National Truth and Reconciliation Day is right around the corner — let’s talk
For the second time since its establishment in 2021, Canadians will celebrate National Truth and Reconciliation Day on Sept. 30. This statutory holiday honours the survivors of residential schools as well as those who never returned from them. What better way to commemorate and learn from the past than to take some time to educate ourselves on Indigenous issues?
Like many students in Quebec, Kenny Gourdet, a black political science undergrad at Concordia, says she was taught the same “European explorers came to populate society” story over and over again. A prime example of colonialism is how history classes often glorify the arrival of Europeans to the Americas, where they would supposedly save Indigenous peoples by “civilizing” them.
When Gourdet started pursuing her minor in First Peoples Studies, she realized how colonialism had tainted her education. “I think through that minor, I’m starting to understand what decolonization means to me, and what I can do to actively be a part of decolonization,” she explains.
Manon Tremblay, Senior Director of Indigenous Directions at Concordia University, says, “I’ve always thought that if you get anything out of university, regardless of what you study, it is openness of mind.”
Tremblay, who is also Plains Cree and a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, explains the Office of Indigenous Directions came up with the Indigenous Directions Action Plan in 2019. This “blueprint” as she calls it outlines 40 recommendations to tackle reconciliation, indigenization and decolonization at Concordia. These recommendations include creating institutional protocols to better engage with Indigenous knowledge, encouraging the use of Indigenous languages at Concordia, increasing opportunities for Indigenous graduates and students, decolonizing the institution and curriculum, and more.
“Decolonization is not dismantling systems that work,” says Tremblay. “It’s basically looking at systems and at those parts that don’t work for Indigenous people and may constitute barriers to success.”
As Gourdet puts it, decolonization is the undoing of colonialism. For her, it starts by unlearning the aspects of her life that have been affected by it, whether it be her education or her perception of herself.
All hands on deck
“Decolonization belongs to everyone,” says Ezgi Ozyonum, a PhD candidate in education at Concordia. She is also a researcher and events coordinator at the Decolonial Perspectives and Practices Hub (DPPH).
Her colleague Sandra Mouafo, a sociology undergrad, describes the DPPH as an incubator for initiatives, activism and empowerment. Their team aims to amplify the voices of students whose perspectives are left out of conversations that pertain to their wellbeing and future. The DPPH works to bridge the gap between academia and different ethnic communities within the student body.
“Nobody is safe from oppression,” says Mouafo. “If tomorrow it’s your neighbour, the next day it’s you. You shouldn’t wait until the fire gets to your house before you start worrying about it.”
She adds that decolonization can be discussed from many standpoints, ranging from politics to academia to interpersonal relationships. According to her, these reflections should begin by asking ourselves: “How do we look at society from a different lens than colonialism?”
Both Ozyonum and Mouafo strongly believe decolonization is plural, meaning it requires a plethora of diverse perspectives. They say understanding multiple viewpoints will help contribute to decentering dominant models and patterns of oppression.
Ozyonum likes to use the word “decolonizing” as a verb. For her, it’s an ongoing effort to challenge colonial engagement and systemic oppression in the world.
According to Mouafo, everyone is responsible for deconstructing colonial influences and holding themselves accountable, whether they are racialized or non-racialized bodies.
“We are all here on one earth and we are responsible for the actions or the things that happened in the past,” says Ozyonum. “We are responsible to learn from history.”
Looking back at previous education
Gourdet realizes how strong a hold colonialism had on the predominantly white private high school she attended. “I never felt like the school I went to created a safe space for me and my diversity,” she admits.
At first, Gourdet didn’t think too much of her school’s pride in its founder, Wilfrid Laurier, but then she finally learned the truth behind Laurier’s involvement with Indigenous residential schools and anti-immigration policies through her political science classes. “His name was and is still plastered all across the school,” emphasizes Gourdet.
During her time there, Gourdet says the only effort to welcome diversity was the organization of a week-long event that superficially highlighted multiculturalism, “to show white kids diversity exists.” Other than that, Gourdet thinks the school’s promotion of diversity was shallow. “I felt like the school’s view on diversity was transmitted to the whole student body,” she said.
