Harry Lafond – « The Church and the Indigenous Peoples of Canada »

Harry Lafond

« The Church and the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, A Cree Vision of the Church, and My Experience as a Cree Catholic »

Geraldo de Mori, Michel Andraos, Bernardeth Caero Bustillos

Concilium 2019-4. Christentum und indigene Völker
Concilium 2019-4. Christianities and Indigenous Peoples
Concilium 2019-4. Cristianismos y pueblos indígenas
Concilium 2019-4. Popoli indigeni e cristianesimi
Concilium 2019-4. Les peuples indigènes et le christianisme
Concilium 2019-4. Povos indígenas e cristianismos

Part I: The Church and the Indigenous Peoples of Canada

Harry Lafond began his speech at the Synod for America[1] by addressing Pope John Paul II in the Cree traditional way calling him “Grandfather,” also using the Cree words Nimosom kitatamiskatinan, and greeting him in a very personal manner in the name of all the First Nations peoples of Canada. “During your visits to our country,” he told the pope, “you touched our hearts. You became for us kitchi katayino, our spiritual elder, in the truest sense of the word.”[2] Then, after briefly introducing himself, also in his Cree way, Lafond made a key statement about what he believes to be the main problem Indigenous peoples are facing. “Brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said, “colonization systematically created great imbalances in our way of life, undermining our languages, family life and spiritual life.” The rest of the speech is about how he believes Indigenous peoples responded to colonization and the new vision coming out of their spiritual experience for reconciliation between the Christian churches and the Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples’ first response to colonization, according to Lafond, was resistance. “For more than 100 years,” Lafond said, “our elders secretly prayed and worshiped through our own languages and ceremonies, and they continued to teach this to the young, despite suppression.” In the second phase, that is since the middle of the twentieth century, “First Nations have organized themselves to rebalance the relationship between them and their colonizers,” he said.

A key point in the speech that Lafond has since repeated on many occasions is his emphasis on the importance of the vocation, role and the teachings of Indigenous elders in the church, which until now has not been taken seriously by the ecclesial leadership. For Lafond, “the elders from the Cree culture work as spiritual leaders, counselors, historians and doctors. Their education is from the cradle to the grave, learning from their Creator, their environment and from each other. Christlike, the elder accepts his mandate to serve from the Creator and the community.”

Lafond then proposes a vision for the future based on the teachings of the elders. The elders teach us, he said, “That in all we do, say and think we are always in the care of Mamawi otawimaw, the Creator of all; That in the circle of life, we are only one of many creatures, and we are the most dependent of all creatures. We need humility and thankfulness to understand our dependence on the work of our Creator; That we must speak our own languages and live our own cultures; That we need to acknowledge our pain as part of life’s process and move on to new paths….”

The final section of the speech concerns the journey together in the new millennium. Here he emphasizes the need for dialogue and mutual listening with compassion. He calls for understanding the meaning of Indigenous ceremonies and spiritual practices, learning about the history and experience of Indigenous peoples, together protect Mother Earth who is under attack, and dialogue about the role of Indigenous elders in the ecclesial structures. Lafond concludes by saying that “As we sit down in that circle to plan out our spiritual goals, we begin a journey that will change both of us. In the context of Jesus Christ’s message, we can experience evangelization together.”

Part II: Harry Lafond in conversation with Michel Andraos

MA: Can you give us a little background to the speech you gave at the Synod of America in 1997?

HL: I’ve had 20 years to think about that moment. It’s one of those events in a person’s life that was not planned for, and when it happens, the questions that come to my mind are: How come I got into this position? And, what am I going to do with it? The background to all of this, I think, is a result of choices made to be involved with the Catholic Church all my life in one way or another and that comes from my upbringing and my home environment. My mother was instrumental in bringing us up as good Catholics. And she did it in the best way she knew how and that was by example: by being a very prayerful person, by being a type of person that remained open to the world around her right to the day she passed away. 

