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Catholics and the Magisterium in Dialogue

Steatement By the Bishops Of Canada

Let Justice Flow Like a Mighty River

The Church and Aboriginal Peoples


As people of the Church, we believe in a long stream of faith originating in vast and mysterious waters of the Spirit. Our Church is a community created by water and the Spirit.  We admit and regret that we have not always fully recognized the Aboriginal Peoples as our brothers and sisters, as another people of water and the Spirit. Nevertheless, we believe that we are summoned together to help make justice  flow like a mighty river. Our faith in the transforming power of water and the Spirit gives us hope for ourselves and others.


Missionary activity

 Missionaries arrived with the armies and merchants of the fur trade. Most missionaries sincerely desired to share their most precious gift their faith. They were generous, courageous, and often holy men and women. While some of  their actions may be criticized today in light of new understandings, they tried to act with love and compassion. Nevertheless, their commitment to the European expression of Christianity made it difficult for them to recognize the  spirituality of the Aboriginal Peoples.

By the middle of the 19th century, a model of Christian mission was developing which, though differing in many ways from the programme of the dominant culture, was growing in a symbiotic  relationship with the forces of nation-building and the projects of expansion and assimilation. Although not the sole instigators, missionary and educational activities contributed to the weakening of the spirit of the Aboriginal Peoples.

Residential schools

There are many stories of solidarity and genuine friendship between missionaries and Native Peoples. Yet, there are also stories of oppression and mistreatment of Native Peoples within the institutions administered by the Church. We who have shared in the blessings of the Church must also bear the burden of its past. The shocking revelations about abuse experienced at some residential schools have moved us to a profound examination of conscience as a Church.

 Several Church groups and religious congregations have made public statements acknowledging past sufferings. These have led to efforts to find avenues of healing and  reconciliation.

Justice and healing concern not only the Churches but the government, and the whole of Canadian society. The Indian residential schools were initiated by the federal government, sustained by government funds as well as Native Peoples' funds that the government administered, and supervised by government officials. Far from being clandestine, the government's policy concerning the schools was expressed repeatedly, openly, and publicly. It reflected the political and social thinking of the time, and enjoyed general public support.

The residential school system was designed to have a total impact on the habits and personality patterns of the children. As such, the system was dangerously flawed by the underlying policy which was fundamentally racist.

 Although the schools have become a symbol of the disintegration of the Native cultures, they were only part of the overall government  strategy to assimilate or integrate the Native Peoples; researchers estimate that only a minority of Native children attended residential schools.

It is imperative to confront both the individual and social causes of the profound powerlessness and marginalization of Native Peoples that has existed over several generations.


The near loss of free expression and celebration of the spirituality of the Native Peoples was the most profound loss at the heart of the more obvious losses of Native culture and land. This has been a loss for all Canadians. As our North American culture becomes consumed by materialism, we profoundly need the values found in the wise spirituality  of the original peoples.


While part of the healing process surely includes admitting victimization, the full process of liberation involves acknowledging that a human being is always more than a victim.

We believe the primary task of the Royal Commission is to take seriously the strengths of the Aboriginal Peoples, to affirm and count on them. The Commission's recommendations must not be based on seeing the Native Peoples solely as victims nor non-Aboriginal Peoples as only victimizers. We must presume on the capacity of the peoples of this country, Native and non-Native, to effect change on personal and political levels.


It is our conviction that Native Peoples can be strengthened even further by a revitalizing of Native spirituality, as well as by the enrichment of Native communities through  self-government and the just settlement of land claims.

Strengthening Native spirituality

 The resurgence of Native spirituality within Christianity is a source of great hope for all of us. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has made serious efforts to recognize various cultural expressions of Christianity.

 Native Peoples who are members of our Church live their cultural values, both religious and social, within the tradition of the Catholic faith. The Church appreciates this development of a Native Catholic spirituality and a Native expression of Catholicism. Native Christianity today is marked by the development of a theology that comes from Native prayer, culture and experience. It is a period of revitalization and renewal in which non-Native Church members have an on-going role of spiritual accompaniment.

