Pathways to Restoration
University Efforts to Engage the Past and the Future
16 min. read
November 7, 2023

The land on which the Redeemer University community learns, lives, works and plays has a rich and complex history. In 2021, Redeemer set out to research and properly acknowledge this history by publishing a comprehensive account, with plans to make it public this year.

“We have this really significant wealth of archeological sites on our campus,” says Nicole Benbow, academic program manager, adjunct lecturer in history and lead researcher on the project. Within the boundaries of what is now the Redeemer campus, a large Indigenous settlement was excavated by archaeologists dating to 1280-1330 CE. The excavation of the Attawandaron village took place in 2008, and resulted in the recovery of 51,127 artifacts including pottery, stone tools such as anvils, wedges and whetstones, and many items of worked bone including beads, bracelets, hair pins and gaming pieces. A small number of artifacts have been on display on campus for a number of years. With such a significant legacy on campus, Redeemer has undertaken efforts to develop its response to a broken past.

The injustices against Indigenous peoples in Canada have been documented and discussed in educational spaces, government and media for decades, but struck with new gravity in 2021 as Canadians were reminded of the pain experienced by Indigenous children, families and communities, which will have a lasting impact for generations to come. But the reality of stories of young children taken from their homes and families to live, and sometimes die, at residential schools across the country brought renewed awareness and urgency to the issue of Indigenous reconciliation once more.

As an Ontario university with multiple archaeological sites, excavated by archeologists since the 1990s, Redeemer was no stranger to these conversations and yet the cultural moment in 2021 called for a more robust Reformed Christian perspective and response. What should a Christian institution and community think and do about truth and reconciliation? Where does this movement align with Scripture and our Christian calling, and where do they diverge?

“Many Canadians, I think, are people of good will who wish to understand how to repair relations with First Nations communities. But this requires a major effort to learn about not only those communities and their histories, but also the history of Canada’s relations,” says Dr. Rob Joustra, professor of politics and international studies. “As Christians we should be rightly disturbed by the headline injustices that grab the public’s attention, like residential schooling or boil water advisories. But it is not enough to protest these realities, we must go deep to wonder why and how these realities have come to be. Christians should therefore not only have their conscience pricked by Indigenous issues, but also their curiosity and their intellect.” While there are few simple, easy answers, there are some foundational principles on which we can stand and there are some things Redeemer can and has begun to do.

The whole earth belongs to God (Ps. 24:1-2, Col 1:16), and he has determined the times and places where everyone will live (Acts 17:26). Yet, no one can fully comprehend the grand plan of God as he moves in history. We confess that sin pervades the entire world and all of its people (Rom 8:22-23); history is replete with evidence of that brokenness. And yet we rejoice in the redemption accomplished and offered to all through Jesus Christ the great redeemer (John 3:16). Listening, learning, reflecting and showing compassion for Indigenous neighbours is just the beginning of a journey down pathways to restoration. Even when there are different perspectives on what actions to take, we are called to be salt and light, to seek justice, love mercy, walk in humility and be ambassadors for the reconciliation offered through Christ as he makes all things new.

“I find that because of the Gospel, Christians can approach sensitive issues with hope for restoration. Rather than bitterness and despair, Christians can share that it is in fact possible to return human interaction to the way it is supposed to be,” says Avigail Venema, a third-year English and history student. “To the Christian, building community and restoring brokenness are key to the Gospel and the calling of the church—and studying Indigenous history in Canada and abroad deepens our understanding of how we may live out that calling.”

A Posture of Listening and Learning

On September 30, 2021, the federal government observed the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Previously known more informally as Orange Shirt Day, the new federal statutory holiday is intended to raise awareness of the individual, family and community intergenerational impacts of residential schools. The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a direct response to Call to Action 80 in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. That same day, Redeemer hosted a commemorative event to mark the start of a year of intentional listening as a community. Bi-weekly Listening Fridays throughout the 2021-22 academic year became somber and often emotional spaces where students, faculty and staff gathered over Zoom to hear from Indigenous writers, educators and other representatives and learn about the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“I feel as if I have much to learn, and listening to and being with [Indigenous people] is the posture that I need to practice continually,” says Dr. Raymond Chiu, assistant professor of business. “For me, attending the Listening Fridays at Redeemer shed light on the stereotypes and misconceptions about the diverse First Nations population across Canada.”

