. . . learn to do good and seek justice. — Isaiah 1: 17
In July 2016 Pope Francis declared, “I want to be a spokesperson for the deepest longings of indigenous peoples. And I want you to add your voice to mine.” In the video announcing his prayer intention, an Indian woman is shown approaching a podium and pleading for the plight of indigenous peoples to be heard. When the camera pans out, however, the auditorium is empty, a metaphor, perhaps, for the deafness of the world to the plight of oppressed people.
It reminded me of a similar moment many years ago in Australia at a conference on listening to the Aboriginal voice, when a young indigenous scholar appeared before a large crowd of sympathetic white academics and played a video of an activist reading protest poetry. The sound was muted and the video was allowed to play, silently, for a full 15 minutes. All the while the presenter stared at the increasingly uncomfortable crowd. Then he turned off the TV and announced, before he stormed from the room, “This is what you’ve heard from indigenous peoples at this conference.” Horrified organizers realized, in that moment, that no Aboriginal guests had been invited to discuss the issue of indigenous voices. It was a blunder that was not soon repeated.
I use the latter example because it occurred in the context of incredibly well meaning, learned and completely supportive academics at a conference specifically called to address acknowledged silence. Despite this, they still neglected to invite the people at the heart of the concern. It is a lesson I have never forgotten: that the greatest antidote to silence is dialogue, not speeches — action, not intentions. Even the most well meaning will be deaf to change unless we learn to listen.
In the context of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee just completed, the announced inquiry into murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls, and the most recent controversy over the Canadian Catholic Church’s handling of reparations owed over the handling of the residential schools debacle, it seems more important than ever that conversations increase, not decrease.
For St. Mary’s University here in Calgary this meant the development of an Aboriginal Strategic Plan some three years ago, one that led to the establishment of an Elders on Campus program, an Indigenous Advisory Board, an experiential learning program at Ghost River for staff, faculty and students, and the incorporation of a blanket exercise modelling the devastating impact of colonialism, held at a university retreat where 98 per cent of the institution participated. And in mid-January the university was chosen to host the three-day National Truth & Reconciliation roundtable.
Needless to say, there is still much to do. What is heartening, however, is how fully the university as a whole has embraced this dialogue, and more importantly, how generously indigenous communities have welcomed St. Mary’s into the dialogue, sharing their knowledge, their talents and their generosity of spirit. Dialogue together with action is the first step toward reconciliation and healing. Our hope is that this journey toward reconciliation becomes widespread and all pervasive.
As Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, recently pointed out, “Make room in your heart, your soul and your spirit.” Or as Pope Francis put it at a ceremony in Chiapas, Mexico: “How worthwhile it would be for each of us to examine our conscience and learn to say, ‘Forgive me!’ ”
Turcotte is president of the University of St. Mary’s in Calgary.