Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Visit 1987

Address to Indigenous Peoples

May Canada be a model for the world in upholding the dignity of the Aboriginal peoples

The Holy Father proceeded from the United States to Fort Simpson, (Canada) where he met the indigenous people of the town on 20 September. He ad­dressed them as follows:

“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom 1:7)

Dear Aboriginal Brothers and Sisters,

1. I wish to tell you how happy I am to be with you, the native peoples of Canada, in this beautiful land of Denendeh. I have come first from across the ocean and now from the United States to be with you, and I know that many of you have also come from far away — from the frozen Arctic, from the prairies, from the forests, from all parts of this vast and beautiful country of Canada.

Three years ago I was not able to complete my visit to you, and I have looked forward to the day when I could return to do so.   Today is that day.    I come now, as I did then, as the Successor of the Apostle Peter, whom the Lord chose to care for his Church as “a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and fellowship” (Lumen Gen­tium, 18).    It is my task to preside over the whole assembly of charity and protect legitimate variety while at the same time seeing that dif­ferences do not hinder unity but rather contribute towards it  (cf. ibid., 13).  To use Saint Paul’s words, I am “a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart to proclaim the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1).    Like Saint Paul, I wish to proclaim to you and to the entire Church in Canada: “/ am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God leading everyone who believes in  it  to salvation” (Rom 1:16).

2. I come to you, then, like so many missionaries before me who have proclaimed the name of Jesus among the native peoples of Canada — the Indians, Inuit and Metis — and have learned to love you and the spiritual and cultural treasures of your way of life. They have shown respect for your patrimony, your languages and your customs (cf. Ad Gentes, 26). As I remarked on the occasion on my previous visit, the “rebirth of your culture and tra­ditions which you are experiencing today owes much to the pioneering and continuing efforts of mission­aries” (Address at Yellow Knife, 18 September 1984, no. 2). Indeed, the missionaries “remain among your best friends, devoting their lives to your service, as they preach the word of God” (ibid.). I too come to you as a friend.

3. Such constructive service is what Jesus wants of his disciples. That has always been the Church’s intention in making herself present in each place, in each people’s his­tory. When the faith was first preached among the native in­habitants of this land, “the worthy traditions of the Indian tribes were strengthened and enriched by the Gospel message. (Your forefathers) knew by instinct that the Gospel, far from destroying their authentic values and customs, had the power to purify and uplift the cultural heritage which they had received… Thus not only is Christianity rel­evant to the Indian peoples, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian” (Address at Shrine Field, Huronia, Ontario, 15 September 1984, no. 5).

In that spirit of respect and missionary service, I repeat what I said on the occasion of my previous visit, that my coming among you looks back to your past in order to proclaim your dignity and support your destiny. Today I repeat those words to you, and to all the Aboriginal peoples of Canada and of the world. The Church extols the equal human dignity of all peoples and defends their right to uphold their own cultural character with its distinct traditions and customs.

4. I am aware that the major Aboriginal organizations — the As­sembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the Metis National Council, and the Native Council of Canada — have been en­gaged in high level talks with the Prime Minister and Premiers re­garding ways of protecting and en­hancing the rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada in the Consti­tution of this great country. Once again I affirm the right to a just and equitable measure of self-government, along with a land base and adequate resources necessary for developing a viable economy for present and future generations. I pray with you that a new round of conferences will be beneficial and that, with God’s guidance and help, a path to a just agreement will be found to crown all the efforts being made.

These endeavours, in turn, were supported by the Catholic bishops of Canada and the leaders of the major Christian Churches and com­munities. Together, they have called for a “new covenant” to ensure  your basic Aboriginal rights, including the right to self-govern­ment. Today, I pray that the Holy Spirit will help you all to find the just way so that Canada may be a model for the world in upholding the dignity of the Aboriginal peples [sp].

Let me recall that, at the dawn of the Church’s presence in the New World, my predecessor Pope Paul III proclaimed in 1537 the rights of the native peoples of those times. He affirmed their dignity, defended their freedom and asserted that they could not be enslaved or deprived of their goods or ownership. That has always been the Church’s position (cf. Pastorale Officium, 29 May 1537: DS 1495). My presence among you today marks my reaffirmation and reassertion of that teaching.

5. There are very close links between the teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and human develop­ment.  In his famous Encyclical on the Development of Peoples, Pope Paul  VI  reflected on   this reality against the background of the deep aspirations of peoples all over the world towards freedom and development.  In his words, the funda­mental desire of peoples everywhere is “to seek to do more, know more and have more in order to be more” (Populorum Progressio, 6). Is that not the deepest hope of the Indian, Metis and Inuit peoples of Canada? To be more.  That is your destiny and that is the challenge that faces you. And today I have come in order to assure you that the Church stands with you as you strive to enhance your development as native peoples. Her missionary personnel and her institutions seek to work for that cause with you.

6. At the same time, instructed by the teachings of  Christ and en­lightened by history, the Church ap­peals to all developing peoples everywhere, not to limit the notion of human progress to the search for material well-being, at the cost of religious and spiritual growth.   Paul VI wisely wrote that “personal and communal development would be threatened if the true scale of values were undermined. The desire for necessities is legitimate, and work undertaken to obtain them is a duty… But… increased possession is not the ultimate goal of nations or of individuals” (ibid., 18-19),

There are other values which are essential to life and society. Each people  possesses a     civilization handed down from its ancestors, in­volving institutions called for by its way of life, with its artistic, cultural and religious manifestations. The true values contained in these real­ities must not be sacrificed to ma­terial   considerations.  “A  people that would act in this way would thereby lose the best of its patri­mony; in order to live, it would be sacrificing its  reasons for living” (Populorum Progressio, 40).

What Christ said about indi­viduals applies also to peoples: “for what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26).  What would be­come of the “life” of the Indian, Inuit and Metis peoples if they cease to promote the values of the human spirit which have sustained them for generations?  If they no longer see the earth and its benefits as given to them in trust by the Creator?  If the bonds of family life are weak­ened, and instability undermines their  societies?  If  they were to adopt an alien way of thinking, in which people are considered ac­cording to what they have and not according to what they are?

The soul of the native peoples of Canada is hungry for the Spirit of God, because it is hungry for jus­tice, peace, love, goodness, fortitude, responsibility and human dignity (cf. Redemptor Hominis, 18). This is indeed a decisive time in your his­tory. It is essential that you be spiritually strong and clear-sighted as you build the future of your tribes and nations. Be assured that the Church will walk that path with you.

7. By coming among you I have wished to underline your dignity as native peoples. With heartfelt con­cern for your future, I invite you to renew your trust in God who guides the destinies of all peoples. The eternal Father has sent his Son to reveal to us the mystery of our living in this world and of our journeying to the everlasting life that is to come. In the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been reconciled with God and with each other. Jesus Christ is our peace (cf. Eph 2:14)

“May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, grant you”, the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, “a spirit of wisdom and insight to know him clearly.  May he enlighten your innermost vision that you may know the great hope to which he has called you” (Eph 1: 17-18).

In the love of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I bless each one of you, and pray for the peace and happiness of your families, your bands and your nations. God be with you all!