Although oppression affects all marginalized communities, the main targets of colonialism in Canada are Indigenous peoples, as we stand on their lands. Concordia’s efforts to indigenize aim to bring Indigenous voices to the University’s administration and academia.
So how is Concordia doing?
“Education is key,” shares Tremblay. “You can go forth in your life after university and see systems a bit differently and have a better openness of spirit and of mind.” However, as Gourdet’s experience highlights, students can absorb colonialist mindsets when they are in colonialist environments.
Concordia’s first steps into decolonization date back to 1992, when the Otsenhákta Student Centre was established, which serves as a resource for First Nations, Inuit and Métis students. Concordia’s decolonization efforts are now primarily orchestrated by the Office of Indigenous Directions.
“I think we’ve made some really good progress,” says Tremblay. “It helps that we have the unwavering commitment of higher administration. They believe in this, and they want to see it happen.”
On Friday, Sept. 16, Concordia hosted a powwow, which Tremblay deems to have been quite a success. She says they aim to organize more Indigenous-themed activities to increase visibility, but also to educate. “Not everything about Indigenous people is oppression,” she states. “We have things to celebrate too.”
The University has also incorporated territorial acknowledgement to its decolonial practices, stating that “the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation is recognized as the custodians of the lands and waters on which we gather today. Tiohtià:ke/Montréal is historically known as a gathering place for many First Nations. Today, it is home to a diverse population of Indigenous and other peoples.”
“I think Concordia is good at initiating and providing spaces,” says Ozyonum. She believes the only missing piece is communication. “In this part, the Hub has a role to play,” she adds, since the DPPH works to reform systemic injustices in higher education.
Among other events, Ozyonum often organizes syllabus deconstruction workshops, where students, teachers and administration members meet to carefully deconstruct colonial patterns in their syllabi. “They talk about the power dynamics and how to reimagine the classroom with this syllabus, because a syllabus for us is a tool,” explains Ozyonum.
Both Ozyonum and Mouafo agree that the process to decolonize classrooms will take time, effort, and a lot of important conversations. Looking at the different aspects of our lives with a critical eye is the foundation for decolonizing ourselves and our environments.
“The thing with decolonization is that it’s not simple,” shrugs Mouafo. “It is a tireless commitment.”
The Office for Indigenous Directions aims to decolonize curriculums by bringing in more Indigenous experts and perspectives. This allows them to explore ways of teaching that every student finds a benefit to, according to Tremblay.
As Tremblay explains, not all cultures that fit under the “Indigenous” umbrella term agree with what needs to be done. “There’s a constant need for engagement to make sure that we’re always moving in the right direction,” she says.
Decolonizing and indigenizing need to be done continuously. “It’s work that’s long,” says Tremblay. “We’re not always going to see the results right away.” That’s why the Office of Indigenous Directions is committed to reviewing their action plan regularly. Their latest update was in June 2021.
Although education is a good place to foster conversations on decolonization, Ozyonum affirms that “Decolonization should be happening on all levels, and in different places, so it shouldn’t only be happening in school.”
A path of stepping stones
Mouafo adds that decolonization shouldn’t stem from a virtuous and heroic place, but from a humble willingness to learn and to become better people. It is an individual effort as much as it is a collective effort.
Although decolonization seems like a huge challenge, the DPPH members encourage everyone to simply try. “Even mistakes can be our learning opportunities,” smiles Ozyonum. A variety of resources, webinars and workshops are offered by Concordia’s Indigenous Directions Learning Series Pîkiskwêtân (Cree for “let’s talk”).
Self-education outside academia can happen through books, movies, series, podcasts and more. Because decolonization is an increasingly hot topic, resources are becoming more and more accessible. The CBC podcast Telling our Twisted Histories, which addresses the erasure of Indigenous perspectives in Canadian history, is one of many examples.
“There’s no right way of being decolonial,” says Mouafo. “It’s a colonial mindset to think there is one right way,” she laughs.
As Ozyonum says, we are responsible for building our future — a future where we look at the world in an intersectional way and live in respectful dialogue.
“Have these conversations,” implores Mouafo. “And if you’re uncomfortable, that means you’re in the right place, because this conversation is not meant to be comfortable. It’s not meant to be easy, but it’s needed.”
Photos by Kaitlynn Rodney