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Creating a place to talk about Indigenous spirituality

Education, Faith and Spirituality

St. Thomas More College (STM) strategic plan identified Indigenous Engagement as one of five strategic priorities. As part of their journey of Reconciliation the college has created a Chair in Indigenous Spirituality and Reconciliation. The Office of the Treaty Commissioner sat down with STM president, Dr. Terrence Downey to learn more about their reconciliation plans.

How did the chair come about?
The idea of a chair came out because we said what we should do is have a forum here, where people can start to communicate and dialogue with people in the First Nations and Metis communities. We thought one of the ways we can help people to understand [each other] is to understand their spiritual traditions and spiritualities. We are a Catholic College here, we are comfortable talking about spiritual matters.

We decided to get an advisory circle together because it’s not something we all have expertise in. If we are going to do this properly we have to communicate with Indigenous Peoples in the community who know the spiritualities, which we don’t, so we set up an advisory committee. We met with them and told them what we were trying to do and agreed on the purpose, activities and the principals.

What is the chair’s role?
Until there is the funding to have someone in the chair position full time, the college is going to host conferences, events, and bring people in to speak and to provide a forum so people can gain an understanding of Indigenous spirituality.  When we approached elders about this, they were quite keen, saying you know this is the way to understand. In my own view, I don’t really think we can understand other traditions or other cultures unless we have a sense of their spiritual traditions, where they are from. I think it’s a great way for us to address racism, a great way for us to address people who fear different spiritual traditions than their own and this is the appropriate way of going about it.

What is the purpose of chair?
To ardently explore with humility, respect and courage the history, cultures and traditions that have shaped the intricate nature of Indigenous spiritualities in Canada; to interact with and listen thoughtfully to Elders and community leaders who have preserved, protected and communicated this fertile spiritual heritage down through the generations; to consider and analyze the complexities of the interaction between Indigenous spirituality and Christian traditions historically and currently and to advance reconciliation.

What are the guiding principles?
Wisdom listens, and understands, values and respects diversity of experiences and ways of knowing, and appreciates that profound learning is of necessity multicultural, multidisciplinary, multidimensional and relational.  Divine revelation is not confined to any culture or faith tradition; to be spiritual is to be reconciled with nature and with others, and amenable to honoring diverse beliefs.

Is everyone at the college engaged with the process?
The faculty and staff are very enthusiastic and very onside with this. The faculty have their own organization to promote this -- Academic Working Group on Indigenous Engagement.

Do you have advice for other starting on the path of Reconciliation?
I think you have to look at your own organization and say, “what can we do, what steps can we take to promote reconciliation, or promote understanding or to address racism, which we see in our society.” What is it we can do to advance understanding of the other because when we know people and we understand them then we don’t fear them and that’s how to address racism. This is where the idea of the Indigenous Spirituality Chair came about. We are a Catholic Institution, it is a place where if you are comfortable and want to talk about faiths you can do that. We thought this is a strength of ours, this is something we can do that maybe a lot of other institutions can’t do.


Editors Note: The STM Endowed Chair in Indigenous Spirituality and Reconciliation has sponsored numerous events including the installations of a treaty plaque on Nov. 30, 2016, as well as Meaning of Reconciliation event with speaker Phil Fontaine.

(Answers have been edited for length and clarity)

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