Canadian Christian Scholars on Pilgrimage
First Nations University of Canada

Just as medieval English Christians liked to “go on pilgrimages” in April, as Chaucer put it in his Canterbury Tales, Canadian Christian scholars in the twenty-first century like to head for “the learneds” in May.

The “learneds” that I’m talking about are the seventy-plus academic societies that meet every year over the space of about a week under the umbrella of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Only a few of these represent the theological and cognate disciplines. These include the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, the Canadian Catholic Historical Association, the Canadian Society of Patristic Studies, the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion, the Canadian Theological Society, and the Canadian-American Theological Association. And I’m particularly fond of my own group, the Canadian Society of Church History.

The local arrangements

This year’s Congress was held in Regina, Saskatchewan. Before the event, I heard a little grumbling from a few academics about having to meet there. How could such a small city handle an invasion of 7,000 scholars?

But the local arrangements were superb. The University of Regina has lots of space for meetings, and it’s easy to get around. On-campus accommodations were plentiful, and there were frequent free shuttle buses to hotels off-campus. In fact, the whole transit system was free to registrants.

From the airports to the buses to the cabs to the hotels to the on-campus student volunteers to the restaurants, the whole city, it seemed, was eager to be hospitable.

The Congress every year has an expo with stalls for book publishers and other organizations. If you browse, you’ll be pretty overwhelmed by the vast quantities of scholarship that are being produced. Interestingly, the publishers said that they sold more books this year than last, when the Congress attracted 10,000 people to Toronto.

Indigenous studies

It was obvious at Congress that Indigenous studies have become a focus of Canadian scholarship. Marie Wilson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a prominent speaker, and there were several events on the TRC’s Calls to Action. Books seem to be pouring off the presses connecting a diversity of fields with the Indigenous experience. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, a major funding agency in Canada, is getting ready to announce, at the end of the summer, a major funding project to promote positive responses to the Calls to Action.

In the Congress book, in the buildings, at the sessions, we were always reminded that Regina is on Treaty 4 land.

Some presentations of research

My own Canadian Society of Church History meetings included numerous papers from scholars on Indigenous-settler history:

  • One described conflicts between a Cree woman prophet and Oblate missionaries in the making of Treaty 10 (in northwest Saskatchewan).
  • Another discussed denominational tensions in Treaty 6 territory in the late nineteenth century.
  • Another addressed the role of the churches in issues of war and peace in Treaty 7 territory at about the same time.
  • A fourth presenter sought to explain the misfire of Jesuit missions in the 1840s to the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa peoples on the unceded territory of Walpole Island (Ontario). The missionaries sawed down sacred oaks and tried to take over land.
  • A fifth scholar looked at the mixed success of the Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Churches in developing Indigenous leadership between 1970 and 1990.
  • A senior scholar showed how in the 1970s the ecumenical advocacy group Project North helped stop the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, despite energetic efforts by well-connected church members and the United Church Observer to marginalize the voices of the Dene and other First Nations whose land was being violated.

First Nations University

The local arrangements guru for my church history society organized a tour for us of the First Nations University of Canada (pictured above). It’s affiliated with the University of Regina and is located immediately adjacent to it.

Among other things, FNU teaches most of Saskatchewan’s seven Indigenous languages. And it has a fascinating collection of rare books on Indigenous cultures, which their librarian, Paula Daigle, took delight in showing us.

FNU is housed in a beautiful building designed by Douglas Cardinal, the Indigenous architect whose many achievements include the Museum of History across the river from Ottawa, and the Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian in Washington.

The scholarly vocation

Now, this flood of interest in Indigenous cultures could be dismissed as one more wave in the endless ebb and flow of scholarly fashion. But I like to see it as a recognition of the responsibilities of the academic vocation. Our scholarship is part of a larger vocation to the well-being of the world.

For me as a historian, what I research and learn about Indigenous-settler relations is ordered to repentance, reconciliation, and social justice.

Another experience at Congress reaffirmed for me that scholarship is “in order to good,” to use what I’ve been told is a Puritan phrase.

Megan the waitress

Many societies at Congress include a banquet in their annual program, and this is always a jolly event. Our local arrangements fellow found a quiet room for us in a Greek restaurant for a convivial meal.

Maybe it was God who used the occasion to remind us that a lot of Canadians, not least in Regina, have it tough. My table group was blessed with a super-friendly, super-efficient waitress, and we struck up a conversation with her. She had just come from a full workday as a social worker in child protection. She’d be getting up the next morning at six to start the round again.

In other words, during the day she cares for hurt and scared kids, and at night she serves people like us who mainly come from a financially more comfortable part of the social hierarchy.

My reflection

So, here’s the reflection I took home from the banquet and from the Congress.

The Congress brings together contingents of scholars organized around common interests in tiny slivers of human knowledge, and we take great pleasure in our ivory-tower conversations and gossip.

But what I hope is that we’re also all thinking about “the mobilization of knowledge” to higher ends. What I hope is that all the intersecting researches and discoveries of all these thousands of scholars and their colleagues will ultimately redound towards building a better Canada and a better world for people like Megan the waitress, and for the children that she helps protect, and for the Indigenous peoples of Canada, and for everyone else.

From all those of us in the academic world to whom much has been given, much ought to be expected. For those of us who work in the academic world from a sense of Christian vocation, our prayer is for grace that this may be so.

~ Alan L. Hayes