VATICAN CITY – After decades of resentment and horror over the abuse of indigenous children, the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha marked a further step toward the reconciliation of the indigenous communities and the Catholic Church.
Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, told Canadian Church and government officials the canonization "makes it possible, very much possible, to bring our community – the First Nations – very much closer with the Catholic Church. There was a rupture for too long."
Fontaine headed a 2009 Canadian aboriginal delegation to the Vatican, which received a formal apology from the Church for the treatment of native children in Canadian residential schools.
An estimated 100,000 aboriginal children passed through the schools, which were abolished in the 1990s. They were established and paid for by the Canadian government, but were administered by various Church organizations, including Catholic dioceses and religious orders.
The schools became known for widespread abuse of children and have been blamed for contributing to the disappearance of native languages and cultures.
Fontaine spoke at a reception after the canonization and Mass Oct. 21, addressing Canadian bishops, other First Nations leaders and a government delegation.
Anne Leahy, Canadian ambassador to the Holy See, said the government delegation was a sign of just how much importance it has given to the canonization of St. Kateri, the first aboriginal saint.
Fontaine said St. Kateri's canonization "makes it possible to share our daughter with the universal Church."
"If you link the two events" – the 2009 meeting and the canonization – "it is all about imparting reconciliation," he said.
The canonization, he said, "is an opportunity for us to say, 'We accept your apology, we forgive, and so now let us begin taking the important steps of healing and reconciliation."
Elaine Johnson, a nurse and member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in northeastern Saskatchewan, said she came to Rome for the celebration because St. Kateri "is our first First Nations saint.
"We need to empower ourselves and she's our role model for being prayerful, humble and giving. As a First Nations person, I just wanted to be present."
"Christianity does not take away our identity," she said. "I was born and raised a First Nations person and a Catholic, which empowers you because your ultimate goal is heaven. The Church strengthens you."
Tobasonakwut Kinew, an Ojibway elder and university lecturer, came from Winnipeg for the canonization.
A survivor of abuse at a residential school, he was part of the First Nations delegation that met the pope in 2009.
He told CNS, "I was sitting in a hotel in Thunder Bay in 1970 and was asking, praying, begging to be freed from alcohol and that's the last time I took a drink.
"I grew up praying to Kateri, and I used to think prayers were never answered, but here I am today."
Asked to write out his name for a reporter, Kinew did so, saying, "That's one thing I did learn at the residential school."