An addictions counsellor at the Mushuau Innu healing lodge in Natuashish has filed a complaint against a priest in the community, accusing him of calling traditional Innu practices "evil."
Christine Poker says she was initially happy to get a call from Father Anthony Ahn on Sept. 24, because she thought the priest was calling her to arrange a time to meet the traditional healers in the community.
Instead, she told CBC News, the priest asked her what happened at the lodge. Poker says that after she told him they helped people through medicine, he asked her if they spoke to dead people.
Poker said she told him they spoke to the spirits and Anh told her that talking to dead people is "evil" and asked her if they talked back.
She says she told the priest that Innu people have been trying to preserve their culture and said to him, "Do you know that there many spirits in every living thing outside, the plants, the medicines outside? We give thanks to the spirits." But she said Anh told her it was "unacceptable" to speak to spirits.
Poker says the priest told her the conversation should remain between them and they would talk more later. Afterward, Poker said, she tried to figure out how talking to deceased ancestors could be evil.
"My teachers are the elders, they are the ones that taught me to do offerings to our ancestors, like my grandmother. So I offer her food and ask for her help. And calling it evil is very hurtful to me because I respect my culture and that culture, I hold it deep in my heart. That's why his words hurt so much. If I talk to my dad who passed away a long time ago, is that evil?" said Poker.
She said she tried to think positively about the conversation but when she went to the church service the following Sunday, the priest spoke about the good work the healing lodge was doing but told the congregation that talking to the dead is evil.
On Thurday, Poker sent an email to Bishop Bart van Roijen to file a complaint against Ahn, sharing the details of their phone call and the comments Ahn made during his homily.
Bishop apologizes to anyone hurt by comments
In a response emailed Saturday, the bishop thanked Poker for the work that she and others at the healing lodge do in the community.
"I am saddened by the latest developments in Natuashish and the divisions that have been created because of them. I pray that, throughout it all, we may never lose sight of the healing and reconciliation God desires," wrote van Roijen. "As bishop of the diocese, and as one who takes full responsibility for the actions and words of his priests, I offer my heartfelt apology to you and all who were hurt by this incident."
The bishop also said he has spoken to Anh regarding the matter and would do so again at a spiritual retreat for clergy happening this week.
An apology was released on the church's Facebook page, signed off on by Anh, who released his own statement Monday denying he called Innu cultural practices evil but had instead referred to evil spirits. In the statement, he said there were good spirits — God, angels and saints — but also evil spirits.
"When communicating with the spirits, make sure that you speak to good spirits and not to evil spirits, because evil spirits do us harm. That is all I said in my homily about the spirits," said Ahn.
'Not a perfect man,' says priest
Ahn also said he has tried to bring Innu culture into the church service, including organizing a trip to Davis Inlet and putting Innu flags and an Innu banner up in the church.
Ahn said he apologized as soon as he heard someone was offended by his homily so peace could be restored in Natuashish, and said he "did not say anything negative about Innu culture," in the church or in a private conversation.
"I am not a perfect man, but I have great love and respect for elders, Innu culture and people. It is this great love in my heart that has so far kept me in Natuashish, a very challenging place for priests," he wrote.
CBC has asked the diocese of Corner Brook and Labrador for a response. In an email, van Roijen declined to comment, stating, "the media is not the best place to resolve this matter."