On September 26, the Catholic Church in Canada recalls that group of 17th-century Jesuit missionaries who have become known here as the Canadian Martyrs, or the North American Martyrs if you are in the United States.

It is a sombre time to recall these saints. We cannot avoid, after this long summer of shocking headlines, the tragic story of Residential Schools in Canada and the devastating impact on Indigenous communities caused by European settlement.

As a Church, we must not neglect this darker side of our history. Nor must we fall back on helplessness or an attitude of uncaring as a response. We owe it to our Indigenous brothers and sisters among us to address this long-standing wound in our relationship and work toward healing.

In our look back at the past (as a friend of mine recently reminded me), we need to keep in focus the necessity of knowing the whole truth and responding in charity.

Which brings us to the Canadian Martyrs. This group was among the earlier Europeans to travel among Canada’s Indigenous peoples, with the hope of converting them to Catholicism. They did achieve some of their goals, but in the process they unknowingly laid the groundwork for our historical mistreatment of the Indigenous peoples.

But who were they? According to the website of the Martyrs’ Shrine, located outside Midland, Ontario, they were “Jesuit missionaries (who) worked among the Huron (Wendat), who occupied territory in the Georgian Bay area called Huronia. They established and laboured at the Sainte-Marie Mission.”

Their work earned them many enemies among the Mohawks. Again, to quote the Shrine website: 

“In 1642, the Mohawk captured St. René Goupil, and St. Isaac Jogues, bringing them back to their village of Ossernenon south of the Mohawk River. They ritually tortured both men, and killed Goupil. After several months of captivity, Jogues was ransomed by Dutch traders… He returned for a time to France, but then sailed back to Quebec. In 1646 he and Jean de Lalande were killed during a visit to Ossernenon intended to achieve peace between the French and the Mohawk.

”The other Jesuit missionaries were killed by the Mohawk and martyred in the following years: Antoine Daniel (1648), Jean de Brébeuf (1649), Noël Chabanel (1649), Charles Garnier (1649), and Gabriel Lalemant (1649). All were canonized in 1930.”

They most certainly died for their faith. They did not deserve their fate. Nor did the many students in Residential Schools who suffered mistreatment and abuse, in some cases leading to their deaths.

In venerating the Canadian Martyrs today as saints of the Catholic Church, we can also use the occasion to reflect on the need for repentance and offering restitution for the role of our Church in the fate of Indigenous peoples in Canada. If we are to recall our history, we should recall all of it — the good and the bad — to be honest to ourselves before God and our fellow human beings.

Joseph Sinasac is Publishing Director at Novalis. He has been involved with religious communications for more than 40 years as an author, journalist, editor and TV and radio commentator on all things Catholic. He continues to be excited by the commitment and passion of the Catholics he meets in his daily work.

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