Presence and future

“Do you know who are First Nations people?”

“Who are they?”

There are at least 634 First Nations in Canada, made up of 1.7 million people speaking over 50 distinct languages. What is now called the ‘Greater Toronto Area’ is surrounded by nearly a dozen Indigenous communities, many of which called this region home for millennia before settler arrival.

Verne Ross is from Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan. He co-teaches the 200-level Introduction to Indigenous Studies course at UTSG’s Centre for Indigenous Studies.

The class covers foundational material in Indigenous knowledge, politics, and history, both independent of and in relation to settlers, from the traditional Seven Grandfather Teachings, to the four sacred medicines, to self-determination and governance.

The course is an invaluable learning opportunity for students who may otherwise have little exposure to Indigenous issues in their other courses.

Ross likes to push his students by asking them questions. He asks them to share why they are taking Indigenous Studies — and to consider what they really know of the people who have lived on this land for thousands of years.

“Who are they?”

The University of Toronto, in stark contrast, was founded in 1827. It operates on the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Indigenous students, staff, and community members from across Turtle Island study and work on all three campuses.

Education in Indigenous studies about and alongside Indigenous people is vital to a comprehensive education in Canada, as well as to understanding how the university got to where it is today.

Whose stories we teach

The courses offered at the Centre for Indigenous Studies overlap substantially with other disciplines. If students take other classes while lacking even a basic understanding of who Indigenous people are, they may be in for a jarring experience.

“If you go into Equity Studies, or English, or Anthropology, I guarantee my First Nations people are going to be mentioned in those lectures,” Ross says. “[And] the student is sitting there wondering… ‘Who are they? I didn’t know they were here.’”

“I didn’t know they existed.”

“Reconciliation is hard, and there is more to be done, but I am encouraged by the direction the law school has taken.”

— Daniel Diamond, Beaver Clan, Opaskwayak Cree Nation Law 

By offering courses on Indigenous languages and research methodologies, for instance, institutions like the Centre for Indigenous Studies have made a concerted effort to share that knowledge with the university at large.

Indigenous students, professors, and community members from other departments are also often invited to perform land acknowledgements at opening and closing ceremonies, or to share their experiences at panels and conferences.

In many places on campus, though, the attention and respect with which Indigenous content is treated depends on who is teaching.

Annie MacKillican is a third-year student and member
of the Mattawa North Bay First Nation. She is double majoring in Indigenous Studies and Political Science.

Despite centring mostly on Canadian politics, her political science instructors have at times completely failed to acknowledge the impact of Indigenous people on the political landscape.

“It’s frustrating, because it kind of reinforces the idea that Indigenous people are not relevant or present in today’s society,” MacKillican says.

Samantha Giguere, in her second year studying Archaeology and Indigenous Studies, holds similar views. She is Ojibwe from the Thessalon First Nation in Northern Ontario.

“The Indigenous view on history is typically brushed over in archeology classes, with just a quick mention that Indigenous people believe they have been in the Americas for a much longer time than proven through archaeological research,” Giguere says.

Other Indigenous students have had more positive experiences. Daniel Diamond is from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, a member of the Beaver Clan, and a first-year student in the Faculty of Law.

In Diamond’s opinion, the faculty has demonstrated an encouraging effort to incorporate Indigenous issues into its legal education plan. All first-year students are required to attend a half-day Introduction to Aboriginal Law course before beginning full-time studies in September, and the blanket exercise — a teaching method that tells the story of Canada’s Indigenous people — is incorporated into the faculty’s orientation week.

Some of Diamond’s professors have also highlighted Indigenous perspectives within the black-letter-law courses that make up the mandatory curriculum. His criminal law professor, Kent Roach, for example, focused much of his class on Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq man wrongfully convicted of murder in Nova Scotia, who served 11 years in prison before he was finally exonerated.

Marshall Jr.’s case is one of the most famous wrongful conviction cases in Canadian history. It is also a black mark on Canada’s criminal justice system — a landmark example of how anti-Indigenous prejudice at all stages of the process can culminate in carceral violence and injustice.

The university is in a position to promote a more honest and meaningful inclusion of Indigenous people and voices, and arguably has a responsibility to do so.

“Being an educational institution, they have the unique ability to change how people receive information about the country they live and study in,” MacKillican says.


Control over narratives

For many non-Indigenous students, university is their first opportunity to come into contact with Indigenous teachings — or even with Indigenous people.

Ross recounts the many preconceived notions that students have brought into his classroom.

“Is it true that Native people all live on reserves?” (No. Indigenous people live all across Canada, on reserve and off reserve.)

