Developing Indigenous Relationships at TST
Shingwauk Indian Residential School, closed in 1970, now Algoma University

One of our priorities at the Toronto School of Theology is to develop closer connections with Indigenous communities and individuals. Currently, the Indigenous presence at TST is small.

Some modest progress

Our member TST colleges have made some progress in recent years. Indigenous adjunct faculty members have taught excellent courses. Indigenous guests have resourced multi-day conferences, lectures, and alumni events. Teachers and students have taken orientation trips to the Six Nations on the Grand River. At Wycliffe College, thirty or forty Indigenous Christian leaders from all across the country come together for a week in May for sharing, teaching, music, and outings.

These are just a few examples. You can check here for a much fuller (though out-of-date) report on what TST has been doing. We’re also working on new courses, curricular revisions, and partnerships that I’ll let you know about soon.

What’s the purpose?

Why is it a priority for us to develop closer connections with the Indigenous people of our land? Here are a few reasons.

  • We have so much to learn from Indigenous spirituality, ways of knowing, and discipleship. Working with Indigenous Christians and non-Christians expands the mind, heart, and spirit.
  • We want to honour the people whose traditional lands we occupy.
  • Aware of the claims of justice and compassion, we want to contribute to Canada’s work of healing and reconciliation. Schools and churches have some particular responsibilities in this area, as identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • Indian residential schools were administered by, or under the banner of, the denominations that sponsor our TST member colleges. Many of us feel that an obligation of conscience has been laid on us by the misjudgments and transgressions of our Christian forebears.
  • As we become increasingly aware of the Eurocentric filters that we bring to research, we recognize that intellectual integrity requires us to address some of the limitations and inaccuracies in our scholarship.

Looking for good ideas

Now, TST isn’t unique, or even unusual, in wanting to take initiatives in this area. In fact, most of the universities and colleges in Canada are on the same path. Many are ahead of us.

One of them is a remarkable settler-Indigenous educational partnership in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. Last week I visited this partnership with senior people from five of our TST member colleges: Stephen Andrews (Wycliffe), Chris Brittain (Trinity), James Ginther (St. Michael’s), Gordon Rixon (Regis), and John Vissers (Knox). 

One of the partner institutions we visited is Algoma University, a small undergraduate school with 1300 students. It describes itself as having a “special mission to engage in cross-cultural learning and to be a valuable resource for Anishinaabe people and peoples.”

To us outsiders, “Anishnaabe” refers to a family of nations that speak Algonquian languages, among them the Ojibwe. At Algoma, though, it means Indigenous peoples in general. Folks there prefer a First Nations word to the Latinate “Indigenous.” The word “Anishnaabe” originally has an elastic, trans-ethnic meaning.

Partnering with Algoma University is the Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig (SKG), an Indigenous educational institution. Like eight other Indigenous institutes in Ontario, it’s mandated by the local Indigenous community, governed and operated by Indigenous people, and educationally framed by Indigenous ways of knowing and living.

This past December, Ontario passed legislation to recognize and fund Indigenous institutes as a third pillar of post-secondary education, in addition to universities and colleges. The institutes answer to the quality assurance oversight of a council of Indigenous educators, which can give them degree-granting authority. This is a really significant step forward in the process of reconciliation.

Shingwauk’s vision

Locals say that the vision for this cross-cultural educational enterprise originated in the close relationship that developed in the 1870s between Chief Augustin Shingwauk of Garden River First Nation, a few kilometres east, and Edward F. Wilson, an Anglican missionary. In this telling, Shingwauk and Wilson wanted the Anishnaabeg to teach settlers, and settlers to teach the Anishnaabeg. Both Shingwauk and Wilson have a big reputation among First Nations folks in “the Soo.”

Wilson ultimately saw that the government wanted to use schooling to euthanize Indigenous cultures. Deeply discouraged, he moved to British Columbia to take up farming. The Anishnaabeg didn’t have that choice.

What we found

We talked to a couple of dozen leaders and administrators of the two partner institutions. They are an impressive group. They have developed some great programs and courses in a number of areas, including land education.

We visited the archives at Algoma, which are a wonder. Among other things, they house surviving documents from all of Canada’s residential schools. The technical wizards there have successfully digitized and catalogued hundreds of thousands of pages, which you can access online. Part of truth and reconciliation in Canada is remembering and teaching the history of these residential schools.

Placing the residential school archives at Algoma is hugely appropriate, because the campus used to be the site of Shingwauk Indian Residential School, which closed in 1970 (pictured above). There’s an annual reunion of survivors here.

We saw the construction site for a huge new facility on the campus, the Anishnaabe Discovery Centre. Designed like a teaching wigwam, it will house the SKG, the library, and, if permissions are worked out, the archives. It will be a research destination of national significance.

Our group was welcomed at Algoma and SKG with extraordinary hospitality.  he folks there are delighted to share their achievements, perplexities, and aspirations quite openly. I think another reason for our warm reception is that Principal Andrews of Wycliffe was formerly the bishop of the Anglican diocese of Algoma. The diocese has been energetically supporting cross-cultural education at Algoma and SKG for many years in a great many ways.

A journey

The leaders of Algoma/SKG think of themselves as people on a journey into an unknown future. The journey involves listening, building trust, sharing hope, and trying things out. Sometimes they stumble; sometimes they face opposition; sometimes they register some very gratifying successes. To us, this group was an inspiration.

We returned to Toronto recommitted to developing partnerships, listening to Indigenous voices, expanding resources, and broadening our intellectual horizons in ways that reflect some of the vision of Chief Shingwauk and E.F. Wilson.

~ Alan L. Hayes