It’s the end of the semester and a fourth-year education student prepares for his final “exam”—only this one won’t require paper or pencil. Rather, the student will perform a 12-minute long exam in front of a semi-circle of people, including several First Nations Elders and course instructor and Associate Professor of Education Matthew Etherington, Ph.D.
Etherington, who has taught at TWU since 2010, watches as the student washes the feet of, and shares a meal with, the Elders. By the end of the presentation, those in the circle—including the student—are visibly moved, some to tears, by the experience.
When he was tapped to develop the curriculum for EDUC 496 Issues in Indigenous Education, Etherington—who hails from Australia—wondered how a non-Canadian, non-Aboriginal would go about creating and teaching the BC Government-mandated course. He spent the summer of 2012 meeting with First Nations leaders and educators, asking them for input.
As part of the course, which began that fall, Etherington invited First Nations people to come teach the students. Over the ensuing years, he found the conversation often turned to what the University was doing to facilitate ongoing dialogue. So Etherington spearheaded the establishment of TWU’s Institute of Indigenous Issues and Perspective (IIIP).
“We felt that, as a faith-based University, TWU had something unique to contribute to the conversation,” Etherington said. “But we also wanted to highlight the importance of reconciliation from a Christian and biblical perspective, and spirituality, which is integral to the human being.”
The new Institute will build bridges of conversation and dialogue not only with other surrounding universities, as well as with the First Nations community. It will also examine what reconciliation means from a Christian and biblical perspective, as well as highlight the importance of spirituality. “With universities promoting a heavy emphasis on generating new knowledge and progressive scientific notions of education and learning, these institutions sometimes struggle with the spiritual component of the Indigenous people,” Etherington said. “I think Trinity, as a Christian university, understands the importance of that aspect.”
As a university student, Etherington did research on Australia’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody reports. “I realized this was something that needed to be explored and looked at from not only a government perspective, but from a biblical perspective as well,” he said.
TWU’s IIIP will not only examine the Canadian Aboriginal experience, but also that of Australia and New Zealand, which share similar colonial backgrounds. “We felt it would be educationally important to have an institute that looked at all three countries,” said Etherington, “as well as the perspectives and issues from a broad range of disciplines: politics, business, education, health, nursing, and so on. We’re not just looking at social justice issues.”
For other ethnic groups, such as Japanese-, Chinese-, and Indo-Canadians, the issues are mainly centred on tolerance and equality. But for Aboriginal people, the issue is a somewhat different one: sovereignty. “One of the things the Elders say when they come here is, ‘you don’t have to agree, but you have to understand,’” Etherington said.
Among many other academic pursuits, Etherington is a member of the Association for Canadian Studies in Australia and New Zealand and publishes in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal, Australasian Canadian Studies, a multi-disciplinary journal of Canadian Studies.
“In academia, we profess the future creation of knowledge,” Etherington said. “But we need to promote care for the nurture of traditional knowledge; that’s our core identity.”