Jacqueline McKernan is surrounded by her new friends at the Pine Channel Spiritual Pilgrimage in Saskatchewan last summer, part of her two-week immersion into the Indigenous community. Photo courtesy of Northern Bridge Community Partnership

Northern classroom opens a new world in Saskatchewan

  • February 28, 2019

King’s University College has a long history of educating its students about the wider world, but sometimes forgot about the country surrounding the small campus in London, Ont. 

About eight years ago, that got Fr. Michael Bechard thinking.

“I began to wonder why we weren’t doing more things at home,” said Bechard, chaplain at the Catholic liberal arts school federated with Western University.

It led him and a colleague to Canada’s North, the Fond du Lac First Nation in northern Saskatchewan to be precise. It’s an area the Sisters of St. Joseph of London had long ministered to and an area that sparked some interest for Bechard. They explored the area and got to know the local chief, elders and people, and participated in a pilgrimage.

“Once we had done that together we thought we would pitch the idea to the students to see if they might be interested in learning about the needs of our Indigenous brothers and sisters in the North,” said Bechard.

They received a positive response and the result is the Inculturation and Spirituality course, a full semester, three-credit course at King’s that explores Canada’s history with Indigenous people from colonization to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The aim is to open up minds to some of the spiritual and cultural realities of the North and give students the opportunity to live within Indigenous communities for two weeks in the summer. 

“We don’t go up with the intent of really offering very much,” said Bechard. “We really go up as learners seeking to glean this wisdom of the communities that are there.” Students are exposed to smudging and other sacred ceremonies while at the same time learning why faith is important in these communities and gaining a sense of what it means to live as an Indigenous person. 

“It’s a complex relationship, but it’s one that’s been marked with a lot of joy and a lot of excitement,” he said.

The term “life-changing experience” gets tossed around rather nonchalantly at times, but for Jacqueline McKernan, she means it when she describes what the course has meant in her life. A history major when she attended King’s, she discovered Inculturation and Spirituality in second year. The experience, she said, altered her life “emotionally, spiritually and career-wise.” She has embraced what she learned and now works with the Northern Bridge Community Partnership, founded by Bechard. Northern Bridge connects Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners to nurture healing, empower youth and foster leadership and is closely aligned with the course. 

Prior to joining Northern Bridge as program manager, McKernan worked in finance in Toronto. 

“After three years I thought, ‘You know, something’s missing.’ And I knew it all along,” she said. “I knew if I kept working in finance or whatever, I wasn’t being true to myself.” So she left her job, did a post-grad course in international development and reconnected with Bechard and joined Northern Bridge. She follows classes via Skype from her base in Toronto and travelled in mid-February to Behchoko in the Northwest Territories to make sure all is on track for students immersing themselves in the two-week trip she will lead in July. Bechard will be taking another group to Fond du Lac.

Both Bechard and McKernan say they have gained more from the course and immersion trips than they could ever expect to give back.

“I never went up with a sense, I suppose, of having a saviour’s complex, but I certainly did think I did have something to offer the community,” said Bechard. “But I’ve found over the last number of years that I always end up taking away much more than I could possibly ever offer.”

The course has attracted about 75 students over its five years, including students from the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto and St. Joseph’s in Edmonton.

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