Indigenous priest believes reconciliation is possible

When he thinks about reconciliation, Christino Bouvette often thinks of his grandmother: her strength, her empathy and her ability to forgive.

He is a Catholic priest; his “kokum”, Amelia Mae Bouvett, is a survivor of federal Indian boarding schools. “There was a deep faith in her,” recalls Mr. Bouvette.

In recent years, the 35-year-old minister from Calgary has often been asked how he balances being an Aboriginal and a member of the Church. According to him, there has not been an internal conflict for a long time. Christianity is rooted in her grandmother, who grew up in the United Church of Canada; members of his family were even ordained ministers of this community.

Religious chants echoed through the rooms of Amelia’s farmhouse in Alberta, where young Christine ate granny’s tortillas and celebrated his Cree identity. “There was a certain harmony, I would say, in all these factors and components of my life.”

But as the young man went to seminary, he became more aware of the tragic consequences these boarding schools had for the Indians. That’s when he said to himself: “I wonder if it hurts Kokum that his grandson becomes a priest?”

An estimated 150,000 First Nations children were forced to attend federal boarding schools over the course of a century.

Amelia May Bouvett was seven years old when, in 1926, she was separated from her family in the Cree community of Saddle Lake, Alberta and forcibly taken to a federal boarding school in Edmonton run by the United Church. She will stay there until 1938, and her grandson assures that this mandatory transition was a source of indescribable pain for her.

Decades later, after raising 14 children and making a career in her community, Amelia was peeling potatoes with her grandson in her kitchen. The young man then asked her if she was offended and worried about his decision to take holy orders.

His grandmother replied that she had met good believers and good priests in her life and hoped that he would become one of them. “She’s already begun to teach me that reconciliation is possible.”

Sakokum died in 2019, a month before her 100th birthday.

The focus of the delegation, which will arrive in Rome next week, will be to find out how indigenous peoples and the Catholic Church can work together for healing and reconciliation.

Forgive the killer?

In Winnipeg, Geraldine Shinguz is not going to forgive or reconcile.

A member of the Tootinaowaziibeeng community in Manitoba, Ms. Shinguz spent nine years of her young life at a boarding school in Muscovequan, Saskatchewan. Today she says that it was then that she first truly encountered Christianity: she experienced trauma and an attack.

The boarding school opened in the 1880s and closed in 1997. For the first time, nameless graves were discovered here in the early 1990s during the construction of a water pipeline. In 2018 and 2019, at least 35 potential unmarked graves were found at the site using ground penetrating radar.

Ms. Shinguz believes that injustice in federal boarding schools has resurfaced when 215 potential graves were discovered near boarding school Kamloops, British Columbia, last year.

Then Miss Shingus wants answers. “The Catholic Church has committed a crime.” So she went to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Winnipeg and sat outside for about ten hours until she was able to get an interview with the archbishop. But this conversation was not sincere, and she did not feel heard, she said.

She does not support the initiative of the delegation to the Vatican – she suggests that this is a “colonial tactic” used by the church to divert attention from the ongoing injustices against indigenous peoples. “Would you go to someone who killed your child and ask him to apologize?”

Unnamed graves

As is the case with many Christians and Indigenous Catholics, recent discoveries of unmarked graves near former federal boarding schools have led Father Bouvette to think deeply about the church’s role and responsibility in promoting healing.

He understands how important a delegation to the Vatican is to some, but adds that the Church “cannot seem like a tick.”

Restoring those relationships and making amends also takes place in the quiet of the home in the indigenous community, he said. When he sits for hours and listens to the elders, and really hears what they are saying.

“No matter what happens in the Vatican, no matter if the Pope comes to Canada, no matter what the Pope says, there is so much work in the works that (…) we must not lose sight of,” says Mr Bouvette. We did it and it must continue.”

Father Bouvett believes that the Church must continue to work on forgiveness and understanding, even if some natives are not ready to forgive. According to him, no apologies or money can take away the pain, so reconciliation has no specific time frame.

“We can’t talk about reconciliation if forgiveness isn’t part of the discussion.”

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