It was a rather unique and perhaps historic day of professional development for educators in the St. Thomas Aquinas Roman (STAR) Catholic School Division.
More than 400 teachers, educational assistants and school administrators were at St. Augustine School Sept. 29 to take part in 61 different sessions, all focused on bringing together Aboriginal teachings, history and traditions with the Catholic education system. The sessions ranged from a sweat lodge to showcase various teaching techniques to even setting up a teepee.
STAR superintendent Troy Davies kicked off the day by reading the apology then Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave in reference to recognizing the federal government’s role in residential schools. Davies then stated STAR is proud of its partnerships with area First Nations and hopes days like this help strengthen that in the years ahead.
The keynote speaker spoke of how the Catholic faith and teachings can work together as one with Aboriginal traditions to bring unity and reconciliation.
Gary Gagnon, the coordinator of Aboriginal Relations for Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, and who also works as the Indigenous Learning Services Cultural Facilitator for Edmonton Catholic Schools, addressed the audience on how blessed they are as educators to be able to freely talk about God while moulding young people.
“We really do have an opportunity to form beautiful human beings, so when the students leave school they will have that sense of spirit because it is so badly needed,” Gagnon explained.
“Young people are influenced in so many ways. We are up against electronic media and its quick, instant stimulation. How can prayer become quick and how do we hook them?”
He added that the spirit is greater than any device and that it is that spirit — the students — that sits in front of teachers.
“So, what do you do with that spirit, how do you teach it, how do you nurture it, how do you encourage it,” he asked the crowd.
Gagnon went on to explain about when he began as a social worker at Edmonton Catholic. He used to see the fractured spirit in some young people and wondered how he could use his university education to make them better.
“I decided I was going to go a different way because I worked in Catholic-based education and was a good Catholic but loved my Aboriginal traditions,” Gagnon stated.
“I think the two go hand in hand and there is duality in everything we do.”
To express that duality, he used an example of a conversation with a teacher from some time ago. The teacher asked if Indigenous people still communicate with animals and Gagnon replied with a, “Yes,” stating, “just like St. Francis of Assisi.”
Gagnon then had to explain who the saint was along with respond to why the eagle is so revered in Aboriginal culture.
“Later I thought, there is a comparison,” Gagnon said. “That started to open me up even more to learning, making me a stronger Catholic, but also a stronger traditional person. I truly walk both sides and sometimes it’s tough. It’s not a miracle, just an open-mindedness thing.”
He added, as educators, there is a need to recognize the students are something beautiful standing right in front and that the Creator left educators a responsibility to make those students successful.
“After all, we are all in education to do that. So we can’t give up on them or on our faith,” he said.
“Love, that is what we need to show our youth. I sense at times they don’t feel that.”
While reading of Harper’s apology was an acknowledgement of what happened and a hope of breaking that chain, Gagnon also acknowledged there is an onus on Aboriginal people in this too.
“How do we move forward? With a day like this and having you opening up to the communities around you,” he said.
“Orange shirt day is sad, but by using that negativity is an opportunity to make positive change, a chance to create better relationships. We need take the onus as well and open up ourselves as First Nations, especially in education as we all have a lot to offer.”