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Presbyterian shares healing lesson for Aboriginal-Church relations

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Minister Mary Fontaine speaks on importance of forgiveness
By Josh Tng

“My girl, our people have suffered a lot.” Those were the words spoken to the Reverend Mary Fontaine by her father, and they’ve stayed with her long after she left the Saskatchewan home where her Cree family grew up.

Her father was speaking of the suffering Fontaine witnessed in her local community, seeing men and women endure addiction, poverty, and lack of proper medical care. “I didn’t fully understand his words (at the time) because I grew up with love,” she said. “This was in spite of all of the stuff that went on in our community, in spite of living with the Indian Agent who told our people what to do, stripping our people including my father of their dignity.”

Fontaine was speaking at a Feb. 11 workshop on the effects of colonization in Canada. About 50 gathered at the John Paul II Pastoral Centre to hear speakers share their stories.

“You should go and get an education, travel, and don’t get married for a very long time,” advised her father. He wanted Fontaine to experience the world and see life beyond the reserve, which she did.

However, as she noticed the world beyond her home, one filled with love, she noted the problems Aboriginal people experienced appeared to stem from the Indian Act, which controlled Aboriginal status, First Nations governing, and the management of reserve land and communal wealth.

“I grew angrier and I couldn’t stop being angry,” she said, upset with both the government and the churches. “I would go to church and sit in the back with the marginalized street people. I couldn’t go to the front of the room because I was so angry.”

Fontaine’s fury lasted until she realized she couldn’t continue carrying the rage. “I realized I had to do something about this anger. I started to pray to find a way to get rid of it.”

While in prayer, she recalled a memory from when she was nine years old. A family who lived across the creek from the Fontaines had recently lost their grandfather. Fontaine’s mother asked her and her brother to offer condolences to the family in the dead of night when the news had arrived.

When the children got to the grieving family’s log shack, a group of old men were sitting around a fire telling stories of the deceased and lightening the mood.

“One of the old men told us, ‘Don’t be angry, children. Don’t let anger stay in your heart. If it does, it’ll become like sickness and infect every relationship you have. You have to let go of that anger, you can’t keep it.’”

The memory of that night and the elder’s words helped pull Fontaine from the anger she held, allowing her to forgive those who committed wrongdoings against the Aboriginal Peoples.

She got over her anger by recalling that memory. “I remembered the gentle teaching of that old man sitting on the ground, telling us not to get angry.”

Today she advises anyone who holds wrath against others to not “let anger get the best of you. You have to hope and go with what the Spirit is telling you.”

Stephanie David, workshop organizer and graduate student studying social work at UBC, agreed, noting forgiveness should be the natural result of fixing ills done by the churches. A Catholic, she said, “We are the Church. When we are part of the theological body, we are also a part of what happened in the past, in the present, and what happens in the future.

“As Catholics we identify with the saints. But the Church is comprised of saints and sinners. If we are to identify with the saints, we identify with the sinners as well. We have to realize what happened in the past is something we have as a legacy to heal.”

 

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