Laura Oprescu, News Editor
The Government of Canada established Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2007 to investigate the history of residential schools. The investigation’s goal was to inform Canadians about the brutal treatment of Indigenous people under the residential school system and to start the process of reconciliation with Indigenous communities. Reconciliation, however, goes beyond the residential school system: indigenous language rights, disparities and discrimination in the child welfare system, and the coerced sterilization of Indigenous women are just a few examples of persistent injustices that Canadian indigenous people face today.
The TRC put forth 94 Calls to Action in its final report, released in 2015, which included increasing funding for indigenous students seeking post-secondary education, creating post-secondary indigenous language programs, and eliminating the educational and employment gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. Designing and implementing these initiatives often happens at the university level.
In response to the TRC’s report, McGill’s Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) (PVPA) Christopher Manfredi established the Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education in 2016, the mandate of which was to address the TRC’s Calls to Action within the university context. The task force’s final report, released in 2017, included 52 Calls to Action of its own, organised into five categories: Student Recruitment and Retention, Physical Representation and Symbolic Recognition, Academic Programs and Curriculum, Research and the Academic Complement, and Building Capacity and Human Resources.
The Call to Action that has received by far the most attention is Call 21: “Varsity Teams and the McGill Name,” which calls for the immediate renaming of McGill’s men’s varsity teams. In response, the PVPA established the Working Group on Principles of Commemoration and Renaming to establish guidelines for renaming any structures, buildings, or teams at McGill; however, the group was not explicitly tasked with renaming the men’s varsity teams. Frustrated with the slow administrative response to renaming, Tomas Jirousek, member of the Kainai First Nation in Alberta and Student Society of McGill University’s [SSMU] Indigenous Affairs Commissioner, started the #ChangeTheName campaign to put pressure on McGill’s administration.
The Working Group released their final report in Dec. 2018. Despite a peaceful demonstration in Oct. 2018 and an open letter that has garnered over 10,000 signatures protesting the name, Vice-Principal and Chancellor Suzanne Fortier informed the McGill community in an email in Jan. 2019 that she would delay her decision on changing the name until the end of Winter 2019, citing the need to consider all opinions before making a decision. Changing the name of McGill’s men’s varsity teams is a prominent and public example of reconciliation, but it is only one aspect of the indigenous experience at McGill.
McGill already has crucial resources in place for indigenous students. McGill’s indigenous services and initiatives are primarily run out of the First Peoples’ House (FPH), which describes itself as a “home away from home” for indigenous students. The FPH provides space for students to study, meet with elders and tutors, participate in drumming circles, and share a weekly dinner of soup and bannock with other members of the community. Additionally, the FPH has 10 single-occupancy rooms available for rent, with priority given to indigenous students.
Ella Martindale, a member of the Cowichan First Nation and co-chair of the Indigenous Student Alliance (ISA), believes that the ISA and the FPH create valuable community spaces for indigenous students.
“Through these connections, we take on activism, events, and awareness initiatives,” Martindale wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “It really depends upon what the McGill community needs in the moment and what the Indigenous students want to pursue. Ultimately, we provide a space to organize and be together as Indigenous students, and the rest follows.”
Other Canadian universities have built indigenous centres that architecturally reflect local indigenous communities. The University of British Columbia’s First Nations Longhouse reflects the architectural traditions of the Northwest Coast and houses the Xwi7xwa Library and the First Nations House of Learning, among other resources. The University of Saskatchewan’s Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre was designed by Blackfoot and Metis architect Douglas Cardinal, who is known for designing the Museum of Civilization and First Nations University, and has a purpose-built ventilation system that allows for indoor smudging ceremonies.
Kakwiranó:ron Cook is a member of both the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne and the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation at Pine Ridge. Cook is the Special Advisor, Indigenous Initiatives in the Office of the PVPA and is responsible for implementing the recommendations in the Final Report of the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education. One of his most significant initiatives is creating a larger physical space for indigenous students on campus.