My own personal journey started here, but when I went to university I realized that there was a missing piece in my own spiritual development. I didn’t know who I was as a person. I knew very little about my Cree identity and so I went on a search. Forty five years later here I am still searching and growing. And this is a very natural part of being Indigenous, being Cree. You never stop learning. The elders teach you that. Today, I see elders working to the time of their last breath, living that teaching, They need to be in a constant state of learning, searching and growing as a person connecting to people and their God in wâhkotowin (Cree: making relations). 

There are probably two events in my life that really helped shape this search. One was probably the last visit I had with my mother. It was just the two of us. She had always in my earlier years taught us, ‘kâya nêhiyawita’  (Cree: don’t act like a Cree), not a good teaching that came from the oppression of the Metis and Cree following the signing of the Treaties. This was survival for the Metis who raised their children to hide their identity. But in that last conversation, she said, “you know, I really wish I had been able to go to a Sundance because I wanted to know more about it.” In that moment, I realized the search she was on and that she was quite willing at the advanced age of 78 to see that there is a possibility of a different spirituality in our lives. I left the hospital energized by her affirmation of my personal journey to find my Cree roots. My involvement with the Church intensified after that. 

Through the 1970s and 1980s I became critical at times. I realized that there has to be a better way to do things in the relationship of the Church and our Cree communities. The old ways needed challenging discussions and changes managed by the people. 

Probably the next important event in my own personal development was with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. They had controlled the life of my community for just about a century and then decided to pull out. They left us high and dry. One day they were there, the next day they were gone and there was nothing to replace that void. I personally was very angry about that decision reached without input from us. I thought: they have an ethical and moral responsibility after changing the lives of my family and my relatives over the course of those hundred years to provide a more substantive legacy to help us transition. I thought: you can’t just walk away from us as if we don’t matter. I had to work through this anger and this sense of loss. 

And I was always very direct in what I thought about church life and had a lot of close friends that I could sit and talk to. We went on a lot of journeys together and we invariably would spend the whole time talking about the church, about spirituality, about where we were in our own lives at that particular time. So, when this invitation came forward to speak at the Synod as the Indigenous voice from Canada, I think the Holy Spirit was there all along, preparing me to speak and think in a particular way. Experiences like going to Guatemala[3] with the Oblates really helped to shape my thinking about empowerment, about where priests fit in, where the priestly role fits in the life of Indigenous people. This meeting helped me shape my thinking.

MA: How was your experience in Rome speaking to the assembly?

HL: The bishops I accompanied to the synod at the Vatican provided a generalized description of what my presentation should speak to in the time allotted. And maybe that was a good thing. If they outlined a detailed expectation, then I would have been directed to speak more from their perspective rather than from what I was seeing. I was Chief of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation at that time and was very close to the community. I was also doing a lot of work inside the Prince Albert Diocese (Saskatchewan). I was feeling the pain and hurt, but also seeing the hopes of the people. When we arrived at the Vatican and I began to prepare this ten-minute talk, it was a very difficult journey for me. At moments, I lived in fear that I would bumble this opportunity that was there in front of me. 

I think at this particular time I developed a really close sense of presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit up to that point in my life had been a distant reality. But at this particular time, I learned how to pray in a very different way to the Holy Spirit and to listen very closely, to be silent, to let go of that sense that “yeah, this is my voice.” It’s not my voice. I’m just that instrument that the Holy Spirit has to deliver a message that could possibly lead to change in the way this huge Catholic family could become.

So, in that spirit, after a couple of sleepless nights, I was able to get this down. The time given to me was 10 minutes, and that was it. I had to write all my thoughts and make them impactful in this short time. And that’s not an easy thing to do when you’re an Indigenous person with an oral background. I was not comfortable writing my thoughts down. I was more comfortable speaking from the heart and from experience, and from the issues that were in front of me. I wrote my thoughts down, but it was a rough draft. Then the Holy Spirit led me to a very special person, Ron Rolheiser OMI, the man with the gift for words. We worked on my rough draft, switched some ideas around, and did some editing.

