Hello Everyone. I am Sister Rita Bisson, a member of the Sisters of the Presentation, and want to share one of my experiences while ministering with the indigenous people in the Battlefords area. I came in the area in 1991 to minister with Sr. Raymonde Arcand with the people of Moosomin, Saulteault, Sweetgrass, Poundmaker and Little Pine First Nations. A few years later Red Pheasant First Nation was added. Through the leadership of Sr. Raymonde and the training from the Tehkakwetha group from the States, we realized very quickly that we needed to get to know the people….create relationships. We really wanted to learn more from the First Nations’ people and so we started visiting the people in their homes, going to events happening on their territory, participate in ceremonies and gatherings of all sorts. Through all of this we got to know and became friends with many people and these relationships endure…
I still have many friends but I will choose one family and talk a little about our enduring relationship….. We got to know the Baptiste family through visits, sacrament preparation of the children, funerals of their loved ones, Sunday Mass and seeing them all at Christmas Eve Mass. One beautiful memory I have was being invite to Tina and Gerald’s place after midnight Mass. They had prepared a full Christmas meal for everybody. I don’t know how many were there…. But, the young parents whom we had prepared for the sacraments earlier on, now had children. They would bring their children to us to introduce them and for giving us a chance to hold them. It was so thoughtful! At Sr. Raymonde’s prayers in North Battleford, Tina Whitford(Baptiste) invited her brother Edgar to sing the farewell song with the drums. I had asked her if she could do that. A drum group came from Red Pheasant First Nations and Edgar explained the significance of the farewell song and talked about our relationship with their family. It was very touching. A few weeks after Sr. Raymonde died, I got a phone call from Alvena Baptiste inviting me to go berry picking. It was a way of helping me grieving the loss of my best friend. A couple of weeks later, Tina phoned and said she was picking me up to go berry picking again in Marshall. After the picking, she brought us to Lloydminster for supper. She paid for both the berries and the meal. Wow. That was good support.
And the picture I shared at the top of this write-up is the baptism of Quinn, Falynn Baptiste and Brendan Chartier. They asked me to sing so I used the 3 languages that are now part of their family heritage: Cree, French and English. Falynn, Alvena’s daughter is somewhat my daughter also. Quinn calls me Kohkum(cree for grandmother) and mémère(French for grandmother). It was such an honor. Because of COVID I haven’t been able to visit them in Saskatoon, but as soon as I can, I will because Quinn is growing fast. They send pictures of milestones like first tooth, eating chilli with her hands while decorating her face, chewing on a branch at a culture camp……
Yes relationships endure and they are God’s gift to us. So, build relationships!
A Light to the Nations
Ever since I was a child I have always been drawn to people of different cultural backgrounds. When I first felt the call to Religious Life at the Easter Vigil, it was through the Sacred Fire of the Pascal Candle that I heard God calling me to be a “light to all nations” (Is 42/Is 49) through a spousal relationship with Christ. 25 years later I see how I have been led to the fire of the First Nations people, and ultimately receiving and being light to ALL nations through this inter-cultural experience. This ministry has made my consecration come alive, expressed through Micah 6:8 which is the foundation of our ministry and at the heart of religious vows, “To act justly (poverty), to love tenderly (chastity), to walk humbly with your God (obedience).” One of the aspects that attracted me to this Congregation was that it was international, as I felt drawn to missionary life. It’s interesting when I look at it now, I didn’t have to travel very far to experience “mission,” that inter-cultural relationships can happen in your own backyard!
The following are the ways that I live out my vocation as a Sister of the Presentation of Mary, making Jesus Christ known and loved to those that I am called to journey with:
- Aboriginal Non Aboriginal Relations Community (ANARC)
I am the facilitator for ANARC in the Archdiocese of Regina. Our vision is relationships. Our mission is to help facilitate good relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples…to journey together inter-culturally, rooted in truth, justice, love and humility. As we get to know one another we build relationships, share stories of pain and struggle, of strength and hope, to heal, reconcile, and find a way forward together.
In order for a community to be vibrant and alive, relationships have to be strong. It has become clear that in order for reconciliation and right relationships to happen between peoples, both groups need to come together to learn from one another and get to know each other. We often underestimate the value of “presence” but it really makes a difference in peoples’ lives when we can just “be” together. One of the core events that this is happening is our monthly potluck and sharing circle, where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people come together in an ecumenical spirit. This monthly gathering has been one of the best ways to build bridges as community is forming among the people.
