When Pope Francis delivered his apology to Canada’s Indgenous peoples in Alberta this summer, students and faculty at Waterloo, Ont.’s St. Jerome’s University watched intently alongside an Indigenous elder. Photo by Michael Swan

Encounter, heal and purify: St. Jerome’s plan for reconciliation

  • October 20, 2022

All histories are contested. If they weren’t, there would be no reason to study history. For an historian running a Catholic university in Canada right now, this nation’s history of colonialism and residential schools has created a special responsibility — not to the past but to our future understanding of ourselves.

In a sense, every student at St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo is now a history student, coming to terms with what residential schools mean to them as Canadians and as Catholics, St. Jerome’s president and vice-chancellor Peter Meehan told The Catholic Register.

“Speaking as an historian, I would tell you there’s just a growing body of literature and historical study on residential schools and the involvement of different Catholic orders in that history,” Meehan said. “We’re involved in that. We’re helping to relay those narratives, as unvarnished as they may be. I think this is really important.”

For both faculty and students at St. Jerome’s, a better understanding of Canada’s history is critical to any self-understanding, including a sense of who and what St. Jerome’s is as a Catholic institution.

“Certainly, among our faculty and students, there’s a great interest in Indigenous people,” Meehan said. “Young people are passionate. Their sensibilities are awakened to injustice.”

When Pope Francis issued his apology in Maskwacis, Alta., in July faculty and students gathered on campus, met with an Indigenous elder who led the group in a sharing circle and then lit a ceremonial fire before watching the apology on screen in the university’s atrium.

A plan for how St. Jerome’s will encounter, heal and purify the Catholic memory of more than a century of Catholic-run residential schools, which separated thousands of children from their families, communities, language and culture, is built into the new St. Jerome’s strategic plan.

“Sometimes these things become like binders on shelves. They’ve got 50 points, they’re super-ambitious and none of it gets done,” Meehan said. “We focused on a very straightforward plan where our priorities are logical — our academic mission, our faith mission.”

None of that is possible without an academic, institutional and cultural accounting for Canada’s history.

“It’s important that we do particular things, use our Catholic voice to show support for reconciliation, and to participate in it,” said Meehan.

Meehan’s approach at St. Jerome’s gets the full support of another historian heading up another Canadian Catholic university. University of St. Michael’s College president and vice-chancellor David Sylvester wants every student to wrestle with the demons of Canadian history.

“To my mind, reconciliation (historical and otherwise) is about right-relationship and accompaniment,” Sylvester wrote in an email. “So the path forward is about encountering the other in this conversation.”

Which leads Sylvester to conclude that the Catholic higher education experience has to go beyond just the books. Catholic university students need to learn from Indigenous people themselves, who can relay their history in a way whole libraries never will.

“This is not difficult, as I doubt there is an Indigenous person alive who hasn’t been personally affected by this history of colonialism and the reality of residential schools,” Sylvester said. “So, course and program development seeking the truth should not only include sources from Indigenous writers and historians, but actual personal encounters and relationship building. The process of developing knowledge and new understandings about truth and reconciliation demand this type of encounter.”

The goal of this kind of education goes beyond just a competent and complete picture of Canada’s past, said Meehan. Knowing our history has to lead us to act.

“An educated person thinks critically, gets involved, develops a social conscience, applies things they’ve learned to the situations they face,” he said.

That’s where the future comes in.

“It’s not about guilt,” Meehan said. “Really, we’re recognizing what has gone on and trying to be pro-active, moving forward.”

Almost 20 years ago the role of history in the life of a nation was an abiding concern of Pope John Paul II. He released a book on the subject in 2005 called Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium.

“Like individuals, then, nations are endowed with historical memory… And the histories of nations, objectified and recorded in writing, are among the essential elements of culture — the element which determines the nation’s identity in the temporal dimension,” he wrote.

Canada’s historians today and their students are creating a new identity by recovering our national memory. Dismissing the whole enterprise as revisionism misses the point, said Meehan.

“Revisionism just comes from looking at new sources and realizing that we didn’t have all this right,” he said.

That’s why a history grounded in the experience of ordinary people — rather than the triumphs of the powerful, famous or rich — is essential to a Catholic education.

“It was the dawning of social history that opens us up to all of these things,” Meehan said. “Any time you add voices to that history, you’re filling it out more completely… This may awaken more interest in how this project called Canada came together.”

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