Canadian Priest Lays Out Catholic Church’s Path to Reconciliation With First Nations

Father Dean Henderson said the key will depend on Catholics forging bonds of authentic friendship with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.

Above, Father Henderson is shown with Pacheedaht friends, elders and carvers, standing by their first carved cedar canoe in 35 years.
Above, Father Henderson is shown with Pacheedaht friends, elders and carvers, standing by their first carved cedar canoe in 35 years. (photo: Courtesy of Father Dean Henderson)

When Pope Francis arrives in Canada Sunday on his “pilgrimage of penance” to be with Canada’s Indigenous people — the First Nations, Métis and Inuit — he will take a major step toward the Church’s reconciliation for all the harms done during the residential-school era.

Father Dean Henderson, a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia, told the Register that he started working locally on healing and reconciliation after serving First Nations people in the Yukon 10 years ago. But any lasting impact of the Pope’s visit, he indicates, will depend on how the Church’s clergy and lay faithful respond by forming real, personal relationships with Indigenous people and exercising, above all, a ministry of presence in their lives. 


What are your thoughts about the Pope’s visit to Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples and his hope to address the history of the Church’s involvement in the government’s residential schools? 

I pray it does some good. I hope it will. And I’m sure there’s going to be varied kinds of responses. 

But the Pope’s coming at the request of some leaders of the First Nations across Canada. I think it’s heroic that he’s doing it. I commend him for doing it. I think the bishops are convinced he needs to do it. And clearly this follows the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Committee] recommendation that he come and do it. It follows the prime minister actually expressing the same thing, and I’m glad he’s doing it. 


How did you get involved with local efforts at reconciliation between the Church and First Nations people? 

I’m the first guy to admit that I’m no expert on this. I just do it. I learn as I go, but I’ve never taken a single course on this. Where I really launched into a sincere affection for First Nations people and a sincere identification with the harms that they’ve suffered would have been my last sabbatical parish mission, which was to the Diocese of Yukon. I spent six months up there, under my current bishop, who was later assigned to this diocese. Other than the city of Whitehorse, pretty close to every other mission parish there is located in a First Nations village. 

So I became familiarized with the Tlingit First Nations people in the Yukon and overcame whatever anxiety, fear due to basically ignorance, that I would have had being an urban Canadian boy that really had no significant proximity to First Nations people. I just kind of thought, “Oh, well, these are wonderful people. I love their spirituality, and I’m able to learn from some of their traditions. I identify with them as a Catholic, and I’m happy to serve them and in their Catholic faith, or whatever remnants of Catholic faith they may have retained.” 

And then I came back to my diocese, and I thought, “You know, somebody’s got to do this.” The bishop is very keen about it himself. But it’s not the easiest assignment. The bishop invited all of us clergy to cross the street to the reserve that’s nearest us — there’s always a reserve near our parishes — and just knock on the door and get to know the First Nations people. 

Well, that is not an easy assignment for, generally, folks that are pretty comfortable doing Catholic sacramental ministry but aren’t much familiar with the ministry of presence with people that aren’t necessarily thrilled to see them. 

For whatever reason — partly personality, partly history, partly conviction and the Holy Spirit’s direction — I just started doing that. I started going to culture nights, I started knocking on the reserve doors of the chiefs, and I started showing up. Looking back, I realized spending inordinate amounts of time amongst First Nations people acclimatized me, familiarized me, and taught me what the Church might be doing to build bridges of reconciliation. So up at the university, where I was chaplain for 12 years, I started, amongst other things, doing an annual mission trip where I took students to both a parish but also to a First Nations reserve. And that helps them to learn what I had barely learned from the elders: some of the history of the residential schools and their impact, as well as how to serve [First Nations people], to be taught by them, and to share our faith in Christ with them. And, boy, did that ever produce all kinds of great fruit. 

But I do this with strong bonds of affection, with real friendships with elders and chiefs, and First Nations people. And I now have a profound sense of duty to help others do the same. Because it’s not going to do a lot of good long term if I’m the only guy that has these friendships. 


Can you elaborate more on what you have discovered in these relationships?

Very often, they express less hostility about residential-school harms than they do sadness and disappointment that it appeared like we [the Church] just simply abandoned them. We didn’t continue with our presence. We didn’t take the time to go to the reserves; to go to their healing ceremonies, their funerals and times of grief. … It’s the kind of thing we need to do more of.


What would you recommend for Catholics who want to be part of this healing and reconciliation and just don’t know where to start?

