Indigenous Awareness Week is now in its fifth year at McGill University. The week showcases local indigenous culture through a series of events, beginning with the Pow Wow on Sept. 18, and concluding on Sept. 25 with a symposium titled Resisting Gendered and State Violence: Indigenous Women’s Activism. The focal points of the week are the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Indigenous women’s issues.
Indigenous Awareness Week promotes the visibility of indigenous culture on campus and raises awareness about the issues facing indigenous peoples, but in order to break down the barriers to inclusion faced by indigenous peoples at McGill, indigenous issues must hold greater weight. Currently, indigenous issues are mostly absent from mainstream conversation. The marginalization of indigenous peoples is embedded in McGill’s institutional history—the land that McGill is built on was never ceded to the university; a series of missteps by the administration and the Government of Canada snowballed to last week’s notice of seizure sent by Kahentinetha of the Bear Clan, a kahtihon’tia:kwenio (women titleholder), of the Kahnawake Mohawk community. It stands to reason that any student of McGill should be educated in both sides of the history of indigenous-settler relations in Canada, particularly as those relations relate to McGill and local Aboriginal Peoples.
The First People’s House, KANATA journal, and Indigenous Awareness Week, as well as the introduction of an Indigenous Studies Program, should be commended for raising awareness of indigenous issues and creating spaces for indigenous representation and expression on campus. Student associations, including the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), and the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) should also be given credit for territorial acknowledgements at meetings.
But such steps only go part of the way to bringing indigenous issues to the forefront. The scope of their progress must be extended into the consciousness of all students at McGill. This conversation could begin in residences where new students can be encouraged to think critically about Canada’s colonial legacy by their floor fellows.
Awareness of indigenous culture and of the obstacles faced by Aboriginals must be coupled with caution to avoid entrenching stereotypes. Breaking the barriers between indigenous students and their peers will take time, and efforts to do so must be given sustained attention by students, professors, and administrators. While raising awareness is not a solution to the systemic inequalities faced by indigenous, and in particular indigenous who pursue a post-secondary education, it is a step in the right direction. Attitudes can only evolve when time has been devoted to ensuring that everyone has a stake in changing their own attitudes.
Insofar as McGill works diligently to ensure a commitment to social justice and inclusion, it remains behind other Canadian universities in terms of indigenous rights and representation on campus. McGill has hired its first tenure-track indigenous professor, but such progress seems limited when compared to the University of British Columbia, which has numerous indigenous professors across various faculties. Though the recommendations laid out by the TRC in order to narrow the inequalities between indigenous and non-indigenous students apply mainly to the federal government, McGill can do more to improve the representation of indigenous peoples. A partnership with local indigenous communities in developing those goals and the steps to achieve them must be prioritized.
As progress is made by the administration, students can spark a grassroots conversation. There are less than 200 aboriginal students in undergraduate studies at McGill, and those students face microaggressions daily, according to a study released on Jan. 2 2014 by the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office. By not opening up spaces for indigenous awareness, the campus participates in the silencing of a culture that has been fighting for its existence for centuries. Students at McGill must decide whether they will continue that history of silence by continuing to marginalize indigenous issues and rights, or if it is possible for our campus to become a leader in the conversation.