Clayton Shirt is overseeing the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s new Elder-in-Residence program. The program is a response to the Truth and Reconcilistion Commission report. Photo courtesy of the Toronto Catholic District School Board

Understanding the past to build for the future

By 
  • February 19, 2016

TORONTO - Clayton Shirt speaks bluntly when it comes to past treatment of First Nations people by the Catholic Church and Canada.

“To forgive the unforgivable, it is hard for a lot of our people to do this,” said Shirt, a member of the Cree First Nation. “The Catholic Church has done horrible things to indigenous people and that is a reality.”

But far from seeking revenge, Shirt hopes to educate Catholics on a troubled past as a way to build bridges towards reconciliation. He has been hired on a part-time contract by the Toronto Catholic District School Board to oversee the board’s new Elder-in-Residence Program.

Funded by the province, the program is a response to the release last year of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, said Frank Pio, the board’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit Program support teacher.

Shirt said his mother is a survivor of the residential school program established in the 19th century by the federal government and run until 1996 by several Catholic and Protestant churches. The schools were built to assimilate native children into Canadian culture but became rife with abuse of all types. Shirt’s father was also taken from his parents and put into foster care.

“My parents were denied their way of life for a long time,” said Shirt, born in Alberta in 1969 but a resident of Toronto since childhood.

“We’re still feeling the effects of those things.”

Following the Truth and Reconciliation report it was important for the school board to develop a better understanding of “our collective past,” said Pio. Believing that would require First Nations voices, he reached out to Shirt.

Shirt makes it “very clear” that he “is not an elder” in the traditional sense of the word and says he “was really reluctant to take the job at first.”

“The reality is I’m not going away, my people aren’t going away, my faith isn’t going away and neither is theirs,” said Shirt, who has held his post since November. “So both sides need to heal. We want to get past this and we want to get beyond this.”

Before his contract expires in May, Shirt will have visited 30 schools. He sees his role as beginning a much-needed and overdue conversation.

“Something happened and we need to talk about this,” he said. “That is the only way to start.

“When I am talking to people, the youth, I want them to understand our point of view because the point of view from the history books that I understand is a distorted view of history from (the First Nations’) side.”

But that conversation won’t be an easy one.

“It is very hard to look at some of these truths on both sides,” said Shirt. “We are so busy talking about the differences. There has to be a dialogue that goes further for both sides to heal ... so I’m saying let’s talk about the similarities.”

These similarities, he believes, can bridge faith and flesh.

“Catholic teachings are very similar to mine because they are universal teachings,” said Shirt. “(But) before we are anything else, our race, our gender, our class, our citizenship, we are human beings. It is important that all people understand that.”

Catholic school boards in Northern Ontario have had positions similar to Shirt’s on a full-time basis for years. But with Toronto’s percentage of First Nations students being significantly lower — this year only 260 of the more than 92,000 Toronto Catholic students self-identified as First Nations — the position only became a recent priority.

Pio said he hopes the initiative will be extended beyond just this school year.

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