Prior to the arrival of Europeans on Turtle Island, Indigenous Nations had their own complex system of spiritual beliefs, the breadth and depth of which the Europeans colonizers did not fully comprehend. Indigenous Peoples’ spirituality was rooted in their connection to nature, the earth, and one another. They had creation stories and a spiritual perspective unique to the history of their Peoples that varied from culture group to culture group (Four Directions Teachings, 2015). While their system did employ ceremony and belief in a creator, it differed significantly from other organized religions of the world. In particular, many Indigenous Peoples carried a collective belief that everything in their environment possessed a spirit including the natural world, people, animals, and in some cases, inanimate objects (Four Directions Teachings, 2015). This belief system ultimately ensured Indigenous Peoples and their communities maintained a deeply interconnected relationship of respect and balance with nature, animals, and human life. Maintaining a positive relationship between these components was and is integral to their traditional world view.
Arrival of the Missionaries
When Europeans arrived in the seventeenth century, they brought with them religious and cultural ideologies from Europe. Missionaries from France, whether intentionally or not, played a large role in the violent colonization of Indigenous communities on Turtle Island.
For the French, in these early years, evangelization was intertwined with the task of civilizing; to be “civil” was to behave and look like a French man or woman, and share their beliefs (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada [TRC], 2015; D’Avignon & Trudel, 2013). While initially relations between Europeans and Indigenous Peoples benefitted both parties in the 1600s on Turtle Island, this balance shifted as the idea of converting and civilizing the Indigenous population gained popularity back in France (Knox, 2017).
To accomplish this, Samuel de Champlain invited the Recollect priests up the St. Lawrence River in 1615, to bring Christianity to the Indigenous occupants he encountered there. The Recollects erroneously assumed that the Indigenous communities had no spirituality and believed their task of evangelization would be easy (TRC, 2015).
The Recollects quickly proved unsuccessful. The Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island in the early 1600s possessed a strong autonomous spirituality, sense of community, and cultural identity. Also, both they and the general French colonial population on Turtle Island were much more interested in, and focused on, establishing trade relations. In contrast to conversion, trade promised valuable and immediate benefits for both parties: the new and struggling colonizers and the Indigenous Peoples (TRC, 2015; Knox, 2017). The Recollects would give up their efforts due to lack of funding after a few short years. Samuel de Champlain would then turn to the wealthier Jesuit order in 1625 for help in his mission of creating a French Christian “New World” (D’Avignon & Trudel, 2013; Heidenreich, 2006).
Jesuit Presence in New France
By the seventeenth century the Jesuits had a strong track record with many converts across cultures all over the world. As part of this global evangelization effort, Champlain and the King of France called for the Jesuit order to come to New France to share the Roman Catholic religion with the Wendat, Petun, Nipissing, Ojibwa, and Ottawa Indigenous populations (Heidenreich, 2006; Jaenen, 2008).
For the missionaries entrusted with the task of establishing congregations of acting Christians among the Indigenous populations of New France, the first step was to find commonalities between their belief system and that of their would-be converts. Missionaries worked to draw parallels between their systems and made the case that their Christian God was already present in the framework of Indigenous beliefs, therefore, He should be easy to acknowledge and accept (Knox, 2017; Niezen, Burgess, Begay, Fast, & Lambert, 2000). The Jesuits encouraged interested and curious individuals to visit with them and listen to their stories and rationale for making their Roman Catholic God the centre of spiritual focus (Knox, 2017).
During this period, some Indigenous Peoples refused to entertain conversion; others were more open to the slow process, eventually taking up a Christian lifestyle guided by the Jesuits (Knox, 2017; Richter, 1985). It was not uncommon for the formation of a new community of Indigenous converts to be mirrored by the formation of an opposing group, which tested the fabric of communities profoundly (Richter, 1985).
British Conquest and Evangelization
The British conquest of New France in 1760 brought French rule to an abrupt end. The British, however, would also soon adopt a policy of assimilation for Indigenous populations (TRC, 2015). By Confederation in 1867, the British presence on Turtle Island had grown considerably and many Indigenous communities had shrunk, their populations decimated by diseases for which they had no immunity (TRC, 2015). Canada’s policy of assimilation meant that now colonizers were concerned less with trade and diplomatic relations as with control and subjugation of the Indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island. The Roman Catholic Church drew funding and power from the population of Quebec, and willingly took a central role in establishing and running the assimilationist education system, the residential schools, formally introduced in 1883 (TRC, 2015). With the introduction of residential schools, Indigenous Peoples felt and became subject to the true socio-cultural impacts of Christianity. The residential schools were also part of a government plan that involved working closely with Christian missionaries to encourage Indigenous Peoples to develop economic self-sufficiency in a manner that matched the colonizers’ ideology (Miller, 2012). Indigenous Peoples, once recognized by the French as Nations, allies, and military and trading partners, with distinct cultures, rights, and lands, were reduced to wards of the British Crown and forced to live under the rule of law and a religion in which they had no say (TRC, 2015).
Lasting Impacts of Christianity
Religious imposition deeply affected Indigenous communities. In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit identified church-run, government-financed residential schools coupled with the introduction and imposition of Christian beliefs during colonization as key components in the breakdown of their Indigenous communities and cultural identity (TRC, 2015). The impacts of this trauma have been felt across many generations (TRC, 2015).
Due to this contested and complex history of indoctrination, spirituality among Indigenous Peoples varies widely across Canada today. Historical events have given rise to unique hybridized spiritual practices within some communities, where elements of the Christian faith are present alongside tenets of traditional Indigenous spirituality (Smith, 2011). In some cases, Christian beliefs have almost completely replaced traditional Indigenous spirituality (Smith, 2011). In others, communities have found a way to revitalize traditional Indigenous practices lost through colonization and evangelization. Some communities rejected the introduction and imposition of Christianity altogether. These communities work with their traditionalists to preserve, revive, and practice strictly Indigenous forms of spirituality (Smith, 2011).
Each Indigenous community today has a unique framework of spirituality, and it’s important to remember that the spiritual belief system of one community member may not be the same as another community member due to the complex impacts of colonization as well as personal preference. Many churches have since apologized for their role in the residential school system and their involvement in colonization and the imposition of their belief systems on Indigenous communities. However, as of May 2018, Indigenous communities are still waiting for an official apology from the Pope on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church.
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Media (in order of appearance)
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