsible for Indigenous people having had something thrust upon them that they didn’t want,” Bouvette said.
“But I would say, give us a little more credit than that and assume that if there is an Indigenous person who continues to persevere in the Christian faith it is because they want to, because they understand why they have chosen to in the first place, and they remain committed to it. We should be respectful of that.”
The executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, Christian Elia, agrees and says society should grant Indigenous Catholics the respect and personal agency that is due all Canadians.
“Firstly, I am not an Indigenous person, so I cannot speak for our Indigenous brothers and sisters, but neither can non-Indigenous secularists who choose to ignore that Indigenous people in Canada continue to self-identify as Christian, the majority of these Catholic,” Elia said in an interview with The B.C. Catholic.
He said his organization has heard from many Indigenous Catholics who are “growing weary of the ongoing assumption that somehow they have been coerced into the faith, that it is inconceivable that they wish to be Catholic. This condescending attitude must stop.”
Deacon Rennie Nahanee, who serves at St. Paul’s Indian Church in North Vancouver, was another of the 12 whom Bennett interviewed. A cradle Catholic and member of the Squamish First Nation, Deacon Nahanee said there is nothing incompatible with being both an authentic Indigenous person and a Catholic.
“I’m pretty sure we had a belief in the Creator even before the missionaries came to British Columbia,” he said. “And our feelings, our thoughts about creation, the way that we lived and carried out our everyday lives, and the way that we helped to preserve the land and the animals that we used for food, our spirituality and our culture, were similar to the spirituality of the Catholic Church.”
“I believe that’s why our people accepted it. I don’t think anybody can separate themselves from God, even though they say so.”
Interviewed later by The B.C. Catholic, Nahanee said he is not bothered by the sort of prejudice outlined by Bouvette. “People are going to say or do what they want,” he said.
(Story continues below)
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Voices of Indigenous Christianity
Bennett, program director of Cardus Faith Communities, interviewed 12 Indigenous Canadians, most of them Christian, about their religious commitments, “which often clash with the typical public presentation of Indigenous spirituality.” Here is a selection of some of their comments:
Tal James of the Penelakut First Nation in Nanaimo spoke about the relationship between Indigenous culture and his Christian faith:
“I think ... that our [Indigenous] cultures were complete, and in Jesus they’re more complete. I think that’s a big thing and a big step for a lot of us. You’re going to have a lot of non-Indigenous people look at you and question your actions based on your Aboriginal heritage. Don’t take that to heart. They’re the ignorant ones who don’t want you to flourish. Those of you who are Christians, First Nations Christians, you come to the table with the same gifting that non-Aboriginal people have. For them to say, ‘We want to make room for you at the table,’ correct them. You are already at the table, and encourage them to step back and allow your gifts to flourish. Because it’s one in the same spirit.”
Rose-Alma McDonald, a Mohawk from Akwesasne, which borders New York, Ontario, and Quebec, talked about re-embracing her Catholic faith:
“I surprised everybody, including myself, in terms of embracing Catholicism after 20 years away. So I’ve had a few epiphanies in the sense that this is why my mother made me do so much in the church growing up. When I’m working, volunteering, and doing stuff in the church, I remember that. I keep remembering I’m Catholic and I’m still Catholic. I will stay Catholic because of the way I was raised.”
Jeff Decontie, a Mohawk from the Algonquin First Nations who lives in Ottawa, talked about being a person of faith in a secular world:
“Secular worldviews can sort of eat up everything around them and accept a whole wide range of beliefs at the same time. For example, you have the prevailing scientific thinking alongside New Age believers, and people in society just accept this, saying, ‘Oh, whatever it is you believe in, all religions lead to the same thing.’ No one questions it. How can these contradictions coexist? ... Then we ask an [Indigenous] elder to lead prayer? Any other religion would be a no-no, but you can ask for an elder who’s going to pray a generic prayer to some generic Creator, and it’s not going to ruffle any feathers. I think that’s the danger of secular thought creeping into Canada: It goes unnoticed, it’s perceived as neutral, but at the same time it’s welcoming a whole wide range of beliefs. And it doesn’t just influence Indigenous thought. It’s influencing Christianity.”
Rosella Kinoshameg, a member of the Wikwemikong Reserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, spoke about being Indigenous and Catholic:
“Well, I can’t change being Indigenous. That’s something that is me. I can’t change that. But to believe in the things that I was taught, the traditional things, the way of life and the meanings of these things, and then in a church, well, those things help one another and they make me feel stronger.”