Photo by Michael Swan

Course seeks new relations with Indigenous

By 
  • September 11, 2021

As students filter back onto campus, one small group of first-year students at the University of St. Michael’s College will be thrust into one of the most difficult, uncomfortable and important problems this nation faces.

Christianity, Truth and Reconciliation is a new course in the Christianity and Culture program of Canada’s largest Catholic university.

The course will be based on the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

More than just reviewing and analysing the 7,000-page 2015 report of the TRC, the new course will be a response to the 94 Calls to Action the TRC issued.

“Is this the Church responding? Yes. Is it adequate? No,” said course instructor Prof. Reid Locklin.

Locklin hopes the new course will be the beginning of the Catholic university seeking a new relationship with Indigenous Canadians. But it’s just the beginning.

“If St. Mike’s sort of said, ‘We’re offering a course, so we’re done,’ that would be a disaster,” said Locklin.

Locklin is partnering with the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in presenting the course. That partnership will allow students to do transcription work and oral history projects with residential school survivors. Shingwauk is home to the archives of the Shingwauk Residential School, the Jesuit-operated St. Peter Claver Residential School and St. Joseph’s School for Girls operated by the Daughters of the Heart of Mary in Spanish, Ont.

They will also meet a panel of survivors — virtually this year, but in future Locklin hopes students will meet survivors in their own communities.

It’s the kind of course students of all sorts, not just Catholic students, are hungry for, said third-year political science student Naomi Addai.

“Considering the climate, this course would be a good thing to have on the university campus,” said the student of Ryerson University, soon to be renamed. (Given Egerton Ryerson’s pivotal role in designing the model for residential schools, the university has decided to drop the Ryerson name.)

“As a student, something a little bit more interdisciplinary, that looks at the subject widely, would be what I would appreciate.”

To study both Indigenous and Christian perspectives on the history and effects of residential schools would be an opportunity for real understanding, she said.

“We’re not teaching Indigenous Studies. We’re teaching the relationship between the Christian Church and Indigenous people, and the problematic, and the life-giving relationship there,” said St. Mike’s president David Sylvester. “Catholic universities have committed themselves to this and St. Mike’s has a long journey ahead on that road.”

Locklin has spent two years developing the course, seeking partnerships with Indigenous people  who will keep the course grounded in Indigenous reality.

While the American scholar of Hinduism might seem an odd choice to teach this course, Locklin spent a year volunteering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, helping out at the Jesuit-run Red Cloud Indian School, where he was witness to the crisis colonization has brought to Indigenous culture. Pine Ridge has the shortest average lifespan of any district in the Western hemisphere at just 47 years for men and 52 for women.

“For a while, I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into my teaching,” Locklin said. “We’re really trying to think about this course in the context of thinking more broadly about how our college programs — as well as the (graduate) faculty of theology — how they’re all called to respond to the TRC. It’s not supposed to be a one-off. It’s supposed to be one instalment in a broader effort.”

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