SASKATOON — Elders Walter Linklater and Agnes Desjarlais described their healing journeys during the second session of a Treaty Elder Series Feb. 11 at St. Joseph Parish in Saskatoon, calling for ongoing reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians.
“This event is an attempt to promote understanding and awareness of indigenous culture and spirituality, and treaty history,” said Mike Broda of St. Joseph Parish, introducing the elders, who were later joined by Lyndon Linklater of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner’s Speakers Bureau.
Walter Linklater, a residential school survivor and a retired teacher, began the afternoon presentation with a song to the Creator and to the “spiritual grandfathers and grandmothers,” explaining the meaning of the song and the significance of the four directions in indigenous culture.
“We are to be respectful of who we are and where we are, to respect the spirits that guide us,” Walter explained. “As human beings we require a lot of guidance to try and live a good life.”
As the Judaeo-Christian tradition has the Ten Commandments, the elders teach how to live a good life: “They teach us to be good, to be kind, to be loving, to respect other faiths, to respect other people.”
He shared the story of his own life, the damage done by residential schools, his struggles to overcome the negative impacts, and the healing he found in the spirituality and traditional practices of his people.
Originally from Couchiching First Nation in the Rainy Lake district near Fort Frances in northwestern Ontario, Walter was taken to St. Margaret’s Indian Residential School at the age of 7, spending eight years there, allowed home only on Sundays and in the summer and, separated from his parents and grandparents, gradually losing his language and culture.
When he finished Grade 8, the Department of Indian Affairs, which at that time exercised complete control over the lives of First Nations people, sent him to high school in Lebret, Sask., east of Regina — “a thousand miles from home. I became alienated from my family completely.”
It was eventually decided that he would become a teacher — “We had no say whatsoever” — and he started his career at Thunderchild First Nation, where he met his wife, Maria. Walter worked in several communities in the north, until the family moved to Saskatoon 25 years ago.
Walter struggled with alcohol, trying to cope with the ongoing effects of colonialism in his life. He described how his mother — both a devout Catholic and an Ojibway/Anishinaabe elder — would pray for him to stop drinking. It took a long time, he said, but “I started to realize the inherent spiritual nature of who I was.”
He pointed to the similarities between First Nations spirituality and Catholic teachings: “We honour the same Spirit, but perhaps defined differently.” He recalled the words of an elder at a sweat lodge ceremony: “Remember, grandson, there is only one God. This is how we honour that God.”
The elder urged Walter to forgive the hurt inflicted by the residential schools and the church, echoing the words of Christ on the cross: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“He told me, ‘Walter, you will never, never live in peace if you don’t forgive them.’ That hit me. I began to correct the hatred that had built up in me.” He described the steps on the long spiritual journey that followed, as he stopped drinking and was able to recognize his “Higher Power” as the one God — the Creator, the Great Spirit.
“I fully understood and accepted what our elders are teaching us: how to love, how to respect, how to be honest, how to be kind, how to be loving, how to be helpful.”
Walter also reflected on the recent acquittal of Gerald Stanley in the shooting death of Colten Boushie: “When that verdict came down I wept, because I hold back that little anger that has festered in me, and I asked for help from the elders, some of whom have passed on and are in the spirit world. The answer they gave me was to pray for the Boushie family and also for the other family involved, that they will understand what respect and equality are really about.”
He added: “We start with ourselves: we look within ourselves and find out who we are and what we can do to help change the relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations people. Will we ever achieve that? I don’t know. But if we don’t try we never will. And if we try, perhaps some day we will live together in harmony, like the Creator and like Jesus Christ want us to. That is the hope that I have today.”
Elder Agnes Desjarlais also shared her story of finding healing through the spirituality, ceremonies, and traditions of her culture, and spoke about the importance of continuing to work together for understanding.
About Colten Boushie and his family, and events surrounding the Stanley trial, she said, “We must keep praying for the families and for the young people, because some of them are thinking really negatively. I believe in the power of prayer, and sometimes you can do nothing else, if people aren’t going to listen to you.”
Desjarlais stressed the importance of forgiveness: “Pray. Keep praying for them, so they are not carrying hatred and bitterness too far.”
During the presentation, Walter’s son Lyndon Linklater provided an overview of treaty history in Canada and the meaning of treaties as a sacred relationship.
“Both sides of a treaty received benefits,” he said. “You have benefitted from the treaty that was made in 1876 (Treaty 6). There would be no such city as Saskatoon, no such province as Saskatchewan, without the treaties.”
Many Canadians are unaware of the history of the treaties, and there are many misconceptions. Only recently has there been an effort to teach this history.
“The land is our mother,” Lyndon said, describing the understanding of indigenous peoples. “Oral history tells us is that we did not sell the land, but agreed to share it.”
The elders view treaties as “a relationship with Canada, our country, and we have to work at it,” he added. “This country belongs to all of us. We have children and grandchildren. What kind of country do we want for them? Reconciliation is about learning and understanding, eating together, praying together, singing together. The more you know about me, the more I know about you, and the more this continues in our country, the better it is for all of us..”
As one response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, parishes in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon have been invited to participate in the Treaty Elder Series, organized in conjunction with the Office of the Treaty Commissioner. For more information about reconciliation efforts in the diocese, contact Myron Rogal at the Catholic Pastoral Centre in Saskatoon.