A Reflection by Raj Vijayakumar, SJ

February 21, 2017  Last summer, five Jesuit scholastics went to Regina for a six-week First Nation’s immersion experience that proved to be a very enriching one for all those involved.

As one of its fundamental goals, the experience stressed learning about First Nation’s culture from First Nation’s people.  The idea seems relatively mundane, but people would be surprised at how often this principle is violated. 

We attended two courses taught by top rate Indigenous studies scholars including Randy Lundy, Christian Thompson, and Blair Stonechild. We learned about the history of First Nation’s people on Turtle Island, to their contact with western society, to the present-day.

Immersion at Turtle Island

We also learned about the tragic history of Residential Schools. This tragic stain is a part of the history of Canada and the Christian churches, one that can never be forgotten. Our learning of this part of Canadian history, was not limited to the classroom.  Noel StarBlanket, a prominent First Nation’s leader, took us to the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School and showed us first-hand the experiences many students had while attending the institution. 

We were also very fortunate to experience a ‘sweat’ on a reserve.  A small group of about 14, huddled in a dark confined space, praying, meditating, and “feeling the heat.”  For my companions and myself, this gem of Indigenous spirituality was a priceless experience.

I enjoyed two moving experiences during this time with First Nation’s people.  The first involved questioning my assumptions on what First Nation’s people value.  I remember once speaking to an Indigenous woman about the difficulty of the Canadian government and the churches apologize for Residential schools.  The woman, pointed out, “[They] always think that we want your money.  We just want to hear sorry.” 

In the western legal system, saying you are sorry in the public forum is construed as an admission of guilt, and therefore entitles the aggrieved to some type of compensation.  But the Western legal system, and its form of thinking, doesn’t automatically apply to First Nation’s law and way of thinking. This experience helped me to shift gears, and be aware that there is another perspective that sees an expression of regret as an apology.

Another experience was with a young man, when we were speaking about the right of self government for First Nation’s people.  A bit skeptical of his argument, I asked about headlines relating to corruption among some chiefs.  The clever man responded with, “What happens when you have been living politically in a certain way for thousands of years, and then all of a sudden a foreign power imposes another form of government on you.  Where do you think the corruption really comes from?”  The young man was making the point that a certain political structure creates the division and tension that we see in First Nation’s politics.  The point suggests a deeper underlying reasoning for some of the headlines that have been making news.  I was grateful to him for the opportunity of being challenged, and going deeper in my understanding of Indigenous people’s relationship to western society.

The experience was a deeply enriching and moving one.  One can only hope that this six-week program will continue, and many others will have the opportunity to discover the riches in culture and spirituality that First Nation’s peoples of Canada have to offer us all.

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