Skip to content

‘Reconciliation was possible:’ Indigenous priest reconciles faith with identity

Unmarked graves at former residential school sites has some pondering role of the church
Cristino Bouvette (left), an Indigenous priest, says he often thinks of his grandmother, Amelia Mae Bouvette (right), a residential school survivor, when he considers the Catholic Church’s role in reconciliation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Gerald McMaster

Cristino Bouvette’s mind often goes to his grandmother when he thinks about reconciliation: her strength, her empathy and her ability to forgive. He is a Roman Catholic priest and his kokum, Amelia Mae Bouvette, was a residential school survivor.

“She was a woman of deep faith,” Bouvette says from Calgary.

In recent years, Bouvette, 35, has been asked on numerous occasions how he reconciles being Indigenous and being a priest.

For a long time there was no conflict, he says. Christianity was ingrained in his grandmother. She grew up a member of the United Church of Canada and members of the family were ordained ministers.

Hymns echoed through the rooms of her Alberta farmhouse where a young Bouvette would eat his grandmother’s bannock and celebrate his Cree identity.

“There was a harmony, I would say, in all of those factors and components in my life.”

But when the young man was in seminary school, he became much more aware of the tragic implications of residential schools. It was then he thought to himself, “I wonder if this hurts kokum, that her grandson was going to become a priest?”

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools over a century.

Amelia Mae Bouvette was seven in 1926 when she was removed from her family on the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in east-central Alberta and taken to the Edmonton Indian Residential School, which was operated by the United Church. She would stay there until 1938. Her grandson says it was a source of indescribable pain.

Decades later, after she’d raised 14 children and had careers helping her community, she was peeling potatoes with her grandson in her kitchen.

Was she offended or worried that he’d decided to become a priest, Bouvette asked?

His grandmother responded that she’d met good nuns and priests in her life, and she hoped he would be one of them.

“She was already then beginning to teach me that reconciliation was possible.”

His grandmother died in 2019 one month short of her 100th birthday.

The theme of a delegation to Rome next week is how Indigenous Peoples and the Catholic Church can come together toward healing and reconciliation.

In Winnipeg, Geraldine Shingoose has no intention to forgive or reconcile.

From Tootinaowaziibeeng First Nation in Manitoba, Shingoose spent nine years in the Muscowequan Residential School in Saskatchewan. Shingoose says her time there was her first real exposure to Christianity and it was a traumatic and abusive experience.

The school opened in the 1880s and closed in 1997. Unmarked graves were first discovered there during water line construction in the early 1990s.

In 2018 and 2019, at least 35 potential unmarked graves were located on the site with using ground-penetrating radar.

Shingoose says the injustices at residential schools were thrust back into the spotlight when 215 potential graves were found near the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia last year.

Shingoose wanted answers.

“The Catholic Church committed a crime,” she says.

Shingoose went to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Winnipeg and sat outside for about 10 hours until she was able to get a meeting with the archbishop.

The conversation didn’t feel sincere and she did not feel heard, she says.

She doesn’t support the delegation to the Vatican and suggests it’s a “colonial tactic” the church is using to distract from ongoing injustices against Indigenous people.

“Would you go visit someone that murdered your child and ask them for an apology?”

Like many Indigenous people who are Christian and Catholic, recent discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential school sites have left Bouvette thinking deeply about the role and responsibility of the church to foster healing.

He understands how the delegation is important to some, but adds the church “cannot give the impression of checking boxes.”

Repairing the relationship and making amends happens in the quiet moments in the living room of a home on a First Nation, he says. It happens when he sits and listens to elders for hours and truly hears what they say.

“Regardless of what happens at the Vatican, regardless of whether the Pope comes to Canada, regardless of what the Pope has to say, there’s so much ongoing work that … we must not lose sight of,” Bouvette says. “We have been doing it and it needs to continue.”

Bouvette says the church must continue working toward forgiveness and understanding even if some Indigenous people aren’t ready to forgive. No number of apologies or money can take away the pain, he says, so reconciliation doesn’t have a timeline.

“We can’t talk about reconciliation if forgiveness is off the table.”

—Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Indigenous delegation meeting with Pope Francis at Vatican set for March

RELATED: Indigenous leaders frustrated after Pope passes on apologizing for residential schools