When the time came for me to present, I took with me sweet grass. I need something to remind me that this is not my voice. I’m just saying what the Holy Spirit would like the pope and these bishops and cardinals to hear from the Indigenous people of Canada. And sweet grass is probably the strongest symbol that identifies our spirituality as Indigenous people. It is the source of connection to that Holy Spirit and we use it in every ceremony in North America. It’s always present. And it’s a special gift from the Creator. That is what I had been taught and what I believe. I took it with me to remind me of what this event was about.

The presentation time came and I was able to hold the sweet grass up and to address the assembly. I was speaking directly to pope John Paul II because I thought he is the man who broke the mold in terms of coming to Canada to actually encountering the Indigenous people. He took that risk and showed us his generosity of spirit. I started by addressing him in Cree as nimosôm (Cree: my grandfather). In the Cree world, grandfather has a special meaning. A grandfather has the responsibility to teach and guide and mentor grandchildren because the father is busy making a living for them. The grandfather is at that stage in life where he has the time to be that person. I’ve learned this as a grandfather now that my connection to my grandchildren is so much different than it was with my own children. There is a different ambiance in that relationship. They relate to me in a way that is close, intimate, and respectful. And, so nimosôm makes sense to address pope John Paul II in this honourable way. And I also used kitatamiskâtinan, a Cree greeting: We greet you in a special way, from our world and culture.

MA: A main focus of the speech was on the role of Indigenous elders in their community and the church. Can you comment on this?

HL: The focus of the presentation was about the need for us to see hope of reconnection of our people with the Catholic Church. And that reconnection needs to happen in a respectful environment of dialogue requiring deep listening and reflection. But most of all, the encounter needs to take us to a new realization by the church that the Indigenous people have powerful gifts to bring to the church. The church needs to recognize these gifts and begin to put them to work within its structures, welcoming Indigenous people and their culture to be fully part of the Catholic Church. I used some examples of how this could happen. 

For example, we need to take a look at the elders and their role seriously. We need to give them the place they deserve inside of our communities and our societies, and realize that colonization has been harshly systematic in shutting down that particular part of our population. We need to go to the elders and give them back their voice and even to consider some of the priestly roles that are so necessary in maintaining the spiritual life of this church that we have. That responsibility belongs to the elders, and we need to respect that responsibility. This means that the Catholic Church itself needs to take a look at its own organization. This was the spirit in which the message was delivered.

MA: You propose in your speech a beautiful vision for being a church together. You very gently propose a way for dialogue, for healing, and for a new relationship for the future. How was this proposal received?

HL: I was really amazed at the positive reaction I got. The Canadian bishops were extremely supportive and pleased with the presentation. Some of the bishops, a couple of them, I know tried really hard afterwards in the working sessions to bring forward some of the recommendations that were in the presentation. I was very hopeful when I got back to Canada. But then I got a little deflated when I saw the final report because the proposal got lost.

MA: What do you think prevents the church from taking seriously the vision you shared?

HL: I think the church is undemocratic and so it fails. It does not connect with the people. I think that’s what pope Francis is trying to address through his visits and teaching. It has in 2000 years become a top down colonizing type of institution. It needs to re-examine the roles and responsibilities of the different parts of its structure. It needs to become attuned to active listening and respond to the peoples’ voices.

MA: If you were invited to the Vatican today to give another speech, what would you add to what you said 20 years ago that you think would be relevant to the situation today?

