Faculty and staff from St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan take part in a retreat where they learn and take part in oral tradition and cultural heritage of First Nations’ communities in Saskatchewan. Catholic universities recognize they have a unique role to play in the reconciliation process. Photo by Jacquie Berg, St. Thomas More College

Catholic universities take next step in Truth and Reconciliation

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  • February 27, 2016

The Truth and Reconciliation process examining past wrongs done to Canada’s First Nations people may be complete, but for Catholic universities the time to respond to the TRC’s “Call to Action” has just begun.

Catholic universities have a unique role in Canada’s reconciliation process because they have the opportunity to educate future leaders that will help rebuild Canada’s and the Church’s relationship with the indigenous people.

“If we can’t have these conversations at a Catholic university, then I think something has gone wrong,” said Keith Carlson, a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

Carlson said that as academic institutions, Catholic universities should be a place of intellectual conversation and learning. A part of that conversation will take place at a lecture event on March 2 at the university’s St. Thomas More College called “Building toward Reconciliation: Christianity in Indigenous Histories.”

Carlson and three of his graduate students will be presenting research they conducted in different indigenous communities around the country and the role Catholic and Christian missions have played in that history.

“The Calls to Action that came out of the TRC report were all heavily around historical education,” said Carlson. “As historians, we have a big role to play there and we want to make sure that information gets out in an accurate way that will promote the kind of conversations that will lead to reconciliation.”

Gertrude Rompre, director of mission and ministry at St. Thomas More, said this lecture is only a small part of the college’s plan to restructure its academic curriculum. It can not just be about educating the students, but also the faculty and staff.

Every year, the college’s faculty and staff go on a retreat at Wanuskewin Heritage Park where they learn and participate in the oral tradition and cultural heritage of the various First Nations communities in the region.

“I think it’s important to move ourselves out of our own environment sometimes and move into a setting that speaks to the experience of indigenous peoples,” said Rompre. “So that’s our first step... We’re trying to create culture camps in the summer so our faculty and staff can be with an elder to learn more about indigenous ways of knowing.”

At St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., religious studies professor Cristina Vanin said part of reconciliation is true dialogue. She believes indigenous issues are major justice issues to deal with in faith.

“I don’t think we’re the only university that recognizes how important it is that we face these issues honestly,” she said. “Between what the TRC is saying and listening to what Pope Francis is saying, a big part of dialogue means we have to listen.”

Vanin is the co-ordinator of St. Jerome’s Lectures in Catholic Experience. As part of the the university’s 150th anniversary lecture series, she is organizing a two-day event that includes a panel discussion on April 8 with three experts in indigenous law, activism and culture.

“I really hope that (through these events) those of us who are not indigenous really learn what it is that is required of us,” said Vanin.

For many Catholic universities, the greatest resource to understand indigenous issues on campus is the students themselves. David Sylvester, principal of King’s University College in London, Ont., said part of responding to the call to action has to do with being attentive to the needs of indigenous students.

“Probably the biggest (challenge) is separation from family and community,” he said. “For an institution that welcomes those students, we have to be attentive to that fact that they are removed from their traditional support, which is so important for them.”

It’s also important, Sylvester adds, that the larger King’s community actively seek out partnerships with its surrounding indigenous community neighbours.

He said that creating these strong connections will lead to a future of hope.

“It really came home to me when I was talking to one of our First Nation partners who is also a professor,” said Sylvester. “She said to me, ‘What a lot of people don’t understand about indigenous education is that we look at the mind, we look at the body, we look at the spirit.’ And that’s the exact language we use as Catholic educators.”

Sylvester said building these edifying bridges with the King’s community and the surrounding indigenous communities is a powerful opportunity. To him, there is no more important issue in Catholic universities than building a future beyond TRC.

“I’m really hopeful about this,” he said. “I have found this to be one of the most exciting aspects of my career as a Catholic university president.”

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