Treaty elder series held Feb. 4 and Feb. 11, 2018 as part of response to TRC Calls to Action in Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon
By Kiply Lukan Yaworski
Parishioners and visitors gathered in a circle at St. Joseph’s Parish Hall in Saskatoon after Sunday Mass Feb. 4, 2018, sharing soup and bannock, listening to the experiences and the wisdom of two Indigenous leaders.
Mike Broda (left) of St. Joseph parish offered a traditional welcoming gift of tobacco to knowledge-keeper Lyndon Linklater and Elder Agnes Desjarlais, to open the gathering, part of a Treaty Elder Series in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon. Linklater and Desjarlais both work at the Regional Psychiatric Centre, where they provide traditional ceremonies as a path of healing. Myron Rogal of the diocesan Office of Justice and Peace also spoke at the gathering.
Linklater, who is also a member of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner’s Speakers Bureau, described his background and growing up years. Both of his parents – and their parents before them — attended residential schools – his Anishinaabe (Ojibway) dad Walter Linklater in Ontario and later in Saskatchewan, and his Cree mother Maria in Saskatchewan, until she ran away from the school she hated, to be hidden and cared for by her grandmother.
“Like many, many First Nations people, we suffered as a result of impact from these residential schools,” Linklater said. “There is a common story that starts to emerge, when you talk to those who attended residential schools; when you talk to their children and grandchildren.” The aftermath has included damaged families and communities, addiction, and dysfunction.
“Today we recognize this illness, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD,” said Linklater, noting that trauma will impact a person physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. “If you have PTSD, all these sociological factors will plague you,” he said. “And every single person that went to these residential schools — they suffered from PTSD, in one form or another.”
Linklater described how his father was taught to reject his traditions, his language, and his identity, to the point where he did not even know that he was Ojibway.
Linklater also reflected on the profound damage caused by removing children from their families. “In the schools, they were so very lonely. I can’t imagine what it must have been like – to be five years old and your mom and dad aren’t there for you, to comfort you, to care for you, to nurture you,” he said.
“We know what it is like to have children, to have grandchildren, and how important it is to have young children feel loved. It is so critical, vital, imperative – if that child grows up without feeling loved, that child is going to be messed up when they get older.” And in Saskatchewan, residential schools were not around for just a few years, but for 122 years, he stressed. “So it is multi-generational.”
The Truth and Reconciliation process has offered a path of healing – for residential school survivors and their descendants who did not always even recognize this obstacle that has been in their path – and for the entire country, which made profound mistakes in its history, said Linklater.
“This is my Canada, this is your Canada, this is our Canada – Canada is the best place in the whole wide world, but it can even be better. And it is up to us as Canadians to make that happen,” he said. “How are we ever going to know where we are going as a country, if we don’t know where we have been? How are we ever going to know not to make the same mistakes, if we don’t even know we made mistakes in the first place?”
Linklater expressed appreciation for the parish event, noting that “for too long we haven’t been able to do this …. We talk about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the 94 Calls to Action – you are doing it right now. You are actually participating in it right now.”
Recognizing the impact of residential schools, and coming to a better understanding of that trauma, has enabled many to walk on a long path of healing, including his own family, Linklater described. “What really, really helped us Linklaters, was that we found our culture, we went back to our traditions.”
Diversity is a gift from God, with peoples of many different appearances, languages and cultures worshipping one Creator, said Linklater, describing the many connections and commonalities between Christianity and Indigenous teachings.
“When I found my traditions, when I found my culture, oh my goodness, you would not believe the many similarities, unbelievable parallels,” he said of his own journey. “We have teachings in our culture to try and love one another, to try and work together, to try and get along with one another, to respect one another.”
Elder Agnes Desjarlais also spoke about trauma and healing. A member of the Muskowekan First Nation near Lestock, SK, Desjarlais and her parents attended Muscowequan Indian Residential School.
Even though there were some positive things about her school experience – she loved learning to read, for instance – the damage caused by the residential school system resonated in her family and community, with alcoholism and broken families. Desjarlais recalled the loneliness and fear of going to the school as a child of six, how students who spoke their own language were punished, and how everyone’s long hair was cut off.
