Returning to Spirit trainers in Winnipeg include, from left: Sister Olive Halpin, MO; Dennis Chartrand; Jacques Lafrance; Rev. Francois Paradis, OMI; and Dianne Little. (James Buchok photo)
WINNIPEG — Since 2001, Returning to Spirit has shone a hopeful light on the darkness that is the legacy of Indian residential schools. That’s seven years before a government apologized, and nine years before a national commission investigating the schools began its work.
“Everybody should take Returning to Spirit, to understand ourselves, to live out fully who we are, to get back to the spirit of who we really are,” said Sister Olive Halpin, MO (Missionary Oblate), who has been a workshop trainer in the RTS program since 2006. On Dec. 13 Halpin was recognized for her work with RTS as the organization held an open house at its new Winnipeg head office at Micah House, on North Main Street, in the Archdiocese of Winnipeg’s Catholic Centre for Social Justice.
Returning to Spirit consists of a four-day workshop for non-Aboriginals, and a four-day workshop for Aboriginal people, then the two come together in a final gathering.
“We have to be open to conversation as equals instead of trying to prove who is right and who is wrong,” said Halpin, adding that the simple question, “What happened to you?” can lead to a transformative experience. She said the workshop evaluations on the RTS website and participants’ statements such as “It changed my life” attest to the power of the experience. “It’s quite amazing,” she said.
Halpin, who has been part of workshops in Saskatoon, Regina, Vancouver, Nanaimo, Calgary, Edmonton, Yellowknife and elsewhere, said her Missionary Oblate superior encouraged the community to become involved, with 40 to 50 of the sisters participating over the years.
The community also has a history of being part of the residential schools. “It was painful for our sisters,” she said, and she’s often wanted to speak of the good people who tried to do right, but she knew there had to be a place and time for that.
“There were things that should never have happened, for sure, but many people who were there did their best.”
She told of a nun who would sit in a rocking chair with the little boys who needed consoling before bedtime. “Many people who worked there didn’t go there to be mean, they meant well. When they (the school survivors) have had the chance to express their hurt, the rest will come out.”
She said healing is possible, “one person at a time, one workshop at a time; it’s a ripple effect — to experience the richness of each other, instead of us trying to impose what we think is best. It requires mutuality to make this country great but we have to work together for all of us.”
Halpin extended a “thank you for the Aboriginal people. Some were deeply hurt, yet there’s a great openness in them. It has been a gift, all of the hundreds of people I have met. It’s been a pleasure and an honour for me to work for reconciliation.”
Rev. Francois Paradis, also a trainer with Returning to Spirit and a former pastor at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Aboriginal Church in Winnipeg, said Returning to Spirit continues to gain support and is forging local partnerships with Career Trek education and career counselling, the Manitoba Friendship Centre, the Winnipeg Foundation and the University of Winnipeg.
“And now we have this new office at the Centre for Social Justice, with lots of First Nations people in the neighbourhood, we’re close to downtown, and we honour this new home.” Paradis offered a reminder to the gathering to spread the word about Returning to Spirit. “We count on you to coax people, get into their heads, nag them.”