OTTAWA – Canada's Catholic bishops offered prayers and encouragement prior to the meeting Jan. 11 between First Nations leaders and the prime minister amid signs of growing polarization.
"We hope your meeting and any eventual process will find support from all Canadians and political leaders, as well as from the members and leadership of indigenous communities," wrote the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith's Jan. 10 open letter was addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo.
"This is an important moment for building on the goodwill and efforts of the past, in order that our country can work together in finding constructive ways to resolve the major underlying issues."
The letter comes as sporadic Idle No More protests, demonstrations and blockades of rail lines have occurred in locations across Canada and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence continued her hunger strike in a tepee on Victoria Island upstream from the Parliament Buildings.
In his letter, Smith said, "Current concerns about education, housing, safe drinking water, access to health care, and land settlements, while critical and pressing to the First Nations, are symptomatic of deeper economic, political and social questions among all indigenous people.
"The daily sporadic demonstrations taking place across our country by members of the First Nations are a sign not only of how opportune your meeting is, but also encouraging evidence of renewed determination among indigenous people to be a major part of the solutions to their challenges and frustrations."
The letter lays out the Canadian bishops' ongoing support for "protecting and ensuring the rights and responsibilities of First Nations, Inuit and Metis."
"It is of fundamental importance that indigenous people and their leaders remain engaged as active and responsible agents of their own cultural, economic and social development," he said.
The letter outlines those areas that need work "especially in the areas of self-determination and of authentic, social, economic and constitutional development."
It also points to positive accomplishments of recent years, such as Harper's apology for Indian residential schools and for the January 2012 Crown-First Nations gathering.
Smith said the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha last October as the first North American indigenous saint is a sign that this is a special moment for Canada and the Church in renewing and deepening their relationships with indigenous people.
"May her example, as 'protectress of Canada,' who lived at a time of tension and misunderstanding, help inspire and encourage respect, dialogue and patience in your Jan. 11 meeting, so it may bear fruit in real hope for the future," he said.