Jesuit Immersion Experience

Surrounded by prairie fields against an endless Saskatchewan summer sky, I begin to forget the city a kilometer or so away until the arrival of a Regina transit bus reminds me of the structures that lie beyond the field, and the reason for my being here.

Students from Dr. Blair Stonechild’s course on the history of residential schools depart, some chatting with each other while others solemnly take in their surroundings. All are here to learn of what almost became a forgotten part of our past. Among the students are five Jesuit scholastics, or Jesuits in training.

Here, bordered by a white fence, are the unmarked graves of children who died while attending the Regina Indian Industrial School. Now privately owned land, the plot recently received designation as a heritage site, but for many years few knew of its existence. Some estimate that up to 40 children were laid to rest in this cemetery. Yet only two—the children of the school’s first principal—bear markers.

The small group of students gather in a circle for a smudge ceremony before walking the perimeter of the site. Dr. Stonechild tells the group what is known about the former residential school, the children who attended, and the burial grounds. His course is offered by First Nations University of Canada in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action, and the need to educate Canadians on this dark part of our shared history. It is one of two courses the Jesuit scholastics participated in as part of their Indigenous immersion experience.

The immersion program is a pilot project of the Jesuits in English Canada. During the two-month period, the Jesuit scholastics take courses in Indigenous studies and the history of residential schools, and participate in local Indigenous cultural and ceremonial activities. As well, a weekly speaker series engages them with local organizations and leaders.

The program is the idea of retired Campion College film professor Fr. John Matheson, SJ, and came to fruition through the organizational efforts of Dr. John Meehan, SJ, president of Campion College. Drawing on existing partnerships, the program was designed in consultation with Noel Starblanket, life speaker at the University of Regina Aboriginal Student Centre, and Dr. Stonechild, professor of Indigenous Studies at First Nations University of Canada.

“The immersion program is a very important first step toward reconciliation”, says Dr. Meehan.
“How can you be reconciled with someone if you don’t know them? The program is structured around the two courses, which are important to build understanding before being immersed into the cultural setting.”

Even though four of the five Jesuits participating in the pilot project grew up in Canada, all expressed a limited knowledge and understanding of Indigenous spirituality and culture prior to starting the immersion program. While some gained experience through their involvement in other Jesuit missions across Canada—including the Mother Teresa Middle School in Regina, the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario, and Jesuit parishes in Thunder Bay and Toronto—no other program they encountered provides the depth of learning as does this immersion project.

“This was a huge history lesson. Learning about what I didn’t know about colonization, and how its effects are still present today. It opened my eyes to injustices to minority groups in general and what can be lost in the process; what injury can be done when you take away someone’s culture,” remarks Brook Stacey, who joined the Jesuits three years ago after completing a degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Raj Vijayakumar, who is originally from Montreal, adds that the learning experience provides a broader perspective regarding the effects of colonization on a global scale, and the marginalization of minority groups.

The Society of Jesus recognizes the role it played in the government’s plans for assimilation, having run a residential school, and is cognizant of the very important role it plays in moving toward reconciliation. Article #60 of the TRC Calls to Action asks for the education of all clergy and staff who work in Aboriginal communities on “the need to respect Indigenous spirituality in its own right, the history and legacy of residential schools and the roles of the church parties in the system.” The immersion program intends to be a first step toward responding to this call to action, and is one of many initiatives taken by the Jesuits in response to the TRC Calls to Action and moving toward reconciliation.

While the Jesuit scholastics understand the importance of programs such as this one, they admit to feeling a bit of trepidation at the start.

“Given the history, I would be wary of inviting clergy in training. However, everyone has been incredibly welcoming, beyond expectation,” says Erik Sorensen, SJ, who is from Red Deer, Alberta, and in his fourth year of formation.

Dr. Stonechild attributes the openness and generosity to the spiritual traditions of Indigenous Peoples. “Between humans, it is to share our spirituality because we believe the Creator wants us to understand. Even historically you will find the openness of Indigenous people, the problem often is a lack of reciprocation.”

The immersion experience is an intensive two months of learning about Indigenous spirituality, culture, and traditions, as well as our shared histories. While at times overwhelming, all agree that the experience is a crucial part of their training.
“This experience offers me a certain sensitivity and awareness of some of the most important issues in our country today. Going forward for myself, I have always had a strong interest in working in social justice areas. Understanding the First Nations’ situation, the history, and ongoing injustice that exists here in our own backyard [is very important]. I think before we can be authentic players on the global level, we have to have a just society of our own,” says Sorensen.

Feeling privileged to be part of this pilot project, the scholastics will hold on to the lessons learned and knowledge gained for the duration of their formation. And they offer their support to the continuation of an immersion experience such as this one for future Jesuit scholastics.

“I hope to see [the program] continue as it gives a lot of background to First Nations traditions,” says Vijayakumar. For Sorensen, who desires to put his engineering background to work on sustainable energy and infrastructure projects on reserves in Canada, his hope is that the immersion project is just the beginning of a new dialogue.

“Moving forward from this program…my hope is this isn’t the end but the beginning of my own personal encounters with First Nations peoples. It is a very good first step that needs to happen, but it can’t become ‘we checked that box. We checked Call to Action number 60’. Yes, this is starting to address it but this needs to only be the beginning.”


Article by: Joanne Kozlowski