Joe Gunn


April 18, 2016

Where do the churches find themselves in the journey towards reconciliation with indigenous peoples?

In an Ottawa sanctuary at the end of March, Susan Johnson, national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, described our current status in vivid terms.

She asked us to imagine ourselves at the starting line of the Boston Marathon. At the front, elite runners are anxious to be off. But behind these are tens of thousands of others who are so far back that they won't even hear the starter's pistol.

We will run the same route, while at different speeds, and with different experiences, but with the same goal of completing the course.

This long road to reconciliation took a crucial step forward, in keeping with Call to Action 48 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The TRC asked all religious denominations and faith groups to issue a statement, no later than March 31, outlining how we would implement the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

At Citizens for Public Justice, we initiated a study of all program areas, with a view to discerning how our work might more fully resonate with the recommendations of the TRC, in the framework of the UNDRIP.

Many faith communities released statements. The Catholic bishops (in tandem with the Canadian Religious Conference, Development and Peace and the Catholic Aboriginal Council) drafted and issued two important documents, on adopting and implementing the UNDRIP, and on responding to "the errors and falsehoods perpetuated, often by Christians" concerning the doctrine of discovery and Terra Nullius.

These statements include eight future commitments worthy of our study and action.

It was encouraging to see Bishop Don Bolen of Saskatoon, Archbishops Murray Chatlain of Keewatin-Le Pas and Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan (among others) deepen the Catholic conversation at the highest leadership level.

Yet several immediate challenges need to be faced on this marathon enterprise.

Statements, of course, ring true when the reflection is grounded in community members' work together. They seem less authentic if there is little echo among the community, or if injunctions toward change are not translated into new institutional action.


So the first challenge is to operationalize the commitments made. The four groups convened by the bishops to sign the Catholic statement have yet to give an indication of their intention to complete the marathon.

While some in Church leadership are beyond the starting line, can anyone doubt that many Canadian faith communities lag far behind? Will programs for parish education and action towards reconciliation be prepared and used? Will homilists be trained and new theological language and prayers adopted?

The second challenge for faith communities is to embrace structural change. Respecting the UNDRIP shifts the framework from the majority providing charity, to Indigenous peoples exercising their rights. This heralds a new relationship, requiring a shift of power and resources.

Will indigenous members of our faith communities play new roles to ensure the eight stated commitments come to fruition? Where will Church structures be reformed to provide real space for indigenous leadership?

Allowing Lutherans to live into reconciliation, Bishop Johnson expressed gratitude for (and even dependency on) partnerships. While their most important partnership is with indigenous people, she also highlighted partnerships with other churches and faith-based groups.


Starting with Project North in 1975, the Aboriginal Rights Coalition in 1989 (which I once chaired as an employee of the CCCB) and now KAIROS, Canadian Christians have a 40-year history of faith-based action in solidarity with indigenous people.

(I am proud to say that my life partner, Suzanne Doerge, originally helped KAIROS conceive their Blanket Exercise educational tool. It has been used thousands of times since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released its report in 1996.)

How sad it was then, that no Catholic bishop was present in that Ottawa church at the end of March where the most senior Protestant faith leaders in Canada spoke about their Churches' commitments to reconciliation. Not only the press, but several indigenous people, asked why their Catholic Church was absent.

The CCCB is hosting a teleconference in April with leaders of Development and Peace and religious congregations active in KAIROS. One hopes the bishops embrace the grace-filled opportunity to run the social justice marathon well, alongside our ecumenical partners.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)