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An Immersion in Indigenous Culture

U of T's Indigenous Elder in Residence Cat Criger, pictured at an event earlier this year, led a weekend of spiritual exploration and self-reflection. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Experiential Journey participants forge new connections while sharing traditional ways

At what is arguably the busiest time in the academic year, a very diverse group from University of Toronto Scarborough disconnected this past weekend to spend two days splitting wood and building friendships. This was the sixth iteration of the Waawaahte Northern Lights Initiative Experiential Journey, an opportunity for members of the UTSC community to connect with the land, guided by indigenous teachers through a personal experience of indigenous culture, philosophies and traditions.

“This is a chance for people to get immersed in the culture, not as cultural tourists but to experience who and what we are,” says Cat Criger, U of T’s Indigenous Elder in Residence. “This is not ipads and laptops taking notes. It is a physical and spiritual experience. It is spiritual self-exploration, as well as time for self-reflection in one’s life. It’s more than just a field trip,” he says.

For a diverse group of 13 students, staff and faculty from UTSC along with students from other post-secondary institutions, that hands-on experience included gathering saplings for the construction of traditional lodges, considered places of teaching and healing. Participants worked together preparing a feast cooked over a fire for which they have gathered wood, and erected a tepee – a process that has been known to stymie teams of engineering students. Viewing spirituality through an indigenous lens, they prepared for traditional ceremonies with members of the local indigenous community. Participants were also invited to take part in the ceremonies themselves, a significant honour.

“Students are eager for spiritual and educational experiences that will carry them through life,” says Criger. “There will be, as always on this trip, a great diversity in religions and world views represented. They treat this as a part of their education, part of their life or spiritual journey. Some recognize that interfaith and diversity relationships are important in the workplace. Others are eager for the immersion in indigenous ways and the opportunity to support the preservation of the culture. The experience is a wonderful opportunity to come together to gain deeper understanding of the interconnections that exist between religions and beliefs.”

In preparation, the participants attended teaching circles on campus, learning about the first peoples of North America, their traditions, histories and present circumstances. They are from various cultures and their academic backgrounds range from medicine and political science to literature, theology, and environmental studies. Faculty and staff are welcome, and occasionally attend incognito. For every experience, the itinerary is not fixed and may include a tour of a native art gallery and a guided trip through the ancient markings in Petroglyphs Provincial Park. The lands where the group gathers, north of Peterborough and adjacent to the Curve Lake Reserve, are owned by Mark and Wendy Phillips, from the Anishinaabe and Haudenisuanie peoples. Taught in the traditional ways by indigenous elders, they now conduct ceremonies and workshops to share their knowledge and provide educational and cultural awareness.

People are respectful, thankful for the interaction and team building, says Criger. “We are all connected to the land and people want to lean about our culture and philosophies. Students bring their experience back to class. I have seen life-long friendships develop. Beyond learning about culture, this is about learning about yourself and the country you live in.”

The Waawaahte Northern Lights Initiative Experiential Journey has been recognized for innovation by the Association of College and University Housing Officers International. It is a tri-campus initiative funded by U of T through UTSC’s Department of Student Life and UTM’s Indigenous Centre in the Department of Student Life. Another experiential journey is held close to the October full moon – a traditional time to come together and be thankful.

Plans are being made to increase the number of trips each year and hold them at different times of the year to give students more options to be part of this experience.

For more information contact Cat Criger at






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