Honesty helps us face history

It seems that everywhere we turn we find a new scandal, some memory from the past that haunts us. Though virtually every state and every institution has something to hide, perhaps there is something liberating in speaking the truth.

While his tenure has not 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 Oxford University, St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Ateneo de Manila, Boston College and Georgetown University. Their mandate is to actively promote human progress through education. 

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Georgetown is well known for the opportunities it has provided to African Americans, especially through the legacy of legendary basketball coach John Thompson. Yet the Jesuits who run the school once bought and sold human beings. In fact, in 1838, they sold 272 people to pay off the university’s debts.

When confronted with this kind of information, one has several choices. For far too long we have minimized, ignored or revised history to avoid uncomfortable facts. We can choose to speak the truth, however.

In 2015, the current 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 is not an easy task, but there is a peace that comes from doing the right thing. Tim Kesicki, current 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 our incarceration rate and our infant mortality rate.  Though 94 Calls to Action were published by our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, we have scarcely begun to put them into practice.  

When we see them enacted, however, it is indeed a “graced experience.” One call to action, for example, is that monuments are to be established across Canada. A beautiful memorial to those who died in residential schools is enshrined in a place of honour at my school, a powerful work of art created by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and a reminder to never forget.  

The presence of Indigenous content in the new BC curriculum has not only improved my teaching, it has made me a better person. Seeking truth is the essence of teaching. It is both humbling and empowering to admit to my students that I do not 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 are honest about the past. Our ancestors were just like us. They made mistakes.  There is 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.  


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