SASKATOON — Parishioners and visitors gathered in a circle at St. Joseph’s Parish Hall in Saskatoon after Sunday mass Feb. 4, sharing soup and bannock, listening to the experiences and the wisdom of two indigenous leaders.
Mike Broda of St. Joseph Parish offered a traditional welcoming gift of tobacco to knowledge-keeper Lyndon Linklater and Elder Agnes Desjarlais to open the gathering, part of a Treaty Elder Series in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon. Linklater and Desjarlais both work at the Regional Psychiatric Centre, where they provide traditional ceremonies as the path of healing.
Linklater, who is also a member of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner’s Speakers Bureau, described his background. Both of his parents, and their parents before them, attended residential schools — his Anishinaabe (Ojibway) dad Walter Linklater in Ontario and later in Saskatchewan, and his Cree mother Marie in Saskatchewan, until she ran away, to be hidden by her grandmother.
“Like many First Nations people, we suffered as a result of these residential schools,” Linklater said. “There is a common story that starts to emerge when you talk to those who attended them, when you talk to their children and grandchildren.” The aftermath has included damaged families and communities, addiction, and dysfunction.
“Today we recognize this illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD,” said Linklater, noting that trauma will affect a person physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. “If you have PTSD, all these sociological factors will plague you,” he said. “And every single person that went to these schools suffered from PTSD in one form or another.”
Linklater described how his father was taught to reject his traditions, his language, and his identity, to the point that he did not even know he was Ojibway.
Linklater also reflected on the damage caused by removing children from their families. “In the schools, they were very lonely. I can’t imagine what it must have been like, to be five years old and your mom and dad aren’t there for you, to comfort you, to care for you, to nurture you,” he said.
“We know what it is like to have children, to have grandchildren, and how important it is to have young children feel loved. It is so critical: if that child grows up without feeling loved, that child is going to be messed up when they get older.”
In Saskatchewan, he stressed, residential schools were not around for just a few years, but for 122 years, “so it is multi-generational.”
The Truth and Reconciliation process has offered a path of healing, not only for residential school survivors and their descendants, but for the entire country, which made some profound historical mistakes, said Linklater.
“This my Canada, this is your Canada, this is our Canada — Canada is the best place in the whole wide world, but it can even be better. And it is up to us as Canadians to make that happen,” he said. “How are we ever going to know where we are going as a country if we don’t know where we have been? How are we ever going to know not to make the same mistakes if we don’t know we made mistakes in the first place?”
Linklater expressed appreciation for the parish event, noting that “for too long we haven’t been able to do this. We talk about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the 94 Calls to Action: you are doing it right now.”
Recognizing the impact of residential schools and coming to a better understanding of the trauma has enabled many to walk a long path of healing, Linklater described. “What really helped us Linklaters, was that we found our culture, we went back to our traditions.”
Diversity is a gift from God, with peoples of many different appearances, languages, and cultures worshipping one Creator, said Linklater, describing the many connections and commonalities between Christianity and indigenous teachings.
“When I found my traditions, my culture, would not believe the many similarities, the unbelievable parallels,” he said.
Elder Agnes Desjarlais also spoke about trauma and healing. A member of the Muskowekan First Nation near Lestock, Sask., Desjarlais and her parents attended Muscowequan Indian Residential School.
Even though there were some positive things about her experience — she loved learning to read, for instance — the damage caused by the system resonated in her family and community, resulting in alcoholism and broken families. Desjarlais recalled the loneliness and fear of going to the school as a child of six, how students who spoke their own language were punished, and how everyone’s long hair was cut.
Now the mother of eight, the grandmother of 13 and the great-grandmother of three, Desjarlais said she found healing as an adult when she began to learn about her culture, and became involved in traditional teachings and ceremonies.
“Once I started attending some of the ceremonies, I started feeling better about myself and who I was,” she said. “A lot of my family are strong Catholics. We all have to learn to respect each other’s way; we all follow the same God.”
Today she offers traditional teachings and ceremonies to women at the Regional Psychiatric Centre, and has found herself reflecting on how similar the prison system is to the residential school system. “A lot of the men and women there have parents and grandparents who went to residential school. It is just one big cycle.”
The path of healing is not an easy one, she noted, and involves each new generation. “All my life I’ve tried to do what I can to help people.”
During the event at St. Joseph’s, Myron Rogal, who co-ordinates the diocesan Office of Justice and Peace and serves on the Diocesan Council for Truth and Reconciliation (DCTR), provided an overview of the Treaty Elder Series, which is a diocesan reconciliation initiative offered in collaboration with the Office of the Treaty Commissioner.
As one response to the Calls to Action by the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, parishes have been invited to hold events to enhance awareness and understanding of treaty history and indigenous spirituality from the perspective of community elders, he explained.
“It is an act of reconciliation to be here today,” Rogal said.
The DCTR was established in the diocese in 2012 when then-Bishop Donald Bolen called together a group of indigenous and non-indigenous people to “begin to find a way forward, recognizing our treaty responsibilities and wanting to build relationships face-to-face,” Rogal said.
“Reconciliation is not something that can be delegated,” Rogal added. “As Christians, just as we cannot delegate the cross, we cannot pass it on. Reconciliation is something that is part of the community, something that the church is engaged in, but it is also the responsibility of each one of us.”