- Truth and Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples
We are in a period of history in Canada where relations with Indigenous people has become a priority. Within the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report there are specific Calls to Action addressed to the churches. In response, one of the initiatives coming from the Archdiocese has been the creation of an ‘Archdiocesan Commission for Truth and Reconciliation’ (ACTR), that I help facilitate, made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who have met to listen to one another, build relationships and discern together what steps and initiatives the Archdiocese can take in responding to the TRC Calls to Action.
Through a series of gatherings where we listened to one another, we heard the range of concerns that must be our foundation including support for and engagement with Indigenous spirituality, culture and language; education about Indigenous Peoples, their history on this land (including the impact of colonization and Indian Residential Schools), and Treaties; dialogue and relationship building; working together for justice for and with Indigenous Peoples.
We learned that all engagement responding to the TRC and the pastoral needs of Indigenous people needs to flow from relationship with them, including the survivors of residential schools, intergenerational survivors, and all who have been affected by the legacy of colonialism. The saying ‘nothing about us without us’ is shaping our path forward.
We identified 4 circles of activity and engagement wherein we can strive to strengthen relations, respond to the TRC Calls to Action, and engage pastorally with our Indigenous brothers and sisters: 1) in schools and academic institutions; 2) in parishes; 3) through formation for those in leadership (priests, seminarians, diaconal candidates, in lay formation; and 4) working with ecumenical and interfaith partners and other agencies in the wider community in the pursuit of justice for Indigenous Peoples.
While there have been many wonderful initiatives happening in each of these circles I’d like to highlight “Formation for those in leadership”. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #60 encourages churches to educate clergy about Indigenous spirituality, the history and legacy of residential schools, and our shared responsibility to build respectful connections with Indigenous families and communities. Engaging with that Call to Action was the inspiration for the decision to set up a program in August of 2018, for those in leadership or en route to a leadership role in the church, as well as it being the focus for the Clergy Study Days in October.
8 of our seminarians, along with a few priests ministering on some of the reserves, sisters, deacons and laypeople, spent 15 days over a 3-week period connecting with and learning from Indigenous Elders and leaders. Archbishop Don Bolen and myself, collaborated with Indigenous Elders and leaders to plan and organize the program. With the additional involvement of 20+ Indigenous community members as well as Non-Indigenous leaders and friends, the team put together activities and opportunities for friendship and connection, focusing on “education, experiences, and encounters”.
In October of 2018 the Clergy Study Days had the theme: “Walking Together on the Path of Truth & Reconciliation: Engaging in Indigenous Relations.” Educational and interactive experiences came in the form of a Treaty Presentation; sharing the story of the Winter Count Buffalo Robe; and the Blanket Exercise. The clergy experienced a celebration of song and dance as the Bellegarde family did Pow Wow demonstrations with teachings on the different dances and drum songs. An ecumenical study day helped develop skills for engaging parishes/congregations in intercultural learning and the pursuit of justice. These different educational and cultural experiences are examples of what could possibly be offered in our parish communities.
- Other Archdiocesan Initiatives:
Working Group on Indigenous Spirituality Text (WGIST)
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) is working on a resource on Indigenous spirituality, in part responding to the TRC Calls to Action and to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The goal is to provide bishops and potentially Catholic parishes across the country with a better understanding of Indigenous spirituality. The resource is being prepared in consultation with Indigenous elders with the help of Indigenous researchers and writers. One section of the resource is being drafted here in Regina and I am grateful to be a part of this team along with our Archbishop Don Bolen and some of our Indigenous colleagues. The section that we are drafting involves themes in Indigenous spirituality, languages, spiritual connections to the land and all creation through creation stories, traditions, ceremonies, and teachings, as they are found in different parts of the country and among different Indigenous Peoples (First Nations, Metis, Inuit).
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has initiated Diocesan/Regional Listening Circles with Indigenous Communities, where Bishops, and church representatives listen deeply to Indigenous Elders, Knowledge Keepers and other members of the Indigenous community. These listening circles are focused on the theme of healing, within Indigenous communities, the Church, in society, and how might the Church and Indigenous communities envision walking together towards the future. The Archdiocese of Regina had their Listening Circle on March 12th 2020, when the Papal Nuncio of Canada, Luigi Bonazzi, was visiting the Archdiocese. We wanted him to be a part of this circle to hear the voices of Indigenous people, and experience healing and reconciliation. Our PM community had the joy of hosting this event in our home!