In 2018, McGill received $37 million in funding from the Government of Quebec to conduct a feasibility study for redeveloping the old Royal Victoria Hospital site. Cook believes this would be the ideal location for a larger indigenous centre on campus, as there is space to hold classes, ceremonies, and social dances, as well as room for an outdoor garden and a greenhouse.
“[My vision is] to create a longhouse,” Cook said. “A contemporary [...] brand-new building, so that we can have a large-scale presence on our campus. We have been working with our own clan mother from the Mohawk nation to welcome incoming indigenous students and staff through a traditional welcoming ceremony. It would be great to do it outdoors, as it was meant to be.”
In addition to a larger space for Indigenous students, Cook would like to see more representation in non-indigenous spaces at McGill, so that students are aware of the history of the land that McGill occupies and its traditional owners. Aside from the Hochelaga Rock, which was moved to a location facing the James McGill statue in September 2016, there are no obvious indigenous symbols on McGill’s campus.
“Everything [on McGill’s campus] is a new, Western-designed structure,” Cook said. “There’s nothing traditional whatsoever here, except for the Hochelaga rock [....] It takes a lot of effort to change ourselves and our behaviour, let alone [try] to effectuate change throughout the population that comes through our campus space. And why shouldn’t international students know exactly where they are?”
Cook would also like to see land acknowledgements on all sites owned by McGill, not just its main campuses.
“Gault Nature Reserve is on Abenaki territory, and they’re still using that place for their ceremonies,” Cook said. “[Members of the Abenaki Nation] would like after-hours and free access [to Gault] so that they can perform their ceremonies, so we would like to build a relationship with them. They have told us that they need to be represented through a plaque at the entrance [to Gault], so why not [also] do that at our Arctic research station, and our sub-Arctic research station, and our tropical research stations?”
In Winter 2017, indigenous students comprised 0.8 per cent of McGill’s student body. Cook is trying to address this under-representation by familiarizing indigenous youth with the university environment well before they apply, and supporting them throughout the application process.
“We target 13-17 year-old youth [...], really getting them used to a university context and getting them positioned in front of indigenous mentors [...], and really driving the message of post-secondary,” Cook said. “We really keep in touch with the students from before they apply to when they receive a decision [....] We make sure there’s someone communicating with them throughout this whole process.”
Jirousek believes that McGill should focus on hiring and retaining Indigenous professors across all disciplines, which is something that the university has historically struggled with. Further, Jirousek stated that McGill should immediately create an Indigenous Studies major, which he noted would not only have a positive impact on indigenous students, but would present an opportunity for non-Indigenous students to learn more about indigenous epistemologies and histories. Some schools, beyond implementing Indigenous Studies programs, have asked professors to include indigenous case studies and modules into existing courses, so that students can learn about indigeneity in a context that is relevant to their studies.
Cook is using funding from the Provost’s office to grow McGill’s indigenous field courses. Currently, the School of Social Work operates a field course in Kahnawá:ke, and Cook would like to see an additional field course offered through the Indigenous Studies program at Kanehsatà:ke, a Mohawk settlement west of Montreal. Additionally, the School of Continuing Studies (SCS) is developing online courses in entrepreneurship and information systems to bring flexible, affordable education to Northern communities.
“The future of education is online,” Cook said. “[The SCS] has gotten a lot of funding from the federal government because the programs [the SCS are developing] meet the direct needs of these communities [....] It’s unique at McGill.”
Both Cook and Jirousek cited a need for continued consultation with indigenous communities in addressing indigenous issues at McGill.
“We want to have a sphere of influence in some of the major decisions and directions that the University is taking, particularly as it pertains to the Calls to Action,” Cook said. “We want to do it collaboratively. That’s our way [...] to talk it out and arrive at enough of a consensus [to make sure] that we have a strong voice as the main stakeholders. We are the indigenous people, and this is our reality that we want to impact here.”
At the student governance level, Jirousek believes that SSMU should provide more support to indigenous students.
