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Indigenous voices to be heard and celebrated

By Christopher Hrynkow


SASKATOON — The strategic plan of St. Thomas More College (STM) at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) speaks of a duty “to make of STM a truly welcoming community where indigenous voices are heard and celebrated.”

On Jan. 17, STM’s Academic Indigenous Working Group held an event in support of this imperative. Four panelists came together to help the college community answer the question: What does a Catholic college need to know to be truly welcoming for indigenous people? This question-based approach was chosen because it encourages the type of listening on the part of Catholic institutions that is part of the spirit of the truth and reconciliation process that continues across the country.

The panelists were offered tobacco before they spoke in order to follow protocol and to bring into being a sense of accountability in terms of the knowledge they shared in this public form. All the panelists mentioned personal connections to Catholic education, which helped to set the stage for their contributions that evening.

First to speak was Marie Battiste, a Mi’kmaq educator from Potlotek First Nation and a professor in the School of Education at the U of S. She poignantly laid out a requirement for decolonization in education, emphasizing the importance of empowering indigenous people to negotiate the divide between indigenous knowledge and university qualifications. Battiste further emphasized the need for anti-racist education as a basis to build quality relationships that will provide lasting foundations for success after indigenous students have completed their formal education.

Next up was John Merasty, a 65-year-old member of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in his third year of Environment and Society at U of S. Mersaty spoke about the significance of basic gestures that make room for indigenous students, including handshakes, greetings, the exchanging of gifts, smudging and powwows. He later recounted his personal experience of abuse at residential school and his appreciation of systematic abuse in those schools being acknowledged in STM’s classrooms.

Merasty was followed by Verna St. Denis of the U of S’s Department of Educational Foundations, who is both Cree and Métis and a member of the Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation. She argued for anti-racist, anti-colonial education as a path to heal the legacy of cultural genocide that is a deeply regrettable product of Catholic-indigenous encounters. St. Denis also spoke of the need for allies among settler academics, who are willing to listen and learn from indigenous voices.

Erica Violet Lee, a Nehiyaw woman from inner-city Saskatoon and Thunderchild First Nation who helped to start the Idle No More movement and who has co-taught a philosophy course at STM, rounded out the panel contributions. Lee emphasized the need to more fully recognize the importance of indigenous knowledges at the college. She also called on settlers to ensure that they fulfil the treaty obligation for tuition-free access to university education for indigenous students, particularly from northern communities. Additionally, Lee addressed the need to create faculty positions for indigenous academics at STM.

STM’s Academic Indigenous working group met the next day to begin acting on the insights shared by the panelists. This response was organized under three pillars, each accompanied by an initiative that is now in process.

Under the “Support” pillar, the working group is establishing a “Reconciliation Bursary” specifically for indigenous students from northern communities. Under the “Learn” pillar, the college is now planning a 14-session version of the U of S’s successful “Indigenous Voices” program to be tailored for the STM community, the first instalment of which will be given at the faculty and staff retreat in August. Under the “Engage” pillar, the working group is organizing a faculty-partner colloquium to be held twice each term, via which an STM faculty member co-presents with an indigenous scholar or community collaborator on a topic of mutual interest.

The inaugural session will be on March 7, while on May 9 Harry Lafond of the Treaty Commissioners Office and STM associate dean Darrell McLaughlin will co-present on the experience of co-teaching the Seminar in Critical Perspectives on Social Justice and Common Good this term.

These initiatives will join with existing programming at the college. However, the panelists helped to demonstrate how there is still a lot of work to be done within the STM and larger communities to foster meaningful reconciliation. Indeed, in terms of the focus question of the panel, there a cogent sense in which the work of hospitality, most especially when ensuring indigenous students feel welcome at a Catholic college, is never done. Yet undertaking the duty to make STM a welcoming community is essential if the college is to fulfil many of the commitments to social justice and the common good it lays out in its strategic plan.

Hrynkow is the chair of the Academic Indigenous Working Group at St. Thomas More College.

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