14 Introduction to the Spiritual/Self-Actualization Element

In part I, the spiritual/self-actualization element is explored in detail. Spirituality and self-actualization are both explored as individual components, but together represent only one element of the circle. This element will focus on how you will take the teachings from the TRC day and bring them forward with you through your legal practice and life.


What is spirituality?

There is often confusion between spirituality and religion, but the two terms have distinct meanings. Religion refers to a specific set of rules or beliefs that are followed by a group of people, whereas spirituality is a “universal human condition and internal moral guidance system.”[1]

Indigenous teachings would give a slightly different definition of spirituality, one that focuses more on interconnectivity. One group of elders in Manitoba were tasked with creating a definition for spirituality and they proposed “a belief in the fundamental inter-connectedness of all natural things, all forms of life with primary importance being attached to Mother Earth”.[2]

Marcella LaFever’s academic paper on the use of the medicine wheel in post-secondary education identifies five aspects of the spiritual element: to honour, value, connect, empower, and self-actualize.[3] We will now discuss what each aspect means and how they relate to the experiences you may have during your visit to the residential school.

Honour: “Honouring is about being present and aware of one’s own thoughts and feelings without making judgements about being ‘right or wrong’ as well as being open to learning from new experiences”.[4] During the residential school visit, unexpected thoughts and feelings may surface for you. Observe them and try not to judge yourself or others. Reflect on how these reactions may be a result of past experiences or perhaps from growing up and being educated in a colonial system.

Value:  Value focuses on relationships and building relationships that “honour the importance, worth, or usefulness of qualities that are related to the welfare of the human spirit”.[5] This involves sharing your stories, listening to the stories of others, and observing how they are connected to one another’s.

Connect: Connection builds on the relationships fostered in the value component, focusing on developing a sense of belonging with the community. While visiting the residential school, search for ways that you are interconnected to your peer group and the survivors.

Empower: Empowerment focuses on “provid[ing] support and feel[ing] supported by an environment that encourages strength and confidence, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights”. How can you ensure that others around you feel empowered when working through difficult issues, such as abuse and genocide?

Self-Actualize: Marcella LaFever defines self-actualization as the “ability as a unique entity in the group to become what one is meant to be”. We will discuss self-actualization in more depth as the model of the medicine wheel you have been presented with for the purposes of your TRC day places a larger emphasis on it. The question we urge you to ask yourself throughout is what you can do about it? What can you do with what you have learned? How can you internalize this experience and empower others?


What is self-actualization?

Self-actualization can be defined as self-fulfillment or realizing one’s full potential. The concept of self-actualization was popularized by Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who studied human motivation. Maslow developed a hierarchy or needs that is often represented as a pyramid, with self-actualization being at the peak of the pyramid where one has realized their full potential. Maslow’s theory states that each lower level of the pyramid, basic needs and psychological needs, must be satisfied before moving on to a higher pursuit.[6]

With it comes a certain hierarchical thinking, the aim being to reach the top of the pyramid, with an individualistic focus. A a Secwepemc Way of Being is more egalitarian, as it teaches that one must strive for elemental balance; every individual carries a responsibility to find balance within themselves. An internal balance will contribute to elemental balance in their community and the world.

Below is image showing Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: [7]

While Maslow was developing his motivational theory, he visited the Blackfoot reserve in Alberta, Canada in 1938. Though he never credits the Blackfoot Nation, you can see their influence in his 1943 paper on his motivational theory. “The Blackfoot belief is not a triangle. It is a tipi where they believe tipis reach to the sky.”[8] There are three levels within the tipi, self-actualization sits and the bottom, community actualization in the middle, and cultural perpetuity at the top. The Blackfoot belief states that self-actualization is the base of the tipi as it is the foundation which community actualization is built. Maslow, with western philosophies and views, flipped this to prioritize the individual instead of community and culture.[9]

Cindy Blackstock, member of Gitksan Nation and the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, explained that the concept of cultural perpetuity is similar to the Gitksan “breath of life” concept. Breath of life is “an understanding that you will be forgotten, but you have a part in ensuring that your people’s important teachings live on.”[10]


