Living Hope Newsletter – November 2023

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Indigenous Communities
in Canada

The Claretian Missionaries began serving in Canada in 1955. The ministries the Claretians are known for throughout the United States—schools, youth formation, seminaries, health services, housing, parish and sacramental ministry, and more—also thrive in their Canadian mission presence.Yet there is a distinct difference in the mission work in Canada, among the Indigenous communities there. Nearly a million people, or 8% of the Canadian population, are Indigenous.

In Canada, Indigenous peoples are described by three categories: the Inuits (Eskimos), the Metis Nation, and the First Nations. There are 11 First Nations spread over 650 communities or reserves across Canada. The First Nation organizational structures include many departments for residents, providing schools, healthcare, social services, forestry, economic development, and more.

Claretian Fr. Reegan Soosai, a native of India, arrived in Quebec two years ago to live and serve among two communities of the First Nations in the Claretians’ Quebec missionary province, St. Ann Mission of Long Point First Nation, and St. Kateri Takakwitha Mission of Timiskaming First Nation. Both are Anishinabe First Nations (pronounced ah-neesh-ē-NAH-bay) and are a part of the Catholic diocese of Rouyn-Noranda in Quebec. This region in Quebec is located about 260 miles northeast of Michigan’s northernmost shore of Lake Huron.

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“When I first arrived, I met with the Chiefs and I felt very welcomed,” says Fr. Reegan. “I was given information that I needed to better understand the various realities of each community.”

Of the nearly 800 people living in each of the communities Fr. Reegan serves, previously most were Catholic, but that number has declined steeply in recent years. Very few people were regularly going to the local churches when Fr. Reegan arrived. In addition to Catholicism, the religious mix includes Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Traditionalists (Indigenous spirituality).

Fr. Reegan’s work there focuses on strengthening the presence of the Catholic community in the First Nation by emphasizing mutual understanding, bridge building, and walking together. After gathering a sense for the needs and desires of the people, he began offering regular masses and other sacraments, which were not happening before he arrived. Included in this work are special celebrations to honor important feasts for traditional days, such as the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Kateri, and St. Ann, as well as National Aboriginal Day and the disturbing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Girls and Women Day. “I work to organize activities of mutual knowing and integration,” says Fr. Reegan.


Walking with One Another

In addition to sacramental offerings for the missions, he founded and leads the Intercultural and Interreligious Pastoral Committee in the diocese. The committee serves as an integral element in the Church’s bridge-building efforts. “We introduce cultural and spiritual ceremonies of the Indigenous in the Diocesan celebrations,” he says, as a meaningful way of walking together. Traditions such as drumming, which represents the physical heartbeat, and smudging are meaningfully shared. Smudging is the practice of burning medicinal plants to cleanse and connect the spirit with the Creator.

The Indigenous communities are well organized to support children, youth and their elders. Each reserve functions as a municipality, and each reserve has their own schools and medical clinics. “They also organize cultural week celebrations to promote and pass on the wisdom, knowledge and other skills to the younger generation,” says Fr. Reegan. “Respect for the elders is fundamental.” They pow-wow (public gatherings) regularly to recognize important cultural celebrations as well as days of remembrance, such as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day.

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Christianity among Indigenous Communities in Canada

The Catholic Bishops of Quebec is an organization that engages deeply in the Indigenous communities of the dioceses. Their dedication to dialogue, to the meeting of cultures and fraternity, is expressed through the development of their Mission Chez Nous. This nonprofit organization of the Bishops works toward harmony between cultures by countering prejudice, promoting dialogue, and providing both material and moral support to the Indigenous communities.

Fr. Reegan contributes to the organization, writing for the Mission Chez Nous newsletter, Confluents, sharing the wisdom and experiences of his communities. The metaphor of Confluents reveals much about the overarching energy of all striving to come together in this part of the world: a confluence is where rivers, sea currents, or glaciers meet. Often, the banks of confluences serve as meeting or assembly points for Aboriginal nations, which invite all to dialogue.

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Simplicity and Service

For Fr. Reegan, two words come to mind when he reflects on his responsibilities in the special context in which he brings his religious vocation to life. “I think of simplicity and service,” he says. “Simplicity is related to humility. It means to be connected to the humanity and work for the human dignity of each member of these communities: by walking with them and listening to their stories, struggles and joys and especially sitting with the elders and learning from them.”

“Service means to be available to the people and to be ready ‘to wash their feet.’ Service and prayer should go hand in hand,” he says. “As a professional spiritual counselor, I can also offer my service to the people in need and build partnerships with others who are helping them too.”