Sean McGowan takes a girl on an upside-down ride during his trip to Fond du Lac, Sask., this past summer. Photo courtesy Northern Bridge Community Partnership

Northern reflections on a summer to remember

By  Bernadette Timson, Youth Speak News
  • January 22, 2020

Spending two weeks of your summer in a remote northern Saskatchewan community may not be everyone’s idea of vacation, but for Sean McGowan, the experience has left an impression that will likely last a lifetime.

McGowan, a fourth-year Political Science student at Western University in London, Ont., was part of a unique program that included a two-week immersion trip to the Indigenous community of Fond du Lac, Sask., on the western edge of Lake Athabasca. Northern Bridge Community Partnership (NBCP), based in London, Ont., offers both assistance to Native communities in Canada’s North as well as an educational — and spiritual — experience to young adults.

“I wouldn’t call it a missionary experience,” said McGowan. “I feel like they (the community) taught me more about the Catholic faith than I could have taught them. They’re obviously rooted in the Catholic faith.”

Under the direction of Fr. Michael Bechard, NBCP runs a three-credit course called Inculturation and Spirituality at King’s University College at Western, where students learn about various topics pertaining to the Indigenous people of Canada. NBCP, which was born from a trip Bechard made to the North nine years ago, strives to create a “genuine partnership with the Indigenous people in Canada’s north, built on friendship, respect and understanding.”

“It (the course) acknowledges that both good and bad things have happened between the Church and the Native culture, and goes through various subtopics like culture incursion, court systems, and it was a really cool experience to try the Kairos blanket exercise,” said McGowan.

At the core of this course lies Canadian history, more specifically, the relationship between Indigenous spirituality and the Catholic faith. But the course is not limited to the classroom. In fact, the only homework assigned is a reflection paper after the two-week trip in July. Some of the young adults return for the long-term immersion program which involves one to three years of service in the North.

Over the past eight years, more than 80 students have completed the program from various parts of Canada, including McGowan, whose time in Fond du Lac included four days on the Pine Channel pilgrimage near Lake Athabasca.

“I really wanted to learn about culture, I feel like it’s really important in Canada and I just wanted to learn more,” said McGowan. “It’s the one-on-one conversations that mean the most, seeing the ways where we are similar but different, because it is hard living up there. And Catholic values go hand in hand. This involved getting the opportunity to meet with the elders, playing the traditional drums, eating bannock, praying the rosary on the trail with the people, playing with the kids and skinning and drying freshly caught fish.”

Perhaps the most politically charged issue for many Canadians has been the traumatic past many individuals have suffered due to the legacy of the residential school system. This is definitely an obstacle between the Church and the Indigenous people of Canada, but it is also a window of opportunity for reconciliation, a prime motivator for NBCP.

Just in time for the new year, NBCP has started classes for 2020, with the hope of expanding its program to allow for more students to attend.

“It (the program) definitely gives me a perspective that’s different from everyone else. I think that if more people did programs like this, there would be more understanding in the classrooms,” said McGowan.

“To anyone who is considering doing the program, do it, it’s not going to be what you expect. You’ll definitely make lasting connections and you get to see a part of Canada that not many others get to see, both in landscape and in culture. Are there reservations? Yeah, I mean it’s a long way from home, you’re away for two weeks. You have to wake up early. But overall, it’s a very rewarding experience.”

(Timson, 21, is finishing her Event Management studies at Humber College in Etobicoke, Ont.)

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