Putting Learning into Action

The spiritual/self-actualization element of cḱuĺtn involves engaging with and internalizing the teachings from the physical, emotional, and mental elements to determine what you can do going forward. Depending on who you are, the work that needs to be done in the spiritual/self-actualization element will differ. For non-Indigenous peoples, it will largely be reflecting on your TRC experience and finding what role you will play in reconciliation. However, Indigenous peoples are not the ones who need to reconcile. The spiritual/self-actualization element for Indigenous peoples will be more focused on reclaiming one’s own culture and identity, partaking in Indigenous spiritual practices, and finding healing through this process. No matter your identity, the spiritual/self-actualization work will involve sitting with and reflecting on all the TRC teachings, then looking inside yourself to find ones place. These materials will largely focus on how non-Indigenous law students can advance the aims of reconciliation, but first, an Indigenous perspective on Spirituality.


Secwepemc Perspectives of Spirituality

It is TRU elder in residence and member of the Secwepemc Nation, Mike Arnouse, who reminded us how important the spirit is: “[You] should know lots about the spirit because you carry one inside of yourself.”[11] Alexis Harry and David Michael Archie of the Secwepemc Nation have discussed what spirituality means to them. For Secwepemc people, there is an inter-connectedness between the spirit, the land, the language, and the ancestors. They also discuss the importance of ceremony:

“Ceremony and spirituality are tied. They give us the connection from our ancestors, from the creator, from our grandmothers and our grandfathers, to our Sumec, our spirit animals. Ceremony is something that ties all the realms together so that we know we are all connected”
– David Michael Archie

Below is a video recording of Lorelei Boyce delivering a presentation titled “Transformation Work: From Darkness to Light”. Lorelei comes from the Secwepemc and Carrier Nations and is a survivor of  Mission of Saint-Joseph Residential School in Williams Lake. She now works as a clinical counsellor specializing in residential school survivors trauma. Re-connecting with her culture and spirituality was crucial in her healing journey. She now helps others on their healing journey using spirituality to create balance in their lives. The presentation was delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic and focuses on adapting to the pandemic and navigating towards wellness.

Lorelei developed a meditation called the “Sacred 4 Directions”. The number four is sacred and represented in the natural world through the four directions, the four seasons, and the mind, body, heart and spirit.

  1. Marcella LaFever, “Switching from Bloom to the Medicine Wheel: creating learning outcomes that support Indigenous ways of knowing in post-secondary education” (2016) 27:5 Intercultural Education 409, online (pdf): Intercultural Education <www.lincdireproject.org/wp-content/uploads/ResearcherShareFolder/Readings/Switching%20from%20Bloom%20to%20the%20Medicine%20Wheel.pdf> [perma.cc/DD64-2V49] [LaFever].
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Shuana L. Shapiro, Linda E. Carlson, John A. Astin, and Benedict Freedman, “Mechanisms of Mindfulness” (2006) 62:3 J Clinical Psychology at 373–386, online(pdf): <www.communicationcache.com/uploads/1/0/8/8/10887248/mechanisms_of_mindfulness.pdf> [perma.cc/65EW-Q69D].
  5. LaFever, supra note 1.
  6. Abraham Maslow, "A theory of human motivation" (1943) 50:4 Psychological Rev at 370–96.
  7. This work, "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs" is a derivative image of "Maslow hierarchy" by Saul Mcleod licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 and "British Columbia Kamloops Landscape" by sundiver72 licensed under CC BY 4.0 / "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs" is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 by Alexandra Comber
  8. Barabara Bray, "Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Blackfoot (Siksika) Nation Beliefs" (10 March 2019), online: Rethinking Learning <barbarabray.net/2019/03/10/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-and-blackfoot-nation-beliefs/> [perma.cc/8SGA-865E].
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Mike Arnouse, “Conversations with the Elders” (2019) 4 Knowledge Makers 33.


Implementing Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action Copyright © by Nicole Schabus (academic lead). All Rights Reserved.

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