Archdiocese of Vancouver deacon reflects on Church, First Nations collaboration

Deacon Rennie Nahanee (left), recently retired from the Archdiocese of Vanccouver’s First Nations Ministry office. Despite recent progress on First Nations and Church reconciliation, there is still a lot to do, he says. (CCN File Photo by Kyle Greenham, Grandin Media)

By Agnieszka Ruck, The BC Catholic

[VANCOUVER – Canadian Catholic News] – For nearly 11 years, Deacon Rennie Nahanee has experienced extreme highs and lows as the coordinator of First Nations Ministry for the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

He has marched down the streets of Vancouver in a flood of tens of thousands of people playing drums and showing their support for reconciliation efforts.

He has cheered on Indigenous singers and dancers performing at their best as part of Canada 150 celebrations.

And he has quietly sat and listened to the stories of many Aboriginal people who have been abused, neglected, and shamed.

Deacon Nahanee, of the Squamish First Nation, retired from his post as coordinator of the archdiocese’s one-man First Nations Ministry Office this summer, but will continue leading the ministry on a contract basis, focusing on Listening Circles and KAIROS Blanket Exercises. He will also remain an active member of the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Council of the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

He says one of the most important aspects of the job has been collaboration.

“As individuals, we can only do so much. When you can only do so much, you find other people that can do more and are better at it” and work with them.

Since he took the position in 2009, his involvement with various groups and organizations has led to some powerful encounters. Among them are serving on the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as the Urban Indigenous Peoples Advisory Committee for the City of Vancouver.

When plans for Canada’s 150th birthday began to form, the City of Vancouver advisory group was made of about 16 people, and some younger Indigenous people said they wanted nothing to do with the celebration, he said.

“But others, including me, with calmer heads, thought we should celebrate Indigenous history as it is today, who we are as Canadian Indigenous people,” he said. “We advised the City of Vancouver that we should go ahead with the 150 year celebration, but call it 150+ because native people have been in Canada for longer than 150 years.”

Thanks to their teamwork, the city saw a “nine-day extravaganza of the best of the best Indigenous artists, models, poets, singers, dancers, entertainers, near the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. I was very proud and happy to be part of the group at that time. It was really something special.”

Deacon Rennie Nahanee participating in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2011. (BC Catholic file photo – CCN)

Deacon Nahanee also supported the Walk for Reconciliation, a dream in the mind of Chief Robert Joseph, a hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation in the Queen Charlotte Strait and a special adviser to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The dream became a reality in 2013 as 70,000 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people marched through downtown Vancouver to show their desire to work toward reconciliation.

But Deacon Nahanee’s involvement began long before the march, when Chief Joseph’s Reconciliation Canada was a fledgling organization that few people had heard about.

“I met with different denominations of churches for two years before the event would take place,” he said, seeking their support in the form of participation and donations.

By the time 2013 came around, “Depending on who you talked to, there were 60,000 to 70,000 people that walked in the pouring rain, including me and my wife Emma, on that day.”

He recalls being inspired as Bernice King, daughter of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., spoke at start of the walk.

Connections like those will move reconciliation between First Nations peoples and the Catholic church forward, he said.

But connections on an institutional level are not enough. At Truth and Reconciliation events in Vancouver and other gatherings across Canada, Deacon Nahanee met people one-on-one or in small groups and listened to their heartbreaking pasts.

“I was asked to meet with somebody who was abused as a child. He wanted to tell his story to two people: myself, and one of the sisters there,” he said.

“He was abused as a child and beaten. Move ahead 50 or 60 years, he goes down to the United States, he marries, and he hears about Indigenous people suing the government of Canada and the churches and comes to find a lawyer.”

The man located his abuser and sent his lawyer to visit him with a written testimony of the abuses he faced. The abuser, without looking at the document, said he agreed with everything that was written.

“He said: ‘I just want to talk to the person who I abused as a child and I want to ask for forgiveness,’” said Deacon Nahanee. “They did get on the phone together and the Indigenous man abused as a child forgave him. You can imagine the relief that came for both of them. The man who was an abuser, he died not too long after that. The man who was abused as a child broke the chains from a long time ago.”

The stories don’t always have such inspiring endings. Deacon Nahanee remembers horrific accounts of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse that made him uncomfortable wearing a cross around his neck.

“I was shocked at hearing those things! I’m part of a church that did some of those things to my own people? It was very difficult for me to be there. But at the same time, it was a learning thing for me.”

Gerry Kelly, an adviser for various national reconciliation efforts, attended seven of nine small groups with Deacon Nahanee as part of a Canadian bishops initiative to host listening circles across Canada.

On each visit, from Edmonton to Le Pas to Halifax to Northern Ontario, Kelly and Deacon Nahanee would spend a day or two meeting the local bishop and then sitting down with groups of 10 to 20 Indigenous people from the Catholic community. A report for the bishops conference was made after each listening circle.

“Rennie was very present and he was able, in a really wonderful way, to be a compassionate presence and an attentive listener,” recalls Kelly. “What I found particularly inspiring is he never shied away from where the pain was, yet never lost sight of grace in the midst of that.”

“He could name the grace moments without denying, without minimizing, the pain. He had an ability to be very present … and to value both his Catholic spiritual tradition and to value what was coming alive for him again, it seemed, in his own Indigenous traditions.”

Kelly also worked alongside Deacon Nahanee on initiatives such as the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle and sessions at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Being indigenous, being Catholic, he could experience both the pain and the grace in a very real and compassionate way.”

Sr. Priscilla Solomon, CSJ, coordinates the Faith and Justice Office for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario and has worked alongside Deacon Nahanee in various advisory groups in the past. She has seen “big improvement” in Church collaboration with First Nations in the last few decades.

“In pre-Vatican times it was essentially a ministry of non-Indigenous persons working and often living in Indigenous communities, ministering to the Indigenous people,” she said. “There’s always been some level of Church collaboration, but it’s been much more conscious and more inclusive since Vatican II, and even recently in the past 15 years.”

Some of it she attributes to a shift in understanding.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, “the sense was that the Catholic Church brought the faith, they brought the truth, and the whole truth, and everything else or everybody else was pagan. That understanding has shifted and the Catholic Church has moved in its position to recognize that a person’s faith can only be expressed through their own cultural reality, and they are the ones who need to receive the word of God and bring it into their daily life. It can be offered to them, but no one can impose it on them.”

She describes that concept, and the work she and Deacon Nahanee have been doing for years, as “inculturation of faith,” or “being able to live the Gospel message from within our culture.”

She said Deacon Nahanee, whose identity is firmly rooted in his First Nations heritage and his Catholic faith, has been a positive contribution to the movement.

As far as his replacement is concerned, Deacon Nahanee believes it’s less important to have someone of Indigenous descent than someone well informed and aware of Canadian history and ongoing reconciliation efforts.

There is still much to be done, he said.

“There needs to be reconciliation not just between Indigenous people and the Church, but all of Canada, because the people living in Canada need to know the history of Indigenous people. They need to know why we are in the situations we are in right now,” he said.