A delegation of Indigenous people with the Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami soon travels to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican for events during the week of March 28.
On this occasion, it’s worth reflecting on a gift Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave Pope Francis when he visited the Vatican nearly five years ago.
During Trudeau’s May 2017 visit, he offered Pope Francis a set of the Jesuit Relations. These are annual reports written by missionaries in what is now eastern Canada from 1632 to 1672, first published in Paris.
The Prime Minister was in Rome in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #58. This urges the pope to apologize for the church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.
In light of the importance of this objective and Pope Francis’s subsequent refusal to apologize, relayed to Canadians via the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in March 2018, it’s perhaps not surprising Trudeau’s gift was briefly mentioned in news reports, but otherwise seems to have gone unremarked.
Meanwhile, several high-profile events of urgent concern have made headlines in the last year: the detection of hundreds of unmarked graves at residential school sites; an apology by Canada’s Catholic bishops; renewed calls from both Indigenous leaders and Trudeau for a papal apology, while signs suggest one may eventually be forthcoming.
Amid these events and the Indigenous delegation’s visit, Trudeau’s gift and what was reported about it deserves more scrutiny.
‘Stories of Jesuit missionaries’
The Prime Minister’s gift can be understood as a diplomatic gesture: Jesuit texts for a Jesuit Pope, and a reminder of the long association between the Catholic Church and Canada.
Yet what was reported about this event, and how it framed Canadian history, contributed to sounding a discordant note in efforts towards reconciliation.
Media reported that in describing his gift, Trudeau called the Relations “an essential tool for historians to understand the early years and stories of Jesuit missionaries documenting the origins of Canada.”
This framing of the texts, with no other context, shows how the narrative about heroic settlers acting for the benefit of all, and the privileging of written records, persists. This is even as Canada attempts to address past and ongoing harms of colonization.
This framing also echoes a long history of western scholarly interpretation of the Relations, including by the creators of the edition the prime minister gave to Pope Francis.
Photos of the meeting show Trudeau gave Pope Francis a 1972 reprinted edition of the “Edition de Québec,” published in 1858.
This edition was, according to journalist Augustin Côté’s preface, the result of numerous requests by his fellow Québécois for someone to yield to feelings of patriotism and reissue the texts following a fire in the Québec parliament that destroyed a large collection of original editions in 1854.
Côté described doing so as “rebuilding this historic monument of our ancestors” (réeédifier ce monument historique de nos ancêtres). His words reflect a vision of his work as preserving and glorifying settlers’ legacies.
From my perspective as a scholar who has researched these texts, a description of the Relations better suited to the occasion might have acknowledged how they set the tone for the centuries of abuse that followed.
The texts did this by ridiculing or dismissing the beliefs and customs of Innu, Wendat, Haudenosaunee (most commonly discussed in the Relations) and other Indigenous Peoples and insisting on the superiority of the settlers’ own cultures — a theme in the texts that I wrote about in my 2015 book.
The early Jesuits, and their relationships with wider church structures, certainly deserve scrutiny in Canada’s ongoing reckoning with the harms of colonization, and as contemporary Jesuits continue to examine their responses to the call for reconciliation.
Acknowledging Indigenous presence, influence
Even better would have been for Canadians to hear Trudeau tell a more complicated story, and describe Indigenous Peoples’ effects upon the Jesuits’ efforts to document events. At least as reported, his comments did not mention Indigenous Peoples in relation to the texts.
It may be obvious that Indigenous Peoples’ histories, in multiple formats, offer different perspectives than those written by 17th-century Jesuits, and that these accounts should have a central place in public discourse. It may be less obvious that the Jesuit texts themselves sometimes reveal the early missionaries’ dependence upon Indigenous communities, as well as traces of Indigenous influence.
Related sources like letters, journals and draft reports sometimes credit Indigenous people with gathering information that appeared in the Relations, where no mention of their role is made.
Recently I reread the Relations in preparation to write a new book about the texts. I noticed how often they mention how Indigenous networks enabled the movement of information that eventually appeared in the published reports. Indigenous people frequently carried correspondence between far-flung missionaries.
There are also cases where the texts include what is presented as material dictated by Indigenous people. While it’s essential to consider how these words were filtered through Jesuit translation practices and biases, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Jesuits’ reports would have looked very different without countless choices made by Indigenous people.
Long effects of narratives, encounters
Acknowledging how Indigenous Peoples shaped the creation of texts doesn’t excuse the harms enacted by missionary narratives that dismissed and degraded Indigenous spiritual worldviews and identities or generated long-standing harmful stereotypes — whether in the 17th century or since.
For example, Mohawk scholar Susan Hill has critically examined depictions of the Haudenosaunee in the Relations and cautions it’s important to be careful with how these narratives are used.
But considering Indigenous Peoples’ effects on the Jesuits’ efforts to document events does suggest that it ought to be possible to talk about the Relations and similar texts in different ways today: By acknowledging ongoing Indigenous agency and presence, Indigenous effects on Indigenous-settler relationships or Indigenous Christian practices and faith.
Telling more complicated stories about the Relations and texts like them won’t erase the past or compensate for the harms of colonialism.
But with renewed calls for a Papal apology growing louder and a visit to Canada by Pope Francis expected, it’s worth considering whether efforts to enlist powerful institutions like the Catholic Church in reconciliation have been helped or hindered by what Canadians hear about these early written records.
Micah True is an associate professor of French in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta.