A child's red dress hangs on a stake near the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia. CNS photo/Jennifer Gauthier, Reuters

‘Raw truth’ must come out for healing to begin

  • July 3, 2021

“Education got us into this; education will get us out of this.” Though those words were first spoken and repeated often by Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Sen. Murray Sinclair, they’ve become the personal motto of St. Mary’s University Elder in Residence Casey Eagle Speaker.

Eagle Speaker is a regular on the Calgary campus, where the 70-year-old educator shares his own experience of attending a residential school, his struggle to recover his language and culture and the devastation felt across generations, in families and communities, that is the legacy of residential schools.

“That’s really important — to hear the truth,” said Eagle Speaker. “It does make people uncomfortable, but you have to hit a level of discomfort to begin to understand. The discovery of these 751 who have been added on (to 215 unmarked graves found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School) out at the Cowassess First Nation there in Saskatchewan, that’s really got a lot of people in a deep level of discomfort. Because it’s challenging what they thought they knew, what they thought was the truth. Now the raw truth has come out.”

Through fireside chats, one-on-one meetings and in classroom, Eagle Speaker is bringing both students and faculty to an encounter with Indigenous culture, spirituality and history.

“A lot of them really appreciate the fact that they’re getting the truth,” he said. “Truth has been a healing source for all people. It’s the start of that healing journey.”

The elder didn’t arrive at this understanding without his own struggles.

“When I came out of residential school and I took education, I had this notion,” he recalls. “I wanted to use education as a weapon to get even with the white man. I wanted him to feel my pain, my hurt, my shame, my guilt. I wanted them to feel that they were animals, the way I was taught to feel. It didn’t turn out that way. It (education) has become a weapon to create relationship, to create something good.”

The kind of encounter Eagle Speaker offers on the campus of St. Mary’s has to become more and more a part of Catholic higher education right across Canada, said Peter Meehan, Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities of Canada chair and St. Jerome’s University president.

“All the Catholic university presidents recognize that this is missional for us,” Meehan said. “The documents have to be made available. The scholarship has to be encouraged.”

At St. Jerome’s, Meehan has undertaken a major strategic planning exercise, hoping to ensure an important place for the liberal arts and St. Jerome’s on the campus of the University of Waterloo. Real-world study of the history of residential schools fits right into that.

“As a Catholic university, I’m really focused on how we are Catholic — not the fact that we are Catholic. We have to lead with our commitment to human dignity, with our commitment to people on the margins. These are all Gospel imperatives that I think people just overlook,” he said. “We should be offering programs in this (residential schools). We should be offering our research and our scholars, encouraging more graduate studies in these areas, because the times are just desperate for it.”

Meehan sees no lack of interest among St. Jerome’s students.

“This is a generation motivated by injustice. We have to bring it to them in creative ways that are honest,” he said.

At St. Paul’s College within the University of Winnipeg, residential school history has played a large part in the largest Catholic studies program in Canada.

“This topic is covered in portions of the Catholic Studies introductory course, as well as by specific courses on the relations of the Church with Indigenous peoples,” said St. Paul’s rector Chris Adams in an e-mail.

Which is not to say that Adams believes it is doing enough. “Our professors are committed to furthering understandings related to reconciliation, both in class and in our special lectures,” he said.

Universities like King’s College in London, Ont., and the Atlantic School of Theology also plan such courses.

“Reconciliation is not for Indigenous people to do, but for non-Indigenous people to look at,” said Eagle Speaker. “To reconcile with the fallacies that they’ve been living with, that they’ve been taught. They need to recognize that, to accept it and then to walk with Indigenous people. A lot of my work at St. Mary’s has been bringing that to the table.”

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