B.C. First Nations people remember St. John Paul II as supporter

May 12, 2014

VANCOUVER – Before Vancouver faithful began their celebration of the canonization of two popes, members of the Squamish, Tsleil Waututh, and Musqueam tribes welcomed more than 9,000 participants to the land.

"Over 300 years ago, you would not be sitting in chairs in this building; you would be sitting in a forest," began Rennie Nahanee, First Nations ministry coordinator for the archdiocese, April 27.

"We hold up our hands to the indigenous people who lived on this land for many generations and thank them for letting us speak our words and hold our ceremony here at the Pacific Coliseum."

Diana George was excited to wear regalia, beat drums, and sing with about 15 other aboriginal people as the ceremony opened. "It is history in the making," she said.

"Because we were the First Peoples, it's only appropriate and it's such an awesome event," added Donna Roach-McKeown. "We're excited because of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. We were part of that, we prayed for it. And now we're part of another canonization."

Nahanee pointed out Pope St. John Paul II's concern for indigenous people was evident during the beatification of St. Kateri and the canonization of native Mexican St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin.

He quoted some of Pope John Paul's words: "In accepting the Christian message without foregoing his indigenous identity, Juan Diego discovered the profound truth of the new humanity, in which all are called to be children of God," John Paul II said.

When the pope visited Abbotsford in 1984, he received a sheep's wool blanket from James and Alfreda Nahanee, members of St. Paul's native Parish in North Vancouver.

Alfreda was unable to attend the canonization celebration because of illness, so she caught the action in Rome on TV. "I had tears in my eyes. I thought to myself: imagine, I touched the hand of a saint."

"He said, 'You are the First Peoples,'" Alfreda recounted, thinking back to 1984. "It was uplifting to hear someone say that to us."

She was pleased the aboriginal welcome in the Coliseum had included singing and a traditional smudging ceremony, in which smoke of burning herbs and spices was wafted with a feather to cleanse the people.