Couchiching Conversations

Edmonton Dinner Dialogue: Reconciling our Common Spirit

Thanks to Claire Edwards for this reflection on our recent event in Edmonton

Last week Renée Vaugeois, executive director of the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights (JHC), invited thirty young people to dinner. The result was an incredibly enlightening and passionate discussion on the bridge between spirituality and social transformation, of which I was fortunate to be a part.

In the midst of the final hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission taking place in Edmonton over the same weekend, the dialogue encouraged the participants to reflect on the history of spirituality in Canada and the role of faith and religion in reconciliation efforts. It was an honour to be invited to participate in this conversation, where youth from a diverse set of backgrounds discussed their challenges of navigating a system of “secularism” while remaining deeply engaged in their personal faiths. Recognizing that the history of colonization came with a repression of spirituality, the stories of residential schools were particularly important in this discussion.

The night began with introductions. I was happy to recognize many young Edmontonians that I had volunteered with on past projects, but was equally excited at the number of new faces seated around me. Our moderator Carrie, the JHC’s Educational Programs Manager, invited us to join in a delicious vegetarian meal and then move our chairs to form a circle in the centre of the room.

We talked about whether or not youth currently feel as though their generation has a part to play in contributing to reconciliation, or more broadly social transformation. If they do, what motivates them to contribute to positive social change in their communities? What motivates and guides other decisions in their lives? How are young people’s beliefs formed? How does society view the ability of youth to deal with profound questions? And how do religious youth navigate the demands of secularism associated with civic engagement?

I’ve noted some of the quotes from the night that really stood out to me:

“My family was a huge piece of forming my belief system. When I think of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the thing that comes out is the intergenerational transmission of values from family to family. Certainly, as I got older, I started to challenge and form my own but it defined who I am today.”

“In terms of navigating a “secular” society, I found it really challenging on an hour to hour basis to practise my religion. From having conversations with friends, co-workers, instructors – to find time to pray. I have noticed the difference from a student life to a professional life – people in an education setting would try and understand. Is easier than a professional setting where people can say that this is the policy and this is how we do it. It’s possible to create a place that fosters a more peaceful coexistence – prejudice comes through policy.”

“We should put quotes around ‘secularism’ rather than ‘religious’. It’s important to recognize that our current legislative systems are heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian culture and colonization, and some people might not see themselves reflected in that. In the Legislative Assembly, a Christian-like prayer is said every day before the proceedings of the house begin. The idea of secularism is a tricky one.”

The discussion encouraged our group to challenge ideas like “secularism” and how that idea in Canada reflects a certain cultural hegemony. We also emphasized the importance of youth in social movements, especially reconciliation, and ways that we can empower youth to feel a sense of ownership over their community. Many participants shared their experiences of feeling like their faith is something to be hidden or masked to fit the status quo, which we all agreed was a huge loss to the diversity and beauty of our communities.

Events like these are a reflection of the important work being done by organizations like the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights. Social change doesn’t necessarily need anything more than a wholesome meal to bring people of all backgrounds together in the spirit of love and acceptance.

Claire Edwards is a Political Science student at the University of Alberta and a lifelong Edmontonian. She has been partaking in JHC programming since the ripe age of 14. You can read her blog at www.claireedwards.ca.

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