SASKATOON — A plaque acknowledging Treaty 6 territory and the importance of treaties to all Canadians was blessed Nov. 9 at St. Anne Roman Catholic Church in Saskatoon. The evening celebration included a blessing by parish priest Rev. Matthew Ramsay, prayers in Cree by Elder Oliver Cameron, and a talk by Elder Ruth Cameron.
During the blessing prayers, Oliver Cameron lit a smudge of sage. He described smudging during prayer as similar to the use of incense.
Ramsay sprinkled the plaque with holy water, asking for God’s blessing. “May this plaque be for us a reminder of how we are all God’s children here; may it remind us of our history, and our lives together now, and of the future that we hope for and that God wants for us. May it be a step toward reconciliation and love.”
Designed in consultation with the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, the plaque features a replica of a medal presented to participating First Nations chiefs in commemoration of a treaty signing. The plaque at St. Anne’s also acknowledges Treaty 6, signed in 1876, which covers a territory of some 121,000 acres in Alberta and Saskatchewan, including the City of Saskatoon.
“Treaties are mutually beneficial arrangements,” states the inscription. “Newcomers to Canada built their society in this place where some were looking for political and religious freedoms. They and their descendants benefited from the wealth generated from this land. Today, there are misconceptions that only First Nations peoples are part of the treaties, but in reality, all of us are treaty people.”
Earlier in the evening, Christine Zyla, who works on diocesan reconciliation projects in conjunction with the Diocesan Council for Truth and Reconciliation, introduced Elder Ruth Cameron, who spoke as part of a Treaty Elder series being offered in parishes across the diocese.
Born in Treaty 4 territory, Ruth married Oliver Cameron, a member of Beardys and Okemasis First Nation in Treaty 6 territory, and has four children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She worked for some 32 years as a home and school liaison in the Catholic school system in Saskatoon. “She saw that job as one of building positive relationships between families and school, especially with indigenous families,” Zyla said. “She helped teachers work inter-culturally.”
In her presentation, Ruth Cameron described her childhood, which from the age of five involved attending the Indian residential school operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Nuns at Lebret, Sask. The experience left her angry and hurt, unable to understand why her mother had left her at the residential school, separated from all but one of her brothers and sisters. Later, at the age of 14, she struggled to integrate into a public school, eventually finding acceptance through athletics.
Cameron said that over the years, she has come to understand how her experiences affected her — and how the residential school system and colonization itself has impacted lives and communities.
“I just want to share where I am coming from, to help other people try to understand our families,” she said.
“Why are people in crisis?” she asked, citing poverty and addiction as the fallout of a deeply flawed system. Lives and families were profoundly damaged by the schools that separated parents and children, and a multi-generational colonization process of assimilation that attempted to eliminate indigenous languages, cultures, and sacred ceremonies.
In the struggle to understand and find healing, Cameron said she was helped by her mother, who told her to “be proud of who you are — hold your head up high, you have a lot to offer.” A devout Catholic, her mother taught her the sacredness of being a young woman and a mother, the importance of respecting the earth, as well as the need to “get along with all kinds of people.”
For generations the government has exercised control over indigenous peoples, and today First Nations people continue to be hurt by racism and a judgmental attitude, even among indigenous people toward each other, Cameron said. “The jails are full of our people, but they are not getting help to learn how to be part of society, how to be helpful.”
Traditional teachings have helped her rediscover the sacred in herself and in the world around her, Ruth Cameron said. She has found much in common between First Nations spirituality and Christian faith. “We all have the same God. We are all God’s children,” she stressed, describing the beauty of diversity, of people of different colours, shapes and language.