Canada: 400th anniversary celebrations of first aboriginal baptism

Chief Membertou depicted on Canadian 2007 postage stamp

Chief Membertou depicted on Canadian 2007 postage stamp

Celebrations begin today to mark the 400th anniversary of the first baptism of an aboriginal person from the land we now call  Canada.

Mi'kmaq Chief Henri Membertou and 20 members of his family,  were baptised on June 24, 1610 in the St Mary's Bay area of Nova Scotia,  on Canada's east coast.

A great leader, Membertou welcomed French explorers in the early 1600s, including Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Dugua. His assistance to the migrants is credited with helping them survive the harsh winters and establish their community in the New World.

The day will begin with a 5am sunrise ceremony at Membertou’s powwow grounds, followed by Mass at 2pm at St Ann’s Church in Membertou.

Larger ceremonial celebrations of Membertou’s baptism will begin at the Port Royal National Historic Site with an open-air Mass presided over by Archbishop Martin Currie, with Apostolic Nuncio, Pedro Quintana, Bishop Brian Dunn of the Antigonish Diocese, and other Catholic bishops.

Following Mass the re-enactment of the historic baptism will be staged by more than a dozen local actors portraying Membertou, his family and the early French settlers the Mi’kmaq befriended and protected.

The 45-minute re-enactment will emphasize the enduring friendship established between the Mi’kmaq and French, with narration in Mi’kmaq, French and English.

The celebrations  will include live music, a barbecue and children’s activities on the Sydney boardwalk. By holding the event on the waterfront, Sharon told the The Cape Breton Post, the First Nation is returning to the place where the original community of Membertou once lived,  before they were evicted from their land by the federal government in 1926, and forced to live in the reservation where they are to this day.

The anniversary is being hailed as a major cultural milestone by the Nova Scotia government. Organizers have erected a traditional village that will be visited by the Queen and Prince Philip next Monday.

But some aboriginal Canadians have mixed feelings about the event. Native historian Daniel Paul said his earliest memories of going to Catholic school is of the nuns telling him that he came from an "inferior civilization."

Nationally the Catholic Church in Canada has apologised over the harsh treatment meted out to aboriginal children in boarding schools.

About 95 per cent of the  Cape Breton reserve's 800 inhabitants are Catholic. Chief Morley Googoo of Cape Breton's Waycobah First Nation said: "Christianity and the Catholic Church is very prominent still in our communities, even with the dark chapters of the residential schools."

On 15 September 1984 Pope John Paul II gave an address at the Shrine of the Canadian Martyrs, in which he said: “not only is Christianity relevant to the Indian people, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian.”

On 29 April 2009 representatives from Aboriginal communities in Canada, met with Pope Benedict at the Vatican.

12 December, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadaloupe, has been designated as the National Day of Prayer for Aboriginal Peoples. The Canadian Bishops said: "this day is an invitation to all Catholics across the country to be united with their Aboriginal brothers and sisters in prayer and in witness that 'we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body' (1 Corinthians 12.13)."

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