Catholic education needs to nurture the importance of Indigenous ways of knowing in its institutions. Photo by Michael Swan

Sarah Twomey: Educators play key role in reconciliation

By  Sarah Twomey
  • June 20, 2021

I am a fifth-generation Irish descendent from Southern Ontario, and a third-generation teacher.

When I arrived at St. Mary’s University in Calgary three years ago, I had read minimally about the Nations of Treaty 7. Mohkínstsis, the Blackfoot name for Calgary, is the home of the Siksikaitsitapi, the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Kainai, Pikani and Siksika First Nations as well as the home of the Tsuut’ina First Nation, the Eyarhe Nakoda Nations and the Bearspaw, Chiniki and Wesley First Nations. Calgary is also home to the Métis Nation Region 3. These are important facts.

However, my initial awakening to the actual meaning of the relationship between self and place occurred when I was teaching at the University of Hawaii.

After more than a decade working at the University of Hawaii, I understood, at the heart level, what it meant to examine oneself in relation to the residual injuries of colonialism. My awakening to the beauty and power of Indigenous ways of knowing came from my Hawaiian friends and colleagues. I am so grateful for the patience, kindness and openness they extended to me. Ironically, it seemed, I had to go “away” in order to understand the general erasure of Indigenous histories in Canada.

When I eventually returned to Canada to take up my position as Dean of Education at St. Mary’s, I vowed to continue my journey and contribute my individual piece to the collective promise and premise of Truth and Reconciliation on Treaty 7 territory, where the university is located.

Part of this contribution involves an examination of the role that education can play in creating conditions supportive of human dignity and the common good.  

I believe we need to further the work of reconciliation through an explicit anti-racist focus. This is both inner work, particularly for white settler folks, and an external project. Overall, the unity of this work is solidified in right relationships within the dynamic of pluralism, which requires us to recognize the importance of diversity in our communities and schools in order to fully love humanity.

So, what does this mean for education — how do we create opportunities for empathy to develop in our learning and listening? In Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2005): The Human Person and Human Rights in The Equal Dignity of All People, section I45 states: “Only the recognition of human dignity can make possible the common and personal growth of everyone.”

Political theorist Hannah Arendt talks about plurality as a way of being in the world in which everyone has the right to exist. We share the world in common and this is our solidarity as people inhabiting the world together. We all have the right to appear as ourselves and need the recognition of the other to co-exist in harmony.

Arendt argues that when we lack the imagination to understand the perspective of the other, we are denying the right of others to exist. Arendt talks about the need to have self-reflective solitude so we can develop the capacity to understand these different perspectives and contribute to that solidarity.

As Catholic educators, we can strive to produce teachers who are morally sensitive and seek justice; Catholic teachers who are self-reflective and imaginative.

David Greenwood once wrote that schooling often “distracts our attention from and distorts our response to, the actual contexts of our own lives (places).” St. Mary’s University is such a place of learning, for where it is situated, but also for how we come together within the contexts of our individual and collective experiences, histories and aspirations.

I see my role as Dean of Education to work from a strength-based understanding of Aboriginal cultures and communities that are unique to this place.

To come from a place of humility and understanding of white privilege as a way to facilitate pathways that are inviting and built by the communities that they are intended to serve. To work as an ally and advocate within a discourse of possibility and strength.

I have two years left in my term as Dean of Education. It is my hope that during this time, Catholic education will continue to nurture the importance of Indigenous ways of knowing in our institution; that space be created for the birthright of First Nation languages and that we never allow anyone to experience indignity as we stand as witnesses to God’s unconditional love and Christ’s radical call to love the “other” as our self.

(Twomey is Dean of Education at St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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