The spirit stone

Rob Cardinal, a presenter at the Indigenous Science Speaker Series hosted by the Iniskim Centre at Mount Royal University last week, stands in front of a photo of himself and his biological sister.

The two are holding hands in front of a big rock. Cardinal explains that this rock is actually a meteor and has roots dating back hundreds of years in the First Nations community.

“Our elders saw it fall,” he says.

The meteorite is known as a spirit stone situated on a hill east of Edmonton. Cardinal explains the three prophecies that would happen if the stone were ever removed: there would be war, famine and disease.

“And sure enough, along came the missionaries that say, ‘Well, we can’t have these savages praying to this stone, so we’re going to take it.’ What happened? The Buffalo went away… there was a giant war between the Blackfoot and the Cree and of course, smallpox.”

The spirit stone was Cardinal’s first encounter with a meteor. He tells the story of how his adopted mother and sister would visit the museum where the meteorite was being shown.

“I knew it was a meteorite and I knew it came from space, so I would imagine it tumbling through space burning up as it came into the atmosphere crashing into the ground,” he recalls.

MeteoriteCardinal passes around a piece of a meteorite explaining that this rock is 4.5 billion years old. The white specks are some of the very first things to form in the solar system. “Don’t worry, it’s not radioactive,” laughs Cardinal.  Photo by Kendra Crighton

Looking back

Like this very meteorite, Cardinal’s past came crashing into the audience.

Born during the height of the Sixties Scoop, when the Canadian government “scooped” up Aboriginal children and put them into foster care in order to assimilate them. The first photo Cardinal has of himself was taken at 18 months old, prior to that is murky in Cardinal’s memory. Cardinal was raised in a stable and loving home away from abuse that could have been his future had he stayed on the reserve.

“But nevertheless, that intergenerational trauma was in my DNA,” he says.

At the age of 15, Cardinal was kicked out of high school and eventually kicked out of his home. While living on the streets for a couple years, he discovered many important life lessons. Suffering from severe depression, Cardinal put himself through drug and alcohol treatment and was able to pull his life together.

He went back to school to get his GED at Concordia College in Edmonton to pursue a career as a carpenter. It was at this moment that Cardinal realized the effect encouragement could have. Cardinal received the highest marks in physics and math; his professor encouraged him to take a science degree and helped him apply at the University of Victoria.

“I decided, well, I’ve been such a messed up guy for so long I’m going to try the hardest thing I can do.”

Cardinal discovered an interest in astronomy. He became fascinated in knowing more about what society didn’t know about space. Cardinal believes that encouragement is fundamental to at-risk youth.

“I was encouraged the whole way, it’s almost like those people helped paint my life with their words.”

Cardinal has had a successful career within the astronomy world. On Oct. 1, 2008, he discovered a comet that was later named Comet Cardinal. Another scientist also named another comet after Cardinal. He was a crucial part of the NEOSAT team, a group of scientist that are working on reducing the cost of satellites that aims to capture at least half of the world’s sitcom market.

Life lessons

Cardinal’s speech on Oct. 21, ends with a list of major lessons he’s learned from piecing his own life together. The crowd of about 30 people all listened intently.

“I learned gratitude when I had nothing … I was finally humble when everything was taken from me.”

He talks about his time spent in treatment for drug and alcohol abuse and how he came to realize how much you require society to help you.

But his toughest lesson to learn was forgiveness – especially forgiving himself.

“We’re born into this world as humans, two legs with essentially no means of survival and from that point everything is given to us.” Cardinal recounts how he lost sight of this and started to feel entitled leading to a downward spiral that landed him on the streets.

“It’s not that the person deserves forgiveness, it’s that you deserve peace.”

It was the hardest thing Cardinal had to do. He says he still has a lot of anger about losing his culture, language and the ways of his people – which brings him to his last lesson.

“All this ends up leading you to a place where you can have compassion.”

The First Light Initiative

Through his start-up company NexOptic, Cardinal has established the First Light Initiative. His vision is that Aboriginal youth of all ages should be exposed to telescopes, astronomy and the wonders that fill the night sky in order to create a desire to learn and explore.

His aim is to provide telescopes to schools on reserves to cultivate a hands-on learning approach.

“But that’s only half of the idea,” says Cardinal. He wants to bring keepers of indigenous knowledge — elders — to the program to teach Aboriginal youth about their culture.

“[We want] to give them some language, stories of the sky.” Cardinal says that without his past he wouldn’t have been motivated to give back to the community.

Finally, he shows the crowd a picture of himself, his son, his biological mother and grandmother.

“Look at the eyes,” Cardinal says. “It was the first time that I actually had anyone that looked like me.”

The editor responsible for this piece is Max Foley and can be reached at

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