Wednesday 11 December 2013

Aboriginal Justice: What Happens on the Ground?

By Edmund Lo, S.J.

On the calender of the Catholic Church, the twelfth of December is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Given her importance to all native peoples around the world, some of our Ibo contributors have decided to launch a two-part series on Aboriginal justice.

Grandmothers Guidance Centre celebration, Regina, Saskatchewan

The following is an interview with Sr. RéAnne Letourneau, PM. Sr. RéAnne belongs to the religious congregation that is the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, and has been very involved in Aboriginal ministry for a number of years. She is currently active in Regina, Saskatchewan, with the Urban Aboriginal, Non-Aboriginal Relations Ministry.

EL: What exactly does one do in urban Aboriginal ministry?

SR: First, to give a little background: our ministry began four years ago in response to a request by the Bishop that the Archdiocese reach out to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters in the city of Regina. As a team, we took time to pray and discern what the Creator’s vision was for this ministry. It became clear that it really wasn’t about what we “do” but who we “are” and how we live together united as one family.

Simply put, our vision is about relationships. Our mission is to help facilitate good relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. It is to journey together inter-culturally, to be bridge-builders, with a focus being on healing and reconciliation. In order for a ministry to be vibrant and alive, relationships have to be strong; there needs to be community. We often underestimate the ministry of “presence”, but it really makes a difference in peoples’ lives when we can just “be” together.

As we have begun to establish relationships, we have tried to be attentive to one another’s needs and desires. We enjoy gathering together to share food, stories and to pray together. This has given birth to our monthly potluck and sharing circles which have become an ecumenical project. This monthly gathering has been one of the best ways to build bridges, as community is starting to form among the people and you can feel that relationships are really developing. Sharing circles give people opportunities to talk about their struggles, difficulties and questions in relation to faith and spirituality. Sometimes instead of a sharing circle, we have an evening of music and singing; people bring instruments and the room bursts with joy-filled energy!

The main goals of our ministry are:

1. To gather: To have a gathering program that is co-administered by an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to build relationships within and between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.
2. To educate: To provide education and catechesis rooted in the medicine wheel and Sacred Scripture, fostering holistic health and growth.
3. To engage: to engage Elders from the Aboriginal and Christian communities, reclaiming our identities, and moving towards a mutual cross-cultural living directed towards integration.
4. To build up: to build community, partnerships, and liaison with other organizations and groups.
5. To tear down: to help tear down the barriers of racism and prejudice.
6. To heal: to foster healing and reconciliation within and between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

EL: Why is there a need for this kind of ministry? How is it different from Aboriginal ministry on the reserves, aside from the geographical differences?

SR: I can’t stress enough how much there is a need for this kind of ministry. Building relationships of trust and reconciliation is important: Many of the people whom we work with have lived through the painful experiences of residential schools or have been affected by it through generations. Trust is the foundation of a good relationship and this takes a lot of time. As Canadians, we cannot ignore our past of colonialism, residential schools, etc. It’s amazing how much racism and prejudice there still exists today, so part of our aim is to break down these stereotypes.

When I share with people that I work in this type of ministry, the response that I often get is: “Oh that’s good; the Aboriginal people need so much help!” Actually, my experience has been just the opposite. I find that it is I who am being helped. I have been inspired by the number of Aboriginal people who are ready for reconciliation, a new relationship with us; they teach me about generosity, simplicity, a deep spiritual life that stresses balance and harmony with all things. In the Aboriginal world there is a “ Seventh Generation Prophecy” that many of the Elders feel we are living today: it suggests that the white race will someday come to the red race for teaching and wisdom. I have certainly experienced this. I can’t tell you how often that it is I who have been “evangelized” by them.

Looking at the statistics, the 2011 Census/National Household Survey shows that the Aboriginal population in Saskatchewan is 15.6% of the total population (the second highest in Canada after Manitoba). In Regina alone, 9% of the total population is Aboriginal and this is growing at a higher rate than the general population. It is estimated that their population will be 11% (22,000) of the general population of Regina by 2017, and 32.5% by 2045. Between 2001-2006, the Aboriginal population in Regina grew seven times faster than non-Aboriginals, with an increase of 9.1% compared to 1.3%. The Aboriginal population is also much younger than the total Regina population. Almost 50% of the 0-19 age group are Aboriginals. It actually requires a lot of effort to not be involved with Aboriginal people in one way or another both now and in the future.