After that first year of listening, an Indigenous studies working group identified the essential topics that should be addressed in the curriculum from a Reformed Christian perspective. The group found that Indigenous topics, issues, history and guest speakers were already integrated into a wide variety of courses at Redeemer in areas such as history, humanities, psychology, business, applied social sciences, political science and English. To give students the opportunity to take a deeper dive, the group presented for consideration a fully developed syllabus for a new course called Introduction to Indigenous Studies, a 200-level non-Western perspectives elective in the Core program.

Dr. Karen Dieleman, professor of English and a member of the Indigenous studies working group, says the course would continue the posture of listening and learning. “The goal is not to produce students who know the ins and outs of all the issues,” she says. “I think the goal is that students would feel comfortable enough to see themselves as continuous learners and not be afraid to engage in this issue and have these conversations.”

“A lot of the work of reconciliation can just be knowing and being more aware,” says Benbow. She teaches pre-Confederation and post-Confederation Canadian history courses at Redeemer that delve into the history of Indigenous people and their stories. Benbow was also part of the working group and feels the proposed new course will be an important one.

“In this cultural moment, as Canadians and as Christians, we need to be thinking about these things,” she says. “My kids are learning about this in elementary school in ways that I didn’t. Students will be coming to us with much more knowledge than we had and it makes sense that Redeemer helps expand that knowledge and explore it from a Christian perspective.”

The course aims to provide an initial pathway for students to better understand the particular relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. It would guide students through several local Indigenous worldviews and experiences, listening carefully to Indigenous voices. Students would have the opportunity to further engage with the culture, history, perspectives and issues of a particular group of their choosing. They would be given tools to think through the complexities of reconciliation and encouraged to consider meaningful action at the personal and communal level. Students would be able to articulate how the biblical concept of shalom serves as a foundation for a Christian’s call to seek justice and restoration in Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships in Canada. To aid students in their learning about Indigenous ways of knowing and being, the course would emphasize learning principles of memory, generational knowledge and place.

Benbow is pleased that the new course would take student learning well beyond the Indigenous history that is covered in her courses. “It’s not just a historical conversation. It’s about politics, music, art, faith and all of life.”

Dr. Deborah Bowen, professor emerita of English, has included Indigenous writers in several of her courses such as postcolonial literature and environmental literature. She feels it’s vitally important to hear from and listen well to Indigenous voices. “This is an opportunity for Christians in a university setting to begin to try to right some of the massive wrongs that have been done to Indigenous peoples in our country, often in the name of Christianity.”

By telling this story, we aim to demonstrate the created giftedness and image bearing of all people, while acknowledging that sin and brokenness permeate all creation. My hope is that these efforts at reconciliation point to the ultimate reconciliation that can only be found in Jesus Christ.

Dr. Tim Epp, professor of sociology, also values the inclusion of Indigenous voices in his courses. He spends a quarter of his Canadian society course discussing Indigenous social history, residential schools and land rights. For the past several years, he has invited a representative from Six Nations to speak
about Indigenous land rights and his class takes a virtual tour of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School (Woodland Cultural Centre) including a question and answer period with staff. The course emphasizes the ways that past social relations (for example, between Canada and Indigenous People)
continue to inform our present social reality. “Canadians, including the Christian church in Canada, need to be aware of the ways that injustices have been enacted upon Indigenous people, and the many contributions of Indigenous people to Canadian society, in order that we may move into a future of mutual peace and right relationships.”