HL: I think my examples would be more concrete today. I believe that the leadership of our Catholic Church needs to incorporate the roles elders, the moms and dads of our communities. I think I would have more concrete image of what that looks like. I have a better idea today of what the dialogue looks like. I have been involved in efforts to try to make sure that pope Francis comes to Canada. My priority is not the apology. I’m particularly interested in having him show leadership in the process of dialogue with the Indigenous populations. I think until he comes here and actually sits down with the elders and talks about the future of this church, we’re going to keep limping along. That long distance relationship is going to keep us limping, not really encountering each other in a very direct way. His role as pope is very unique and he needs to speak with his actions, his approach, and his generosity. His sense of service needs to be concrete enough that the bishops and the leaders of Canada will take him seriously. Until that happens, I don’t think we’re going to move far in the reconciliation process because there is a lot of hurt out there and many young people are saying “I don’t need the Catholic Church,” and that’s sad because that’s part of our legacy from our parents and grandparents. Both my wife and I have had to compromise in our thinking about spirituality because our children have decided they’re going totally into Cree spirituality. They do not want to be part of the Catholic Church. And we’re not the only family like that. This is the experience of a significant part of our community. Our children are doing something good, but in doing that they are also walking away from an opportunity that could enrich their own spirituality.

MA: From the little bit I learned about your experience from previous conversations and meetings, I understood that your indigenous spirituality enriched your Catholic faith. In your speech, you talked about the sacramental dimension of some of the spiritual Indigenous practices and said that the same Spirit is at work. Can you comment on that?

HL: I think I understand now that I can be both Cree and Catholic, I just have to figure out how to do it. When I was teaching and participating in many First Nations’ communities I met a lot of people who helped me move towards that experience and to understand that if you dig below the surface of the Catholic Church and come to the essential of what being Catholic is, it’s not different than if you do the same in the Cree world. It’s about caring. It’s about love. It’s about building relationships (wâhkotowin). They’re both the same in that sense. The elders teach that there is one God and many ways to pray to that God. They teach us to respect all those ways of praying. Once I reached that place of understanding, I then felt comfortable going to a Pipe Ceremony because I realized that it is a powerful prayer. It’s a community prayer. It has connections to some of the good Eucharistic celebrations that I’ve been able to attend. They are similar types of experiences and prayer; it is a merging place for cultures.The same with the Sweat Ceremony. The prayers in there and the petitions that people express are prayers seeking personal reconciliation. Some bare their souls and share what is hurting them and what is lacking in their lives. It’s about asking God to help them find reconciliation and forgiveness for the inadequacies of their lives. It happens. They come out of the ceremony with a renewed vision of themselves as people of reconciliation. It is a personal and public process where the people in the Sweat witness their reconciliation. That is so much more powerful as a reconciliation process than going into a dark confessional, which I find very sterile.

[1] To access the full text of the speech, see Harry Lafond, “The Church and the Indigenous Peoples of Canada,” Origins 27, no. 27 (December 18, 1997): 456–57.

[2] All quotations from the speech in this article are taken from the version published in Origins. See footnote no. 1 above for the full reference.

[3] Editor’s note: The Oblates held a dialogue meeting with Indigenous peoples from the North and the South to which Harry Lafond was invited. Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, comments on this meeting: “In 1993, at a North-South Dialogue of Oblates and Indigenous from South, Central, and North America in Uspantan, Guatemala, the participants urged the Oblates not to abandon them now and not to walk before them or behind them but to walk with them. That, I think, is our challenge today: to journey together into a renewed relationship.” See, Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, “Walking a New Path: A Harvest of Reconciliation—Forging a Renewed Relationship between the Church and the Indigenous Peoples,” in The Church and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas: In Between Reconciliation and Decolonization, ed. Michel Andraos, vol. 7, Studies in World Catholicism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), 78–97.


Harry Lafond is from and lives on the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, which is in Treaty 6 Territory. The Cree Nation occupies the territories stretching from James Bay to the Rocky Mountains. By profession he is a trained teacher and has taught from elementary classrooms to university classes. He has a Masters degree in education with certification to teach the Cree language. Harry was asked to be the chief of Muskeg Lake and served the people in this role for 10 years. He is currently a councilor and has been in that role for the past 9 years. For 11 years he served as the Executive Director of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner in Saskatchewan. Harry believes in the power of building relationships as the primary road to a better community and the building block to the strengthening of a people.

Address: P.O. Box 82, Marcelin, Sask. S0J 1R0, Canada.