National Council of Reconciliation seen as a positive step forward

National TRC Commissioners Senator Murray Sinclair, Dr. Marie Wilson, and Chief Wilton Littlechild (l-r) during the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission event held in Saskatoon in June 2012. Chief Littlechild is a member of a recently-announced Indigenous-led transitional committee that the federal government has tasked with setting up a National Council for Reconciliation. (File photo by Kiply Lukan Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News)

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[TORONTO – Canadian Catholic News] – Canadian bishops and religious orders are cheering a new, Indigenous-led transitional committee that will push Ottawa a little closer to answering the 94 Calls to Action from the 2015 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

A recently-announced transitional committee made up of half-a-dozen Indigenous leaders, including former TRC Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild, is tasked with setting up a board of directors for a new National Council for Reconciliation.

The TRC called on Canada’s Parliament to create the council in Call to Action 53. It would be a way of holding the federal government accountable for its commitment to reconciliation and for the promises made in the 2008 government apology for the residential schools.

Though the planned new national council is formally limited to government-Indigenous relations, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) hopes that it can “work with the council in the years ahead to support a more hopeful future for Indigenous peoples,” said CCCB spokesperson Jonathan Lesarge in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

Call to Action 46 opens up a path for the Church to engage with the National Council for Reconciliation under its call for a “Covenant of Reconciliation,” which is to be signed by all the parties to the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). Should the new national council take charge of crafting and supervising a Covenant of Reconciliation, the 48 Catholic religious orders and dioceses that were part of the IRSSA could sign on and be held accountable for their reconciliation efforts in annual reports to Parliament.

“We continue to work collaboratively with all dioceses across the country in fulfilling the bishops’ shared commitment to healing and reconciliation, including through initiatives that are national in scale, such as the collective apology that was issued (by the bishops) in September,” Lesarge said.

Deacon Rennie Nahanee of Squamish, B.C., has some doubts about official, bureaucratic efforts at reconciliation.

“The feds know nothing about reconciliation, but the Church does, between God and man,” said Nahanee.

The reconciliation Nahanee hopes for involves restoration of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality. Sunday Masses, funerals, weddings, baptisms and other liturgies in Indigenous languages, as well as churches that honour Indigenous culture in their architecture and decoration, are steps toward reconciliation dear to Nahanee’s heart.

“A reconciliation government committee, made up by and run by federal and native politicians, will not work,” he said.

Nahanee has organized Masses celebrated in his own Squamish language that fold West Coast Indigenous symbols and imagery into the liturgy. While that represents progress, the deacon and elder is not letting the Church off the hook with a few liturgical concessions.

“The Church followed orders from the feds and as such are responsible for our trauma, for the way they carried out the government mandates to take the Indian out of the child,” he said.

The Jesuits, who ran a residential school in Spanish, ON, from 1913 to 1965, see opportunity for movement on reconciliation once the National Council for Reconciliation is established.

“I hope the National Council for Reconciliation, once it is formed, will introduce some level of co-ordination, collaboration and accountability for reconciliation work by the federal government,” said Fr. Peter Bisson, who heads up reconciliation work for the Jesuit Fathers in Canada. “I further hope that the council could have a similar impact on the reconciliation efforts of other groups, like the churches, even if this would be outside the formal scope of the council.”

Both the Church and government need to be led by Indigenous people on the path to reconciliation, said Bisson.

“Indigenous people are the ones that we need to be accountable to,” he said.

“The National Council for Reconciliation will be an important tool for Indigenous peoples to hold the government accountable to achieving meaningful change for our peoples,” transitional committee member Chief Wilton Littlechild said in a release.