Matt Buikema, a third-year social work student, has found the Indigenous content in his sociology courses at Redeemer to be beneficial not only to his future career, but also for understanding and loving his neighbour. “It is incredibly helpful and important to understand the rocky past between European settlers and the Indigenous peoples of Canada, as each student in their respective field may work with or for people of Indigenous heritage,” he says. “We, as Christians, are called to love those around us, but you cannot love that which you do not know. Learning about an entire people group’s history is crucial to understanding and loving them well.”

Chiu has also included Indigenous voices in his leadership course for the past four years. “When it comes to leadership, hearing the experiences of Indigenous people is an important window to understanding how harmful beliefs about less powerful groups can run deep in a society, and even among members who are devoutly religious,” he says.

The History of The Land

In relation to the History of the Land project, Redeemer is working with an archaeological firm and Indigenous descendent communities including Six Nations of the Grand River, Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and the Haudenosaunee Development Institute to improve and make more prominent the display of artifacts found on campus to enhance awareness and understanding of the land’s history. “Redeemer has done lots of work over the past 30 years, but as we learn more, we’re becoming more aware of how significant these sites are and how many people lived on this land before us,” says Benbow.

Tanya Hill-Montour, archaeological supervisor with Six Nations of the Grand River says the sites that were discovered on campus are extremely significant. “[T]he items that were recovered provide the evidence to the history told and we know through oral traditions, those stories, the artifacts provided the context and truth telling. The artifacts also demonstrate the understanding of the village context and settlement patterns. We know through these collections of artifacts that we had settled in this area and the areas adjacent to Redeemer University; cultural affiliation of these artifacts is challenging and that is where oral traditions assist.”

“It’s exciting to understand that there is depth to the steps I take every day. Under the asphalt, there are scattered memories of people who went about their days as I do, and remembering that gives me a greater appreciation for the opportunity I have to be a part of this community,” says Venema.

As the current steward, Redeemer seeks to respect the stories of those who came before. The university has examined the land’s history as part of its calling to take part in the renewing of all things.

I am optimistic that through strong relationship-building with universities (schools), the public and government sectors that we can create a type of reconciliation through education and knowledge.

“Part of land stewardship is acknowledging the positive and the negative parts of its history, including the injustice and brokenness that are consistent themes in this land’s story,” says president Dr. David Zietsma. “By telling this story, we aim to demonstrate the created giftedness and image bearing of all people, while acknowledging that sin and brokenness permeate all creation. My hope is that these efforts at reconciliation point to the ultimate reconciliation that can only be found in Jesus Christ.”

While engagement with Indigenous representatives hasn’t always been comfortable, gratitude has been a shared sentiment by those involved.

“Six Nations of the Grand River would like to thank and acknowledge that Redeemer is open to learn, consult and listen. These are important to reconciliation because we all grow together by learning,” says Hill-Montour. “I am optimistic that through strong relationship-building with universities (schools), the public and government sectors that we can create a type of reconciliation through education and knowledge.”

The Fall 2023 print issue cover art depicts a prayer book titled Letting Go of Anxiety, designed by Indigenous artist Dr. Patricia June Vickers. In it, she uses mixed media to contemplate Scriptures left to her by her parents and imprinted on her when she was a young adult. 

Dr. Patrica June Vickers is a keynote speaker, teacher, artist and consultant. She holds an interdisciplinary doctorate, studying the transformative aspects of ancestral law and a master’s degree in educational psychology, both from the University of Victoria. She has roots in the United Kingdom on her mother’s side and in Indigeneity of the Northwest coast on her father’s side. She currently offers trauma trainings with her team through Raven’s Call Enterprise.

When intergenerational suffering landed on her daughters, she needed to express in a more direct way a prayer for transformation. Having young children, it was easiest to find inspiration under different artists rather than in art school, learning techniques and methods for watercolour, acrylic, oil, encaustic wax and cold wax. Today, her task is to pray with brushes and paint, expressing a lived experience through texture, hue and composition.

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