By Peter Andre Globensky
There were as many as five of them on Columbus’ second journey to the New World islands of the Bahamas. They were there as well with Spain’s Hernan Cortes as he began his subjugation of the Aztecs and were omnipresent when the same colonizers pursued and defeated the Mayans.
They were there again behind Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors when they slaughtered the Incas, forcefully converting their leader to Christianity before killing him. They accompanied Jacques Cartier and the fanatically devout Samuel de Champlain to what was to become Canada. They were considered essential accessories to a host of other world travellers from Magellan to de Sousa.
I speak of the black robes, the Catholic priests and Christian missionaries sent by popes and kings to bring salvation to the heathen masses. As a fundamental cornerstone of the secular agenda of these colonizing empires – whether measured in their control of territory, their lust for gold and spices or securing trade routes, the good fathers had one goal in mind – to convert the heathen pagans and bring Indigenous peoples into the light of Christian salvation.
Of course, the infamous Christian papal Doctrine of Discovery provided the legitimacy and necessary license for these innumerable “conversions” and aa accomplices to the conquering colonizers, to the rape and pillage of the lands already occupied by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years prior.
Having been raised in the quasi-clerical state of Quebec in the 1950’s and subjected sometimes forcefully and at times brutally to the commands of its doctrines and desires, I have become well acquainted with the power and purpose of Christianity as a force for control, subjugation . . . and belief.
Never intending to join the priesthood as was the desire of so many Catholic families of their first born, I nevertheless studied theology in university and have been fascinated ever since by the hold this religion has maintained over its adherents. The real value of authenticity increases when it is grounded in experience.
By numbers alone, Christianity has been one of the most successful products of colonization. From Congo DR to Brazil to the Philippines – all colonized countries, and from Europe, to North America to Asia, Christianity has over 2.2 billion adherents.
Not a bad day’s work for those missionaries of centuries ago! There are over 200 Christian denominations in North America alone. Nor has Northwestern Ontario where we currently live been spared this dispersal both in its cities replete with multiple houses of worship or in remote Indigenous communities where there are or have been as many as five separate Christian churches each claiming to have a monopoly on the truth. Christianity now also commands the adherence in varying degrees of 70% of Indigenous peoples in Canada – not a trivial number!
One of the very real accomplishments of Indigenous leaders in creating and guiding the desperately needed dialogue among all Canadians on the subject of reconciliation and restitution has been the focus on the concept of colonization. Territorial control, population expansion and economic gain driven by empires and nations with the power to do so are the main attributes of this policy.
As we now know, Canadian history abounds with example after example of colonization, of the forced annexation or outright theft of Indigenous lands by federal and provincial governments and their corporate surrogates. The price for this folly has been significant and consequential. That a newer generation of leaders and a well-educated cadre of Indigenous youth have now bull-horned the issue beyond our ability to ignore it augurs well for our own understanding of colonization.
One of the most abhorrent manifestations of this policy was the federal government’s creation of the residential school system and its genocidal destruction of language, culture and identity not to mention the grievous stories emanating from survivors of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the men and women of God. “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not”, (Matthew) “so that we may take the Indian out of the child.” Indeed!
It was, therefore, a remarkable achievement last year when Indigenous leaders in Canada were able to demand an apology from the pope and to have him make the arduous journey to Canada and publicly apologize to Indigenous peoples for the agony they have suffered in their own Gardens of Gethsemane. It was the culmination of a long journey forged by, among others, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine when he was able to force a public apology from then Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons – no mean feat considering the ‘take no prisoners’ bent of that administration.
But a degree of perplexity remains. As we continue the dialogue on the difficult path towards a meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada, one admittedly provocative but intriguing question stands out in our ongoing consideration of the impact of colonization. Why, during the Pope’s visit to Canada or anytime prior or since has there not been a single Indigenous leader who has suggested that Christianity itself is a deliberate outcome of colonization?
Was it because they did not want to alienate the vast majority of the Indigenous people they represent who claim Christianity as their faith? An interesting conundrum!
Peter Globensky, a sometimes theology student, is a former senior policy advisor on Indigenous Affairs in the Office of the Prime Minister and retired as CEO of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. He is vice-president of BASA, an Indigenous consulting firm working in the fields of environment, education, strategic planning and advocacy.