The trauma described by Linklater was a reality, she agreed. “It is really true. That was something a lot of us went through – just being taken from our parents, our homes.”
Now the mother of eight, grandmother of 13 and great-grandmother of three, Desjalais said she found healing as an adult when she began to learn about her culture, and became involved in offering traditional teachings and ceremonies.
“Once I started attending some of the ceremonies, I started feeling better about myself and who I was,” she said. “A lot of my family, people where I am from, are really strong Catholics. We all have to learn to respect each other’s way – we all follow the same God.”
Today she offers traditional teachings and ceremonies to women incarcerated at the Regional Psychiatric Centre, and has found herself reflecting on how similar the prison system is to the residential school system. “A lot of the men and women there have parents and grandparents who went to residential school… it is just one big cycle.”
The path of healing is not an easy one, and involves each new generation, she noted, sharing moments of struggle and heartache in her own family. “All my life I’ve tried to do what I can to help people.”
During the event at St. Joseph parish, Myron Rogal, who coordinates the diocesan Office of Justice and Peace and serves on the Diocesan Council for Truth and Reconciliation (DCTR), provided an overview of the Treaty Elder Series, which is a diocesan reconciliation initiative offered in collaboration with the Office of the Treaty Commissioner.
As one response to the Calls to Action by the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, parishes have been invited to hold events to enhance awareness and understanding of Treaty history and Indigenous spirituality from the perspective of community elders, he explained.
“It is an act of reconciliation itself to be here today,” Rogal said, noting that the series is part of finding “a new way of telling our Canadian history and to live out our treaty relationships more fully.”
The DCTR was established in the diocese in 2012 when then-Bishop Donald Bolen called together a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to “begin to find a way forward, recognizing our treaty responsibilities and wanting to build relationships face-to-face,” Rogal said.
“Reconciliation is not something that can be delegated,” Rogal added, quoting Residential School Survivor Eugene Arcand.
“As Christians, just as we cannot delegate the cross, we cannot pass it on. Reconciliation is something that is part of the community, something that the Church is engaged in, but it is also the responsibility of each one of us,” said Rogal.
The Treaty Elder Series at St. Joseph Parish continued with a second session after the 11 a.m. Mass Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018 (see article below). For more information about the series or about reconciliation efforts in the diocese, contact Rogal at the Catholic Pastoral Centre in Saskatoon at email@example.com
Elder Walter Linklater and Elder Agnes Desjarlais speak at second session of Treaty Elder Series held at St. Joseph Parish, Saskatoon
By Kiply Lukan Yaworski
Elders Walter Linklater and Agnes Desjarlais described their healing journeys during the second session of a Treaty Elder Series Feb. 11, 2018, at St. Joseph Catholic Parish in Saskatoon, calling for ongoing reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
“This event is an attempt to try and promote understanding and awareness of the culture, and of Indigenous spirituality, and some learning about treaty history,” said Mike Broda of St. Joseph parish, as he welcomed and introduced the two elders, who were later joined by Lyndon Linklater, a member of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner’s Speakers Bureau.
After a lunch of soup and bannock, Elder Walter Linklater, a survivor of residential schools and a retired teacher originally from northwestern Ontario, began the Sunday 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.”
Just as the Judeo-Christian tradition has the 10 commandments, the elders teach how to live a good life, he said. “Similarities are there. They teach us to be good, to be kind, to be loving, to respect other faiths, to respect other people.”
Walter shared the story of his own life, the hurt and damage of residential schools, his struggles to overcome those negative impacts, and the healing that he found when he discovered and reclaimed the traditional spirituality and practices of his people.
Originally from Couchiching First Nation in the Rainy Lake district near Fort Frances, ON, Walter was taken to St. Margaret’s Indian Residential School at the age of 7, spending eight years there, only allowed home on Sundays and in summer, gradually losing his traditional language, separated from his parents, grandparents and culture. He described the loneliness, fear and punishments of residential school, and being forced to attend Mass. “Every morning before classes started, we would study Catholic theology every day… it was a forced way to become a Catholic.”