“Is it true that Native people get free education?” (Not really. ‘Status Indians,’ people recognized by the federal government as such under the Indian Act, may receive federal funding for postsecondary education. But funding is in limited supply and contingent on strict requirements. Many students, if they receive funding at all, do not receive enough to cover their costs.)

“Is it true that Native people don’t pay taxes?” (Not exactly. Indigenous people living off reserve pay taxes like any other resident. Certain property on reserve lands is subject to tax exemptions; conversely, prohibitions on tax collection have severely constrained the ability of Band Councils to raise revenue for public services in their communities.)

Where stereotypes arise, instead of scolding, Ross tries to challenge them in constructive ways.

“We want to be able to show them, but not to tell them,” he explains. 

Regrettably, educators may also perpetuate ignorance or misinformation about Indigenous people.

One of MacKillican’s professors refused to use the appropriate terminology when referring to Indigenous people. According to MacKillican, the professor claimed “that it would have no impact on the lives of Indigenous people if he called them ‘Indians.’”

The labels ‘Indian’ and ‘Aboriginal’ are fictions of Western law. Rooted in settler misunderstanding and othering, they can be pejorative when used outside of their specific legal context, though some Indigenous people in Canada and elsewhere have adopted variations of these terms. The word ‘Indigenous’ is usually preferred when speaking about Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people — to avoid homogenizing, the names of specific nations should be used.

Respecting the right of Indigenous people to be acknowledged in the way that they want can be fundamental to acknowledging their presence and power of identity.

Ziigwen Mixemong, a student in Indigenous Studies and Women & Gender Studies, is Mi’kmaq and Potawatomi, from Beausoleil First Nation on Georgian Bay. She grew up in a small town, where for years, she was the only person of colour at her school.

In Mixemong’s culture, babies aren’t always named right at birth. Though the name on her birth certificate is “Bailey,” she received her Indigenous spirit name, “Ziigwen,” at her traditional naming ceremony as a toddler.

Yet, despite her repeated requests, her elementary and secondary schools refused to let her go by “Ziigwen.” Though today, Mixemong holds no animosity toward the name “Bailey,” coming to U of T was in part an opportunity to reclaim her Indigenous spirit name.

“The fact that I was not allowed to go by Ziigwen for so long makes me very protective of my right to be called what I want,” Mixemong says. 

Threads of solidarity

Many Indigenous students are some of the first in their families to attend university, but may have limited support available to finance their educations, and face additional obstacles if they live on reserve or in fly-in communities.

Intergenerational impacts of colonialism — such as strains on family, lifelong experiences of racism, and barriers to embracing their cultures and languages — do not disappear once Indigenous students come to U of T.

“By the time you come to face the obstacles that are associated with university,” Giguere says, “some Indigenous youth have already climbed more mountains than some people will have to climb in their entire lives.”

A number of centres and organizations at the university continually strive to provide Indigenous students with additional support.

The First Nations House offers culturally sensitive services and programming, including academic advising, scholarships, and access to elders and teachers in residence.

Student organizations such as the Native Students’ Association (NSA) and the Indigenous Law Students’ Association (ILSA) host feasts, social gatherings, and educational events to engage with and promote the Indigenous presence on campus. The Indigenous Studies Students’ Union is hosting its third annual Honouring Our Students Pow Wow this spring.

Yet continual brushes with anti-Indigeneity can foster unpleasant or troubling experiences for Indigenous students, from course content that ignores Indigenous perspectives to insensitive comments from professors and peers.

Visible markers of colonialism across campus — such as buildings and monuments that honour colonial heroes — also play a role. Students at Victoria College have launched a campaign to rename both the residence and stream of the first-year Vic One program named after Egerton Ryerson, who played a key role in the design of the residential school system.

Mixemong’s encounters with anti-Indigeneity, misinformation, and neglect of Indigenous perspectives have at times severely impacted her learning. The comments made in her classes about her people have moved her to tears, and the toll this eventually took on her mental health has at times led her to step back from her studies. 

“In my experience, even classes that are seemingly safe spaces can tokenize Indigenous voices or silence them altogether,” Mixemong says.

The need for truth

Under the banner of ‘reconciliation,’ universities across Canada have implemented a wide range of initiatives designed to raise awareness of Indigenous issues. ‘Reconciliation’ is spoken about in schools, in politics, and on social media feeds.

We might consider framing our approach differently.

“There is an assumption, if you say reconciliation, that there was a good relationship to start,” Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo says. “In some cases, the relationship component was never there.”

Hamilton-Diabo is of the Mohawk nation and Director of Indigenous Initiatives at U of T. He co-chaired the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) steering committee at the university. In 2017, a team of Indigenous students, faculty, staff, and community members produced a report detailing the university’s plan to implement the calls to action from the TRC.

