TWU Teaches Reconciliation

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Matthew Etherington and Patti Victor teach at TWU. Victor is a Siya:m—Sto:lo for a leader recognized for wisdom, integrity and knowledge. Photo by Wendy Delamont Lees.

By Tracy Sherlock, Vancouver Sun

In professor Matthew Etherington’s class at Trinity Western University, there is no final exam.

Instead, students in the indigenous education course for future teachers give a presentation to a group of aboriginal elders about how they’ve been transformed by what they’ve learned.

“It’s almost like a promise that says, ‘When I’m a teacher, this is what I’m promising I’m going to do for reconciliation,’” said Etherington, an associate professor of education at TWU.

“We had a student the year before last who brought in a bucket of warm water and soap and he washed the feet of the four elders. He spoke about how for him, that’s what reconciliation means — coming to aboriginal people with open hearts, to be servants towards them and to love them.

“That was a very moving presentation.”

The goal of the presentation is to make students suffer a bit, said Etherington, who was a teacher in Australia before coming to Canada to do his graduate studies. He’s taught at TWU, a Christian University, since 2010.

“You’ve got to have students partake in an experience that requires them to address long-held beliefs and stereotypes and understandings and things that have been passed down to them, often in the school system,” Etherington said. “You’ve got to put (these beliefs) on the table and then address which ones are accurate and which ones are false. And then to ask what they are personally going to do with that now.”

Etherington calls it a “transformation of the heart.”

“What we’re about here is walking alongside aboriginal people and listening to what they want and what they need. That’s what we mean by transformation of the heart,” he said. “To do that will require some suffering. You have to let go of your broader biases and prejudices and listen from the heart. That requires walking alongside aboriginal people. It’s not just a matter of getting the facts and knowledge — that’s important, but it’s not sufficient.”

Since 2012, all students hoping to become teachers in B.C. are required to take a course in indigenous issues. Etherington developed the TWU course with help from aboriginal leaders and the First Nations Education Steering Committee. He teaches the course alongside Patti Victor, TWU’s Siya:m, which is a Sto:lo word that describes a leader recognized for wisdom, integrity and knowledge.

Etherington is hopeful that his students will go on to become teachers who will “decolonize education.”

“What we mean by decolonizing education is to bring all the shattered pieces together again — family, community, world view — bring those pieces together like a puzzle,” Etherington said. “Some people call it indigenizing the curriculum. You’ve got world view, community, culture and elders, and that’s all part of the puzzle.”

Etherington said Trinity Western has about 65 aboriginal students, a number that is growing. Last year, one aboriginal student took the course.

“He wasn’t going to be a teacher, but he wanted to take the course,” Etherington said. “He just told me recently that he’s now thinking he might leave political science to become a teacher. That’s part of the aim of the course is to bring aboriginal students in, so that they will become teachers.”

Recent changes to the kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum in B.C. will see much more teaching through an “aboriginal lens” as well as teaching about the history of residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found education to be key to reaching reconciliation.

It was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that spurred Trinity Western and Etherington to create a new Institute of Indigenous Issues and Perspectives, which he said is a long-term commitment by the school to reconciliation.

“The institute is like a concrete — symbolic as well as active — recognition that we are walking, for the rest of our existence as a university, in truth and reconciliation. The institute stands as a symbol for that,” Etherington said.

The institute will bring in guest speakers about once every three months, will generate academic research and will host a conference either this year or the next.

“We’ve got a strategic plan and for the next five years we’re focusing on reconciliation,” Etherington said. “The speakers that will be coming in will be talking about reconciliation from their perspective and from their areas of study. We’ve got a speaker from the University of Manitoba coming in January and he’s going to be speaking about aboriginal rights as a part of reconciliation.”

Etherington also hopes the institute will form connections between other Metro Vancouver universities and TWU.

“We’ve had a number of First Nations students from the University of British Columbia come to the event, who asked why we aren’t connecting more,” Etherington said. “Although we may have different world views, we all have the same goal of reconciliation. It will draw on the commonalities and the similarities that we all share.”

This piece originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun on December 19, 2015. Reproduced with permission.