SSMU Indigenous Affairs prepares to host academic conference

The Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) Indigenous Affairs Committee (IAC), in partnership with the Indigenous Law Association, the Desautels Indigenous Business Society, the McGill students chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), and the Indigenous Student Alliance, is preparing to host an academic conference. On March 14 and 15, the conference titled ‘Intergenerational Strength and Resiliency’ will host a total of 14 events including panels, workshops, and keynote speakers. According to SSMU Indigenous Affairs Commissioner Tomas Jirousek, the conference hopes to highlight Indigenous approaches to teaching and learning.

“[The conference has] focussed on different themes over the years,” Jirousek said. “This year, we chose to focus on intergenerational strength and resilience through an academic conference, but not specifically the type of Western conferences that we constantly refer to in academia [….] We have activists coming in, we have elders, we have politicians. There’s a lot of really cool different kinds of knowledge bases that we’re bringing together.”

Roméo Saganash, who will be delivering one of the keynote addresses, has been lauded for his activism for Indigenous issues. Saganash, from the Cree community of Waswanipi, is the first Indigenous Member of Parliament (MP) to hold a seat in Quebec. A survivor of the residential school system, Saganash has spent over 20 years furthering the legal and constitutional rights of Indigenous people, including his contributions to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Catie Galbraith, a member of the IAC and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, expressed their excitement over Saganash’s visit. 

“[The IAC was] able to get in touch because Roméo follows our Vice-President Events, Janelle Bruneau, on Twitter and she slid into his DMs,” Galbraith said in a message to The McGill Tribune. “Roméo is one of those figures that is pretty beloved amongst Indigenous youth—he’s pretty famously called other politicians out on their bullshit, and that type of refusal is super empowering to watch.”

Galbraith referred to Saganash’s use of an expletive during question period in the Canadian House of Commons: In September 2018, Saganash denounced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s support of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, a project that has not yet received consent from the Squamish Nation on Tsleil-Waututh in British Columbia. Jirousek praised Saganash’s ability to remain resilient during his eight year tenure as the MP for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou.

“Roméo got right involved in the mud and the muck of [politics],” Jirousek said. “And so you’ve seen him be this passionate, powerful voice for Cree people in his own riding […] in the House of Commons, and his work speaks for itself. I remember […] last year when he called up the Prime Minister and said ‘You don’t give a fuck about Indigenous rights.’”

In addition to Saganash, another keynote address will be given by Cindy Blackstock, a Gitxsan social worker who was spied on after suing the federal government for discriminating against First Nations children on reserves by underfunding social services. Nakuset, the Executive Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, will also be delivering a talk. Jirousek cited both Blackstock and Nakuset as inspirations for his activism. 

“[Blackstock and] Nakuset have been really big role models for myself over the last couple of years,” Jirousek said. “Anytime I have an event, I reach out to Nakuset. I can’t remember the last time that I’ve actually done something of significance without Nakuset there by my side.” 

To Claire Grenier, the SSMU’s Community Affairs Coordinator and a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, events like these are important to fostering a dynamic and diverse community of Indigenous students.

“Administration [and] Enrollment Services are really pushing [for] Indigenous students to enroll at McGill,” Grenier said. “But there’s no support or community that’s really pushed to them, or there’s just nothing there that lets them know that there is a community, that there’s a space for them to learn and to keep Indigenous identity, even in a city like Montreal that’s so urban [….] I think this conference […] to have this as a really distinct moment in the year for Indigenous youth to come together and kind of reconnect and really even get to know other Indigenous students at McGill that they can get involved with, that they can become friends with and share their experiences with, I think that’s really important.”

Interested students are encouraged to visit the event’s Facebook page to view a list of events, and to reserve their tickets for the keynote address on March 15 at 5:00 pm.

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