We also recognize that for some Native Peoples, Christianity and Native spirituality are mutually exclusive. We are committed to responding to this belief in a spirit of dialogue and respect.

Strengthening the life of Native communities

 Churches' involvement in action for justice for Aboriginal Peoples

Since 1975, the ecumenical coalitions, Project North and its successor, the Aboriginal Rights Coalition, have assisted eight major Christian Churches in building support and solidarity with Native organizations around a variety of issues.

 Over the same period, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has undertaken several projects. They include: the 1975 Labour Day statement, Northern Development: At What Cost?; participation in the Berger Commission hearings in the mid-70's; A Cry for Justice From the North, a week in 1981 of solidarity events and activities in 30 cities; letters in 1981 and 1987 to the Prime Minister on constitutional issues; a major teaching text in 1992, Towards a New Evangelization; and support in various specific situations including Lubicon land claims, low-level test flights and bombing  practices in Labrador, the Oka crisis, and post-secondary education funding for Native students.

Our efforts are guided by the 1971 International Synod of Bishops on Justice in the World. In this Synod, Pope John Paul II and the Catholic bishops of the world placed priority on action for justice and participation in the transformation of the world as a constitutive dimension of preaching the Gospel. This theological theme provides the basis for various papal and episcopal statements in solidarity with Aboriginal Peoples, our own as well as those of the Latin American bishops.

Working together, Canadian Churches have supported the Aboriginal Peoples in their struggle for constitutional rights. This has included action around the First Ministers' conferences in 1983, 1984, and 1985.

During the Meech Lake debate in 1987, the Churches urged the recognition and guarantee of the rights of Aboriginal  Peoples to be distinct people, to have an adequate land base, and to have the right to self-determination.


These basic dimensions of Aboriginal rights need to be recognized through the recognition and  implementation of Aboriginal self-government in Canada. The great diversity among the Aboriginal Peoples and groups in Canada, and the rights of Native women and children, must also be recognized and respected in the negotiations.

  The failure of the Charlottetown Accord cannot and should not mean the end of the Aboriginal dream of self-government. We anticipate that in the exploration of this new path there will be disagreements and confusion, but to  live in fear of mistakes and to refuse to explore a new way is to remain trapped by the mistakes of the past.

Self-government must be accompanied by strategies for social and economic renewal both within Aboriginal communities  and the rest of society. We hope Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities will establish equal partnerships in order to identify regional objectives of common interest and benefit to all.


Our desire is to chart a new course with the Aboriginal Peoples of this country. We know it is not enough to talk about justice. There must be people who love justice, and strive for it  with all their hearts. It is not enough to talk about equality; there must be people who value the dignity of others as a matter of course. It is not enough to talk about respect; there must be people who are willing to guarantee the rights of others through daily acts of decency.

The CCCB makes eleven commitments concerning education, social and economic justice, residential schools, Aboriginal spirituality, Native leadership, self-government and land  claims. We also set out seven recommendations to the Commission on public education, racism, employment equity, residential schools, land claims and post-secondary education


To our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, we say that we want to continue to journey with you.

To the non-Native members of the Catholic community, we say that our commitment to our Native brothers and sister is a  commitment to a better future for all of us.

To our missionaries of the past and present, we say that we are now embarking on a new voyage of spiritual discovery which will summon forth what has been best courage, imagination and  holiness.

To the representatives of all levels of government, we say that this is the hour of opportunity for you.

To all our fellow citizens, we say that the struggle together with Aboriginal Peoples is also a struggle for the heart and soul of our nation.

The desire for justice flows like a mighty river deep within us and among us. It may be diverted, it may ebb and flow, it may even appear to run dry at times. However, for People of the Spirit, this  river of justice moves us always as a memory and hope.

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