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Treaty Elder Series held at Sacred Heart Parish, Davidson, SK

 

Elder Ruth Cameron (left) and parish representative Mary Jane Morrison speak about a Treaty Plaque that will soon be blessed and installed at Sacred Heart Parish in Davidson. Cameron spoke to parishioners and community representatives about her experiences in residential school, her journey of healing, and traditional teachings on Sept. 17 as part of a Treaty Elder Series launched in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon in response to the TRC Calls to Action. Photos by Tim Yaworski

Catholic parish in Davidson welcomes Elder Ruth Cameron as part of diocesan Treaty Elder Series

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski 

After Sunday Mass and a potluck meal, parishioners at Sacred Heart parish in Davidson, SK. listened intently as Elder Ruth Cameron shared her experiences of attending residential school, overcoming the trauma of being separated from her family, and finding healing in the traditions and spirituality of her own culture. 

“I am very honoured to be here today to share with you and help you to know some of the history of the Indigenous people and how we are looking at Truth and Reconciliation,” Cameron said at the Treaty Elder event, where she shared her life experiences and traditional teachings, describing how she has now come to a time in her life where she feels “able to speak in my own voice.” 

Part of an initiative in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon to respond to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the Treaty Elder Series provides an opportunity “to open our minds and to open our hearts, to listen, and to seek to understand,” describes Myron Rogal of the diocesan Office of Justice and Peace. 

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website at http://nctr.ca describes the history of residential schools in Canada: "For over 150 years, residential schools operated in Canada. Over 150,000 children attended these schools. Many never returned. Often underfunded and overcrowded, these schools were used as a tool of assimilation by the Canadian state and churches. Thousands of students suffered physical and sexual abuse. All suffered from loneliness and a longing to be home with their families. The damages inflicted by these schools continue to this day.” In 2009, the TRC began a multi-year process to listen to survivors, communities and others affected by the residential school system, collecting statements, documents and other materials. The TRC’s final report included 94 Calls to Action, including several addressed to churches. 

Born in Treaty 4 territory, Elder Ruth Cameron worked for some 32 years as a home and school liaison in the Catholic school system in Saskatoon, and is a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. 

In the presentation at Davidson, she offered insights into what it is like to be separated from your family at a very young age, and some of the challenges she experienced as an Aboriginal child and woman. 

At the age of five, Cameron was taken away from her home to attend the Indian Residential School operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Nuns at Lebret, SK. The experience left her angry and hurt, unable to understand why her mother left her at the residential school, separated from all but one of her siblings, some of whom were taken to a school in Manitoba. 

The disruption to culture and to the family unit experienced in residential schools had many long-term effects on self-esteem and relationships. Although her mother always told her to be proud of who she was, the racism and denigration Cameron experienced in her life brought profound hurt. 

“When people called you Indian, and the way they looked at you, it made you ashamed of who you are,” Cameron said, describing her life journey to understand her own culture, traditions and spirituality, and to come to pride in who she is – a pride she then strived to pass to her children and to others in the community. 

“One of the biggest teachings (in the Indigenous culture) is respect – respecting yourself, your parents, your grandparents, everybody that is in your families,” Cameron said. “In our communities we come to respect our people.” 

As a young child attending residential school, Cameron said she did not feel welcome or valued, and was surrounded by unfamiliar ways and by children who were also sad, hurting and angry. She remembered lonely nights in the dormitory looking out the window and trying to look toward home. “I wasn’t even sure which direction was home any more.” 

Later, at the age of 14, she struggled to integrate into a public school, eventually finding acceptance through athletics. However, something as simple as a class assignment involving a phone book was daunting – her family did not have a phone – and there was little understanding about cultural differences. 

She described her fear, her relentless drive to be perfect as a way to stave off negative comments or attitudes, and her struggle to realize her own value and the value of her culture. 

“I only learned about treaties later in life,” she told her listeners. “We were not told about them, or that there was anything supposed to be good about me, or about being a gift from our Creator, who is God.” 

Cameron described how she gradually came to understand the ways in which the residential school system, colonization and racism affected her – and many others in her family and community. 

At the same time, she stressed that she was not trying to make her listeners feel guilty. “It is history – but no one had ever known or shared the history of our peoples,” she said, expressing hope that this generation and next generations will have a greater understanding. “They will know more about the beginning of the treaties, where they were signed, how they were signed, what was the purpose,” she said. 

“I believe that each and every one of us - from the very creation of life – we are all here to represent God, the Creator who gave us each a life on this earth, and a reason for us,” Cameron said. “I believe in the Truth and Reconciliation, many of us are working and hoping to make changes.” 

But Cameron added that reconciliation is not easy. “It is not easy to forgive when you have been caused a lot of pain to your body, your mind, your soul, your spirit – because you know, as a child, when someone is knocking you down, ridiculing you all the time, it becomes a habitual thing, especially at a time when you had no one to say ‘it’s okay, it’s okay to feel, okay to cry’.” 

Healthy families and healthy individuals come about “when you have a family unit, with love and nurturing and knowing how to do things, and you are not learning on foreign ways,” she described. Without that foundation, a person’s path in life is much more difficult. 

Coming to terms with those experiences, beginning to understand one’s self and one’s emotions, and moving forward on a path of healing is an arduous process that many are dealing with, she explained. “Many of us have travelled on those journeys,” she said. 

Cameron’s own walk has included helping others grow in understanding and healing, including the families she encountered in her work with the Catholic school system, and her own children and grandchildren. It involves finding their “own voice,” she said. “I can’t change anyone, but I can help them understand how we can take control of our emotions, and how we have to have faith, how we have to have something to build on.” 

She stressed the importance of all Canadians coming to a deeper understanding of the experiences of Indigenous people, to realize why the damage continues to be seen in our communities and in hurting families – and in ongoing crises in our country, such as the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. 

Cameron pointed to the scripture and the homily heard at Sacred Heart earlier in the day, which was a message of forgiveness and understanding, a message about a loving, merciful God – contrasting it with the image of an angry, punishing God she often heard about as a child at the residential school. 

“Today I know it is different. I have accepted God into my life, not by force the way we were taught, but by choice, and by comparing the teachings that we got from my Elders, and many different teachings from our culture,” she said. 

“We have so much in common as human beings. We haven’t always accepted that gift that we are supposed to be sharing in this life.” 

At the conclusion of her talk, Cameron thanked her listeners, saying she was honoured to come and speak at the parish. Mary Jane Morrison of Sacred Heart parish expressed thanks to Cameron for her presence and for her inspiring words, and described plans to follow up the session with the installation and blessing of a Treaty Plaque in the church. 

With the support of the Diocesan Council for Truth and Reconciliation (DCTR) and working in collaboration with the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, the diocesan Office of Justice and Peace continues to encourage parishes across the diocese to invite an elder to speak through the Treaty Elder Series and/or to install a Treaty Plaque in church buildings. For more information contact Myron Rogal at the Catholic Pastoral Centre in Saskatoon (306) 659-5841.

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