Ten years ago, before the Yukon, I just had no experience or knowledge. So I would never have had the gumption to just go knock on a First Nations door and say, “I want to sit here with you, and you know… reconcile.” So I tell my people, “Look, if you’ve got any desire whatsoever, let me know. I will look for ways to invite and encourage you to participate in what I do.” So my church hall has become the home for a weekly culture night for the Ahousaht [First Nations] people, who drum, dance, feast and grieve in our church hall. That’s taken a little bit of work. … I have to be the middleman and the mediator to make sure that these relations go well, or that at least they don’t go badly. So I’ve said [to my parishioners], “Come, on Sunday or Monday night, at seven o’clock. I’m going to be there; come with me, and just sit and enjoy a culture night so you get to know both the culture and also the people.” 

As I said, I took university students for years off to the First Nations [reserve] for three, four days of living in the village. That accomplished huge amounts of good. 

I’m setting up a camping opportunity in the summer on a First Nations campsite, on the reserve, and inviting my families to come and bring families because we’ve got connections with the children. All of this, of course, is with the chiefs’ blessing, and I would never go without the chiefs’ blessing. 

So I’m looking for ways to give a leg up to people who have some interest and sympathy and just want to learn. And just like me, I would say, “Don’t do anything; just come and be.” It really is this ministry of presence, this ministry of accompaniment, which I’m not naturally inclined toward. I’m a real “Type A personality” that likes to get things done. But I’ve learned to just put that on the shelf and just sit in quiet. And just be present. The fruit of that will take time. The seed will take time to sprout, germinate and grow. But it does grow. They [First Nations people] notice. They really notice if you stick around.

Father Dean Henderson 2
Father Dean Henderson visits Ahousaht elders with university students on mission trips of learning, serving and sharing Christ. | Courtesy of Father Dean Henderson

Honestly, it’s such a basic truth one can almost miss: For authentic reconciliation, you need actually to be in relationship. 

That’s pretty fundamental. I guess the key is: How do you cultivate those relationships? That requires a little bit of learning, and just a lot of trial and error as you do it, showing up and learning as you go. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth. But because they know that I have good intentions, they’re completely forgiving. Generally, they’ll laugh at you, and if they laugh at you, you know you’re making headway. And they will gently, kindly kind of correct you according to their culture and their ways.


What do you hope the Pope’s penitential pilgrimage here can accomplish with First Nations? 

Well, it communicates, obviously, at the highest level that we sincerely care about entering the suffering that we’ve contributed to and that we care to enter into the suffering that’s present and future as a Church. With the Pope’s presence, among the things you heard after the visit of the [First Nations] delegation to Rome … were these elders saying, “I really felt like he listened. I really felt like he cared.” 

We might not think that’s that big a deal, but I think it is a big deal. And I suspect the Pope will, in verbal and nonverbal ways, in ceremonial and anecdotal ways, communicate that he has compassion, that he really cares. 

He does listen, and that’s why he’s in Canada. 

I think that will just go a long way to dropping some of the mistrust or some of the guardedness, to allow us to get a little bit closer to practice, God willing, with integrity, a willingness to suffer along with and walk along with First Nations people. 

Part of our Canadian [Catholic] initiative is to raise $30 million across the nation for TRC initiatives. I’m part of a little committee where I’ve selected, with consultation, four Indigenous members of this group. We’re all just getting to know each other, and our job will be to communicate that this is an initiative that has some sincerity, and it expresses the penitential desire of the Catholic Church to do the right thing.


Thank you for sharing all that, Father Dean. Any final thoughts about how the Church can pursue healing and reconciliation with our First Nations brothers and sisters and the Pope’s visit?

The Pope’s visit is the fantastic sign of a real commitment institutionally to be on this path [of reconciliation], which I think is lifelong. I think it’s generations long. We tend to think, like a Western white guy, “This is a project we should get done within the next two years. Once it’s done, let’s move on to the next project.” But I know that I’m going to commit myself, to the rest of my capability and days of ministry, to be on this path. It’s not the only path I’m on — I’m catechizing children, providing sacraments, and building up the Church and proclaiming the Gospel … but it’s a lifelong thing. And it’s not going to be done at the end of my lifetime; it’s going to have to continue. 

That’s a good thing. There’s so many good ways in which we can harmoniously learn from each other and strengthen each other and bind up our weaknesses. There’s a genuine tradition of all kinds of wisdom built into cultures of First Nations that is of great benefit to the Catholic expression of our faith, even as we’ve got lots to share that would be of great benefit to all of the First Nations that are really worried about their children and grandchildren and preserving them from all kinds of massive harms. We’re kind of in this together, looking out for each other’s children and grandchildren. And I think we’ve got a real potential to do it.