Although he knew his mother and father, he was never close to them, after years of being separated six days of the week. Not trusting the nuns, brothers or priests, he had no one to turn to in his sadness and fear, he said. “All those negative emotions built up inside.”
When Walter finished Grade 8, the Department of Indian Affairs – which at that time had complete control over the lives of First Nations people – decreed that he should attend high school at the residential school located at Lebret, SK, east of Regina. “I was 1,000 miles from home,” he said, describing the long train journey as a 14-year-old. “I became alienated from my family completely.”
Eventually sent to become a teacher – “we had no say whatsoever” – Walter started his career at Thunderchild First Nation, where he met and married his wife Maria, before living and working in several communities in the north. The family moved to Saskatoon about 25 years ago.
Through it all, Walter struggled to deal with the impact of residential schools and colonialism on his life, using alcohol to cope, and finally finding a path of healing. He described how his mother – who was both a devout Catholic and an Ojibway/Anishinaabe grandmother – would pray for him to stop drinking.
“I started to realize the inherent spiritual nature of who I was, but it took a long time,” Walter said.
Walter pointed to the similarities between traditional 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, spoken to him in the Anishinaabe language: “Remember grandson, there is only one God. This is how we honour that God.”
The elder urged Walter to forgive the hurt inflicted by those at the residential schools and by the Catholic Church, echoing the words of Jesus 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 all these years in the residential schools. It took me almost 30 years,” said Walter. He described 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.
Walter described the sacred songs that he has shared with his grandchildren, saying “these songs are sacred, they have meaning, they bring us closer to the spirit of who we are as human beings – we have our own concept of our inherent spirituality and of God in our own language.”
He summarized: “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. That is what our elders teach us.”
Walter also briefly reflected on the recent trial of Gerald Stanley in the shooting death of Colten Boushie.
“When that verdict came down … I wept and cried, because I hold back that little anger that has festered there, and I had to think and I had to ask for help from the elders – some of whom have passed on and are in the spirit world,” he said. “The answer that they gave me was to pray for the Boushie family and also for the other family that is involved, that they will understand what respect and what equality is 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 peaceful 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 also spoke about the importance of continuing to work together for understanding.
“We learned we have to respect each other, respect each other’s faith,” she said. “When something happens we all come together and do the best we can for our loved ones.”
She also spoke about Colten Boushie and his family, and events surrounding the Stanley trial. “We must keep praying for the families and for the young people – because some of the young people are thinking really negatively … I really believe in the power of prayer, and sometimes you can do nothing (else), if people aren’t going to listen to you,” said Desjarlais stressing the importance of forgiveness. “Pray – keep praying for them, so they are not carrying hate and bitterness too far.”
During the presentation at St. Joseph parish, Walter’s son Lyndon Linklater also provided an overview of Treaty history in Canada and the meaning of treaties as a sacred relationship.
“Both sides of a treaty received benefit,” he summarized. “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 treaties. The treaties were made to open land for settlement.”
He added that many Canadians are unaware of the treaties and the history, noting there is a lot of misconception and misinformation, and that only recently has there been an effort to teach this history.
“The land is our mother,” Lyndon said, describing the understanding of Indigenous peoples. “What our oral history tells us is that we did not ‘sell the land,’ but what we agreed to do was share the land.”
Indigenous elders view treaties as “a relationship with Canada, our country, and we have to work at it,” Lyndon added.
“This country belongs to all of us…. We have got children and grand children. What kind of country do we want for them and for the ones who are not here yet? Let’s make it better for the future. Reconciliation is about learning and understanding, eating together, praying together, singing together. The more you know about me, the more I know about you… the more it continues in this country, the better for all of us. Things happen that cause challenges, (and) that cause division. We need to keep walking.”
As one response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, parishes in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon have been invited to participate in the diocesan Treaty Elder Series, organized in conjunction with the Office of the Treaty Commissioner. For more information about the series or about reconciliation efforts in the diocese, contact Rogal at the Catholic Pastoral Centre in Saskatoon firstname.lastname@example.org (306) 659-5841.