It seems that everywhere we turn we find a new scandal, some memory from the past that haunts us. Though virtually every state and institution has something to hide, there’s something liberating in speaking the truth.
While his tenure hasn’t been without controversy, many around the world have been relieved to see the openness and humanity that Pope Francis has brought to the Catholic church.
Francis is the first member of the Jesuit order to become pope. The Jesuits are primarily known as a well-educated and progressive group, running some of the most reputable universities in the world, including Campion Hall at the University of Oxford, St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Ateneo de Manila, Boston College and Georgetown University. Their mandate is to actively promote human progress through education.
Georgetown is well known for the opportunities it has provided to Black Americans, especially through the legacy of legendary basketball coach John Thompson. Yet the Jesuits who run the school once bought and sold humans. In 1838, they sold 272 people to pay off the university’s debts.
When confronted with this kind of information, you have several choices. For far too long, we’ve minimized, ignored or revised history to avoid uncomfortable facts. We can choose to speak the truth, however.
In 2015, the president of Georgetown, John DeGioia, created a group to study the university’s history with slavery. No stone was left unturned and almost 8,000 descendants of these 272 people were found. In consultation with members of this group, the Jesuits have pledged $100 million through the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation. Their hope is “to advance the transformative power of truth and reconciliation in America.”
Confronting the horrors of our past and trying to make things right isn’t an easy task but a peace comes from doing the right thing. Tim Kesicki, president of the Jesuit community in the United States and Canada, has worked closely with this group, stating that it has been “a very graced experience – though challenging.”
Canadians can relate to this process. Not only do we have an unspoken history of African slavery, we have a troubling legacy of forced assimilation of our Indigenous peoples. We can see the impact of this in such statistics as incarceration and infant mortality rates. Though 94 Calls to Action were published by our Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, we have scarcely begun to put them into practice.
When we see them enacted, however, it’s indeed a “graced experience.” One call to action, for example, is that monuments are established across Canada.
A beautiful memorial to those who died in residential schools is enshrined in a place of honour in my school. It’s a powerful work of art created by Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and a reminder to never forget.
The presence of Indigenous content in the new British Columbia school curriculum has not only improved my teaching, it has made me a better person.
Seeking truth is the essence of teaching. It’s both humbling and empowering to admit to my students that I don’t know the way forward in healing our country of past wrongdoing. This requires me to commit to working together with other Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, young and old, in creating a future of reconciliation and equitable progress.
We can understand the present much better when we’re honest about the past. Our ancestors were just like us – they made mistakes. There’s something beautiful and powerful in this humble realization.
The key is to courageously examine our history, honestly address the challenges of today, and do our best to leave a legacy of respect and truth for our descendants.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.