SASKATOON — For the past eight months, members of the Diocesan Council for Truth and Reconciliation (DCTR) have met with community leaders west of Saskatoon, working to come up with a concrete way of addressing divisions and bringing about greater understanding and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people.
A range of community partners are now working on a newly created West Central Reconciliation Committee, planning an event aimed at Grades 7 and 8 students from schools at Red Pheasant Cree Nation, Mosquito First Nation, and Biggar, Sask.
The group is planning a daylong experience of dialogue and awareness for youth in May, which will serve as a witness to the wider community, explains Myron Rogal, diocesan co-ordinator of Justice and Peace in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.
“We are hopeful that the youth can come to know each other, and that something of their experience will be shared with their parents,” says Rogal.
Established as part of a promise by the Saskatoon diocese at a June 2012 Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event, the DCTR has been doing a range of work around healing and reconciliation.
DCTR members were inspired by the documentary Reserve 107, which tells the story of reconciliation and healing among Mennonites, Lutherans and the Young Chippewayan First Nation in one Saskatchewan community.
The area west of Saskatoon, between Biggar and North Battleford, has been the focus of much attention and emotion since area farmer Gerald Stanley was charged and recently found not guilty in the August 2016 shooting death of Colten Boushie, a young indigenous man. Those events have also heightened the DCTR’s desire to address divisions that plague many areas of the province.
“Last year we called a committee together of elders, representatives of the Catholic school board, the University of Saskatchewan, ecumenical partners and other stakeholders and held a meeting with local pastors to gather their thoughts and insights on divisions in their area.”
At the fourth meeting, a feeling of hesitation and uncertainty about whether to keep going was ultimately dispelled when an elder spoke up and urged the group to go ahead, saying that reconciliation is a profound need that must be addressed.
The group asked for a meeting with the band council at Red Pheasant Cree First Nation, and were invited to a regular Red Pheasant/Mosquito Inter-Agency Meeting on Oct. 25, 2017.
This monthly inter-agency gathering includes a range of community partners, including Battle River Treaty 6 Health Centre, BATC (Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs) Social Development, Kanaweyimik Child and Family Serives, Clifford Wuttunee School, Mosquito School, the RCMP, BTC (Battleford Tribal Council) Justice, the City of North Battleford, as well as Red Pheasant and Mosquito First Nations. Issues regularly addressed by this group include health care, education, employment, child care, transportation, community leadership, and barriers to services.
“We went to the community because we didn’t want this to be a program that we were imposing on anyone. We wanted it to be something developed from the grassroots, something we could then assist with but was led by the community,” Rogal describes.
“We discovered there was a definite need, and the inter-agency group indicated it would be helpful for an outside group to be involved.”v
The inter-agency group and First Nations representatives encouraged the committee to “have a brave and a bold conversation, focused on youth.” The committee ultimately decided to focus on youth in Grade 7 and 8, and met with the principals of local schools.
“We wanted to have a day focused on traditional teachings — the culture and values of both groups — a day in which indigenous and non-indigenous students could come together and share.” In exploring culture, knowledge and values, Rogal adds, rural youth have the potential to realize that they share much in common.
The project will include a preparation event held in the schools involved, including an information package for parents, as well as a debriefing session afterward. The main event, hosted at a First Nations school, would bring together some 50 young people for activities and teachings, and facilitated sharing circles.
This will not be a one-time event, Rogal stresses. “We have been asked by the local community to establish a long-term relationship.”
Because some of the communities involved are in the Diocese of Prince Albert, two deacons from there are offering input into the committee, adds Rogal. “They have long-standing relationships in the area.”
Key insights and leadership have been provided by Harry Lafond of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, and Elder Reg Buglar of Red Pheasant Cree First Nation, who serves as an elder at St. Francis Cree Bilingual School in Saskatoon.
The West Central Reconciliation Committee is hoping the experience will build connections among young people that will “reset the needle” on racism. “We are hoping that students from the different schools will find commonalities in their love of the land, and perhaps even in their mutual feelings of marginalization. We hope there will be dialogue and relationship-building in the listening circles.”
Rogal notes that the challenges facing First Nations and rural communities are often similar: “There are many commonalities. Both are losing young people. Both want to pass on their traditions. Both are dealing with complex issues such as grief, and both are facing the barriers of marginalization.”
When reflecting on why it is important to make this effort, Rogal comes back to the Gospel call: “We have a responsibility to open ourselves to this pain and this division, and to listen.”