How is urban ministry different from the reserves? I think one of the main ways is reflected in our title “Urban Aboriginal, Non-Aboriginal Relations Ministry.”  Over the few years that we have been involved in this beautiful mission, it has become clear that in order for reconciliation and right relationships to happen between peoples, both groups need to come together to learn from one another and get to know each other. In many of the Truth and Reconciliation events that I have attended, I have heard time and time again how important that we “white” people are there! One Aboriginal Elder said: “We need you in order to heal. Thank you for listening to our stories, for just being here with us!”

Being in the city also allows us to connect with various organizations to network with them and work together. Community partnerships are developed and they really benefit everyone. Building relationships requires a lot of listening to the people and meeting them where they are at: in homes, schools, hospitals, coffee-shops, community centres and reserves. While our work is primarily in the city, our urban Aboriginal people often stay connected to the reserves where they come from or others in the surrounding area.  We often travel with them to attend different ceremonies or events.  Related to this, we also support and are in dialogue with those who are involved with the Archdiocesan Rural Aboriginal Ministry.

One other difference is that Catholic churches have been established to meet the needs of the Aboriginal Catholic population on the reserves, so there tends to be the focus on pastoral work, such as preparations for the sacraments. In the city, we have not discerned at this point that the Spirit is calling us to start an “Aboriginal parish”; what we have felt is the call to make some of our own parishes more welcoming to those Aboriginal people who would like to express their faith in a Catholic way. It is a wonderful opportunity to make our parishes more hospitable, to live the call to justice by addressing racism and ultimately experiencing the gift of inter-cultural relationships by creating new friendships with Aboriginal people.

EL: What piqued your interest in urban aboriginal ministry in the first place?

SR: Ever since I was a child, I have always been drawn to people of different cultural backgrounds. As I was discerning my vocation to consecrated life, one of the aspects that attracted me to my congregation was that it was international. I felt drawn to missionary life. As a novice, my community decided that it would be a good experience for me to live with some of our sisters on the reserves and experience life with our Aboriginal people, as it is a different culture, language, etc.

Aboriginal Culture Days, St. Michael's School, Regina
I remember the first time I heard the Aboriginal drum; it stirred something so deep within me! The “heartbeat” of the rhythm beckoned to me and helped me to journey within, to listen to my own heart and to encounter God who was calling me to follow him more deeply. It was during this time that I also experienced my first Sweat Lodge Ceremony. Sitting in the dark womb of Mother Earth, I heard a voice that said to me “I give you a native spirit”. When I look at it now, it’s interesting that I didn’t have to travel very far to experience “mission”, that inter-cultural relationships can happen in your own backyard!

EL: On a personal level, what has been the most challenging aspect of this ministry?

SR: One of the most challenging and very painful experiences for me is listening to the many stories of our terrible history of residential schools. I have wept with deep sorrow in listening to lives that were broken and families that were torn apart. But as much as it is difficult, it is an aspect of my ministry that I see as crucial. I cannot ignore or walk away from the “Crucified Christ”; my call is to stand by those who are on the cross. As well, I am daily challenged when I see the injustice, poverty and racism that exists.

Another challenge is to interest our non-Aboriginal brothers and sisters in the importance of understanding the history of Aboriginal-non-Aboriginal relations; this has brought us the challenge of relating to one another as fully participating members of this shared society of ours. This history has led to resentment, anger, stereotypes, and judgmental attitudes on all sides that interfere with our efforts to come together in friendship.

Perhaps it is because Aboriginal people are not in the majority that understanding our history with them seems irrelevant to many non-Aboriginal people. But in an increasingly intercultural society, the majority/minority division is quickly disappearing.  It may be frightening for people who have always viewed ourselves as the majority to see such a status evaporating, and to relate to a diversity of ways of seeing the world and living in a perspective that is other than our own. And yet there is not a spiritual tradition among us – unless corrupted by human weakness – that does not call us to love all people wherever they are at on their journey, and be an instrument of peace and healing. It is to make that love the basis for our society especially for those who have the least power.

EL: For the people to whom you minister, what is the significance of you being a religious sister? Conversely, how do you see this ministry as a fulfilment of your religious vocation?