“SSMU has not facilitated or created the space for an indigenous equivalent of SSMU services such as the Black Students Network (BSN) and Queer McGill, which I find incredibly frustrating, and I hope to work towards establishing an indigenous student service offered by SSMU sometime in the next academic year,” Jirousek wrote in an email to the Tribune.
Currently, SSMU funds indigenous initiatives through the Equity fee, which members pay for so long as they do not opt out. Other services, such as the BSN, are funded through similar fees, as the majority of SSMU’s budget goes towards administrative costs and staff salaries. Jirousek would like to see consistent and committed funding for Indigenous Affairs.
“I would want to see a designated budget set aside for Indigenous Affairs, so that the Indigenous Affairs Commissioner would have more consistency and stability in planning projects and initiatives on behalf of SSMU,” Jirousek wrote. “This would allow the Indigenous Affairs Committee to pick projects which are important to them, and then tackle those initiatives without having to ask 'permission' from the SSMU executives, which has been one of my major challenges and struggles [while] working at SSMU.”
Jirousek believes that indigenous initiatives must be run by indigenous students, and that SSMU should position themselves as allies.
“The place of SSMU as an ally needs to be approached delicately because I think it is dangerous and harmful for an organization as big as SSMU to move on certain issues without the leadership and consent of indigenous people,” Jirousek wrote. “If the SSMU executive and the membership more broadly, can mobilize behind indigenous student leadership, then it can be considered appropriate, but not if the SSMU tries forcing itself into conversations where they haven't been invited.”
Jirousek spoke positively of his experiences working with Sophia Esterle, Vice-President (VP) Student Life, and Jacob Shapiro, VP University Affairs, on the Change the Name campaign, stating that they never tried speaking for him or pushing him to do anything that he didn’t believe in.
“One of the big reasons why the Change the Name campaign was successful and appropriate was because it was led and directed by Indigenous students, with Indigenous students speaking for ourselves on the issues that we saw on campus,” Jirousek wrote. “This was done in combination with some incredible allyship from non-Indigenous people who really understood what it meant to be a good ally.”
Jirousek explained that to be a good ally, non-indigenous members of the McGill community must listen to indigenous leaders and refrain from acting on their behalf.
“The key to good allyship is understanding your position of privilege and understanding that only indigenous students at McGill actually have the lived experience to speak to their own concerns,” Jirousek wrote. “[People] need to listen to when indigenous student leaders call for allyship, rather than inserting oneself into a dialogue they may not fully understand [....] Stop, reflect on your identity, and think about whether it's your place to interject yourself into the conversation.”
Martindale, though enthusiastic about the activism and community-building within the ISA and the FPH, believes that McGill still has a long way to go to make indigenous students comfortable on its campus.
“I would not tell my cousins to study at McGill,” Martindale wrote. “There needs to be a dramatic change at McGill when it comes to decolonization, which would not only affect Indigenous students' experiences, but BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour] experiences and settler experiences, as well.”
Martindale emphasised that indigenous leaders deserve recognition for the hard work that they do for their communities, including representing indigenous voices in campus discussions and mentoring indigenous students.
“Some of the biggest challenges facing Indigenous students and faculty at McGill, and at Canadian universities in general, are the invisible workloads that Indigenous people are expected to [carry] on top of their schoolwork and jobs,” Martindale wrote. “It’s difficult to be one of the only members of the McGill population with your specific identity.”
Cook stressed the importance of expanding resources to ensure that the Calls to Action are implemented little strain on McGill’s existing indigenous communities and reiterated the need to hire more indigenous staff, across all departments and levels of McGill.
“There’s always a barrage of information and projects, and they’re all super exciting,” Cook said. “[But] we want to make sure that we’re not overloading ourselves, because we’re always over-solicited.”
McGill still has a long way to go before fulfilling all of its Calls to Action, but Cook is optimistic with the progress it has made so far.
“McGill has been playing catch up, but we’re able to look at other universities and learn lessons [...] and how to hold ourselves to higher levels of accountability.”