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The Pope in Canada: for Bishop Poisson, we must “move forward, without forgetting the past”

After John Paul II in 1984, 1987 and 2002, Pope Francis will set foot on Canadian soil, and particularly on indigenous lands, from July 24 to 30. A historic journey, a penitential pilgrimage to meet communities traumatized by decades of assimilation, acculturation and discrimination. Decryption of the president of the Canadian episcopate, Mgr Raymond Poisson.

Marine Henriot – Vatican City

At the heart of this journey, reconciliation and healing. Mgr Raymond Poisson, bishop of Saint-Jérôme-Mont-Laurier and president of the Canadian Episcopal Conference, deciphers the genesis of this papal trip and the hopes it arouses.

What do you expect from this historic visit?

The historic visit of Pope Francis to us is part of a series of gestures that we made last September as bishops, for this climate of reconciliation with our native brothers and sisters. This is a dark period in our Canadian history with residential schools and the whole question of their culture, respect for their culture, and also of course country, because it was the First Nations who first inhabited our country .

We first started working with them, with listening circles in the field. Then, as early as December 2019, I discussed with the Holy Father the possibility of a delegation to Rome and a trip on his part to the country. The trip had been requested in 2015 by the Royal Truth-Reconciliation Commission (TRC) led by the government, the Pope was then very enthusiastic. After two postponements due to the coronavirus pandemic, the indigenous delegation visited the Vatican last March. Thus, a first gesture of reconciliation became concrete, and its postponement twice only increased the interest in this delegation among our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. Which feels like, like you’ve seen April 1 at the hearingwe were more than 150 people.

It was therefore an opportunity for the Pope to hear testimonies from survivors, elders and young people. Then he took the floor and in union with us, the bishops of Canada, he apologized for the abuses that were carried out by members of the Church during this period of history.

Pope Francis receiving a delegation of indigenous peoples at the Vatican, April 1, 2022.

Pope Francis receiving a delegation of indigenous peoples at the Vatican, April 1, 2022.

The journey arrives, it is part of this approach and comes to pose an additional gesture. He comes to make gestures of reconciliation, perhaps more reconciliation than excuses, by the simple fact of being with us. On the school site, he will still meet survivors, he will celebrate large public masses, he will go to an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal gathering for the feast of Saint Anne, which is important for everyone, an emblematic character for natives. These are therefore concrete gestures of reconciliation, which we hope will later lead to the realization of projects, at home, with them.

Indeed, we set aside a fund of 30 million Canadian dollars for projects of mutual knowledge, of their culture, their spirituality, their history, because it is the whole of Canadian society which is a little bit removed from the reality of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and vice versa. We can’t say that we know each other very well. There is work to be done, the visit of the Holy Father will help us.

It should be noted that the visit of Pope Francis, precisely to indigenous lands, has an important symbolism for the communities?

Yes. Indigenous people are very attached to the territories. Perhaps we Westerners have a conception of property and territory that is limited to our house. For them, on the other hand, it is a collective, community space, a territory very close to nature. While the Pope comes to tread this ground with his feet, to tell them “I am with you, I love you, and we all regret together what happened“, Its very important.

In addition, we have chosen several signs or symbols on the occasion of the meetings or even the two public masses, where there will be gestures of Christian spirituality, but I would say with the color or the indigenous flavor, in particular through the dances , music… All these are gestures of reconciliation.

How would you describe the current relationship between the Church and the various Aboriginal communities in Canada?

In Canada, there are more than 600 aboriginal communities, more than sixty nations among the First Nations, there are also the Métis who are organized in a national association, then there are also the Inuit. Not everyone has the same culture, the same language, everyone is different. For the organization of the trip, we contact the three national organizations, which therefore bring together the First Nations, the Métis and the Inuit, so that they can take part in the event.

Each bishop in his diocese has ties with the community that is resident in his territory. For example, in Western Canada, Aboriginal communities are much more concentrated than in the East. It should therefore be noted that there are differences in relations depending on the location. But, in general, in the communities, the reception is rather enthusiastic and positive. Everyone is looking forward to this event. Not everyone will participate, it’s impossible, but everyone is interested.

At the level of national organizations, there are other issues. In a crisis like the one experienced in Canada, the federal government is also involved, with government policy. We are therefore working hand in hand with the government to carry out these gestures of reconciliation. We are in a pedagogy which is ours, which cannot be that of the government, which is that of the Church and consists in being close to people at the local and community level. We have never been absent from the life of the reserve communities, we have priests and missionaries on site, who are present and continue to be present, but in a different way, we make more room for their culture, their spirituality and we dare to recognize this history.

When they came to the Vatican in the spring, the Assembly of First Nations presented the Pope with a piece of a traditional child’s cradle. After one night, Pope Francis asked you to return this cradle to them. Could you explain to us the meaning of this gesture?

The delegation’s cradle coin came to illustrate, symbolize, the issue of children with residential schools. The Holy Father obviously received it, he was not necessarily informed of this present, and afterwards we talked about it, and he told me to give it to them. A way of saying “I will come myself to see these places, to talk to you, to hear you again“. I do not know if the cradle will be present again during the next meetings.

A delegation of Métis natives, Saint Peter's Square in Rome, March 28, 2022.

A delegation of Métis natives, Saint Peter’s Square in Rome, March 28, 2022.

Indigenous people remain discriminated against in Canadian society, what difference can the Pope’s visit make from this point of view?

We indeed hope that this visit will be another step, which will help us to turn a page. The page had been written from the start by the deposition of the Truth-Reconciliation Commission, which demanded an apology and a visit from the Pope. It will have been done, so we can move on. Without forgetting what happened yesterday, without forgetting the importance of an apology. We must make concrete gestures of reconciliation and therefore make way for life, life for today and tomorrow, hence our reserve fund for projects. I think that the Pope’s visit will allow us to turn the page of a book that we don’t close, that we don’t forget, and to write a new page with new projects. We will have to think of another discourse, which is that of the future. In this sense, the Church is a service to Canadian society, because all of Canadian society needs to be reconciled.

What do you think is the responsibility of the Church today in the way its members in the past were able to cooperate in the application of the Indian Act of 1876?

I cannot think that the Church has been involved in the application of these laws. On the other hand, we were involved in the daily management of the boarding schools. The system was governmental and federal. During the laws on the Indians such as those on the management of territories and reserves, the Church was present in the sense that it is at the side of the natives. But it is not responsible for these laws, it is not responsible for them. That’s another matter. However, we hope that our gestures of reconciliation will lead the government to consider, for example, access to drinking water and education for the Aboriginal populations. It is a path that we undertake together, according to our particular responsibilities.


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