SR: Being a religious sister is significant, as for so many years Aboriginal people were told by sisters and priests that their culture and spirituality were evil. They were forbidden and punished for speaking their language. I believe that one of the best ways to build bridges is by learning the language; for the people to see a Catholic sister trying to speak Cree (in my case) and attending their cultural ceremonies is huge! At a Rain Dance ceremony this summer, an Elder came up to our team and said: “I spent years in residential schools and have been on my healing journey of reconciliation for some time now. But this is the first time that I have seen the Church at one of our Rain Dance Ceremonies, and I can’t tell you enough how much I am touched and how healing this has been for me…thank you for being here!”

When I first felt the call to religious life at the Easter Vigil in 1989, I was drawn by the sacred fire of the Paschal candle and I heard God calling me to be a “light to all nations” (Is 42:6; 49:6) through a spousal relationship with Christ. Almost twenty-five years later, I see how I have been led to the fire of the Aboriginal people, and ultimately receiving and being light to all nations through this intercultural experience.  This ministry has made my consecration come alive, expressed through Micah 6:8 which is the foundation of our ministry and at the heart of  religious vows, “To act justly (poverty), to love tenderly (chastity), to walk humbly with your God (obedience).” It has also confirmed the “vocation within my vocation” that was revealed to me through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: to receive love, to be love, to give birth to love.

EL: As a Church, what have we done well in terms of our relationship with Aboriginals? What have we not done well? How can we further develop this relationship?

SR: I feel that this has been touched upon in the previous questions, but I would add this: If we understand the Church as community, then the challenge has always been and always will be exactly the challenge in which our ministry is engaging: relationships, whether that is between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people or with anyone else. Human history has always been and will always be filled with blessed and not so blessed moments, as is the history of all relationships. Love, inclusion, forgiveness, reconciliation, tolerance…all of these elements of relationship are not easy, and that goes for all communities, no matter where or among whom they exist. In some sense, the Church is a community of people who are intentionally practising the difficult art of relationship, of overcoming all the barriers that seem to rise up to interfere with humans coming close to one another.

EL: For those of us who would like to get involved in this kind of ministry with aboriginal people, what advice would you give us? What about for those of us who still don't care too much about it?

SR: Connecting with the Elders has been so important in our work, and they have stressed that we must participate in their ceremonies and cultural events to know the Aboriginal people. In doing so, not only have I come to appreciate their spirituality, it has helped my Catholic faith to grow. I feel that I walk in both worlds and it truly is a gift!  I have also been filled with joy as I have witnessed some of my non-Aboriginal friends being blessed and touched by the Spirit at different ceremonies.

To sum it up, I would simply say: “Come and see!” Come and see the Paschal Mystery unfold in the lives of the people and your own! Chances are you will see things and your own faith with new eyes, with new vision. Perhaps you will experience – as I have – new life and new freedom both spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally. We need one another to make the Sacred Circle complete!

ELAny final words?

SR: I want to share a quote from an Australian Aboriginal woman that has become a foundation for me in ministry: “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (Lilla Watson)


  1. Wow, is this really Catholic? Just substitute "Gaia" for the Creator, and you've got it all..

    Perhaps it is different in Saskatchewan, but in other parts of Canada, it is becoming a odd to talk about non-Aboriginal Canadians as "whites". Even to myself, with northern European ancestry, albeit from a variety of sources, the term seems a bit archaic, and is sometimes offensive.

    Further, as someone who has met with and talked to some who taught at residential schools, I perceive that, again, some feel maligned in that they made considerable sacrifices and were not amongst those doing bad things to Native people.

    I think the way forward is to look beyond race generally. Am I wrong?

    1. In response to your comment about race, I think that we can look beyond race when we are beyond the effects left behind by racism. If these effects have not been justly dealt with, we remain trapped in a vicious cycle. A good example is our collective scarred history with the Aboriginals of Canada, and this goes beyond merely having a higher percentage of Aboriginals in Saskatchewan.

      Furthermore, it is often not up to us to decide whether we are caught in this web of "sin history" or not. I am a Catholic, born and raised in Hong Kong. But the fact that I am a Catholic in Canada means that I am immediately associated with the residential school affairs, whether I like it or not. I have, in a sense, "inherited" it, and it is now a part of my history. We do not have full control over our identity. This highlights the damaging power of sin.

      One of the key themes from Sr. RéAnne's interview is a sense of moving on together. We can only move on if both parties are involved, and this cannot be achieved through any financial payouts or one-sided apology statements. We can only move forward in a constructive manner if we see the others as persons who are worth our time journeying with, rather than a mere issue to be taken care of.

      Given the sociological and historical data currently available to us, I personally don't think that we can turn the page yet.