Among others, the committee’s recommendations included recruitment of and support for Indigenous students and employees, increased Indigenous alumni engagement, and mindfulness of Indigenous issues in university curricula and programming.

As Hamilton-Diabo points out, to even begin to “reconcile,” we need to know the truth.

The Canadian TRC was modelled after the restorative justice body of the same name set up in post-apartheid South Africa. The South African TRC invested innumerable resources into documenting the horrors of the apartheid regime, even taking the controversial step of offering amnesty to officials who agreed to confess.

The sheer number of volumes and records that came out of that initiative was designed to ensure that no one in South Africa, or around the world, would ever forget what took place there.

Canada isn’t quite there yet.

Ross has invited survivors of the residential school system to serve as guest speakers in his classes. Students’ reactions are palpable. Many are disbelieving at first — shocked that forcing children from their communities and brutally attempting to assimilate them into Western culture was, not so long ago, part of official Canadian policy.

Though questions are encouraged, Ross says, many students just sit and listen.

“I think the students are silent that way because they’re actually hearing the realities of what took place,” he explains.

“They’re learning about who are First Nations people.”

In light of that past, Mixemong feels that U of T and all of its settler students have a tremendous responsibility to Indigenous students at the university.

“We have inherited a horrific history,” Mixemong says, “and it is everyone’s responsibility to learn and grow from that.” 

At the same time, Hamilton-Diabo acknowledges that it is inappropriate to see Indigenous communities just through lenses like the residential schools system. Painting Indigenous people as victims overshadows their resilience, and ignores their contributions to history as well as to present and future societies.

Conversely, learning about Indigenous people, as settlers in or immigrants to this country, also requires students to be honest about how they fit into the picture.

Ross tells me that students often come to him claiming to be Indigenous. Mindful of diversity across nations, he is always careful in his response. Some students have rumours of Indigeneity in their families, or their relatives may even have discouraged them from pursuing their lineage.

But Ross also recognizes that some students who take his course or come to the centre do not necessarily have the best intentions. Some, he says, are actually searching for a new sense of identity.

“‘I’m not proud to be white.’ ‘I don’t want to be white.’”

“‘I want to be Native.’”

Every Indigenous person has a unique past, present, and future. Indigeneity is not a label that one can adopt and shed at will. And appropriation, Ross tells me, is not the way to build relationships.

“We welcome people into our communities, but we can’t change who you are.”

“Intergenerational trauma is real and it lies within the walls of this institution.”

— Ziigwen Mixemong, Mikmaq and Potawatomi, Beausoleil First Nation 

Women and Gender Studies & Indigenous Studies

Toward better relations

Hamilton-Diabo is confident that U of T is paying attention to Indigenous people. The challenge is how to do so effectively — within an institution this size and across three campuses, where various departments have more or less experience with Indigenous issues, and where roadblocks to retaining Indigenous students and faculty exist at all levels.   

Diamond is encouraged by the law school’s efforts to incorporate Indigenous perspectives within the standard black-letter law classes required of all first-year students.

“I think, in an ideal world, I would like to see more of the same,” Diamond says. “A continued and concerted effort to engage with Indigenous issues within the framework of the classes already being taught.”

MacKillican, too, would like to see increased focus on Indigenous people in departments and courses outside of the Centre for Indigenous Studies. Mixemong’s suggestions include increasing funding for Indigenous student resources, and thorough consultation to establish what they really need and want.

Giguere believes that archaeology programs across Canada should implement a mandatory Indigenous course requirement. The NSA has in the past lobbied for a mandatory Indigenous course requirement to be incorporated into all degrees at the university.

But Ross is skeptical about mandating any kind of learning or participation. He cautions that while the centre encourages students who are interested to get involved, in his opinion, this should be done without forcing anyone to learn. 

“We can’t force our ways on other nations that are coming to university,” Ross says. Settlers forced their ways on Indigenous people, he explains, by banning traditional ceremonies like sundances and potlatches and refusing to let people speak their languages. The damage of those dynamics continues to this day.

“That’s not who we are.”

As the largest university in Canada, U of T occupies a special role in this learning process. The university has the opportunity to foster a thorough understanding of the impact of colonial and oppressive policies on Indigenous people within its existing student and faculty communities.

It is also in a position to engage Indigenous people at all stages of this process, to the extent that they are interested in getting involved.

“It is no longer an acceptable practice to move ahead without Indigenous people involved,” Hamilton-Diabo says. “The lack of Indigenous people is no longer a valid excuse to say, ‘We’ll do it anyhow.’”

Educating future generations includes repairing existing relations — and building new ones for the present and future.

“Whether your people came here willingly, forcibly, historically, or recently, you are here now,” Mixemong says.

“We are all here, right now.”