Northern Perspectives: The Agreement that Changed It All

Podcast Producer Cedric Gallant dives into the deep history behind the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), where the Crees and Inuit went head-to-head against the Government of Quebec.

Student Life

Relearning what it means to be Cree

Cree storyteller discusses his return to Indigenous culture and ways of learning

Cree storyteller, actor, musician and residential school survivor Joseph Naytowhow discussed his approach to “Cree ways of knowing” during a lecture held at Concordia on Nov. 2.

The lecture was organized by the university’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture, and was moderated by David Howes, a professor of anthropology and co-director of Concordia’s Centre for Sensory Studies.

In a packed conference room on the Hall building’s seventh floor, Howes introduced Naytowhow to the sea of attendees with warmth and pride. “One of our purposes this afternoon is to explore what it might mean to indigenize a university education,” said Howes.  “It’s precisely that idea of bridging the distance between the academy, Concordia University, and Cree ways of knowing that we are here to explore this afternoon.”

Naytowhow, who was born in Sturgeon Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, discussed his past and personal experiences of embracing and relearning his Cree culture. When Naytowhow got out of the residential school system after 13 years, he felt he had to relearn how to be Cree. “I was empty. There was nothing… I was basically Canadian,” said Naytowhow.

Residential schools were introduced in Canada as a means of assimilation.  The school system was put in place by the Canadian government in 1880, and the last residential school closed in 1986. The Catholic Church ran these schools, which aimed to assimilate aboriginal children into mainstream Canadian society, into the English language and into the Christian faith.

Naytowhow attended All Saints residential school in Saskatchewan. There, Naytowhow said he faced different forms of abuse, which made him feel detached from his culture and language.  The experience also affected his confidence and sense of self-worth.

“I’m still working on forgiving the Anglicans,” he said. “They really did a number on me and my people, my relatives, my family.”

Naytowhow said it was an elder he met at the University of Saskatchewan, where he was pursuing an undergraduate degree in education, who reintroduced him to what he lost during his time at All Saints. The elder, Solomon Mosquito, inspired him to re-embrace  his culture and language and to begin a healing process using the Cree way of seeing life.

Photo by Danielle Gasher

“Something tweaked inside of me that I had to go and spend time with him. So I missed classes,” he said. Naytowhow described the Cree way of learning as experiencing things with all senses, with open-mindedness, with forgiveness and with an appreciation for the elements, living beings and nature.

Naytowhow recalled a comparison Mosquito made that helped him understand how expansive the Cree way of thinking, learning and being is. He said Mosquito compared the Cree way of knowing to the pharmaceutical aisles in a drugstore, because of how vast and diverse it is.  “It just totally placed that image right in my mind…What a great way to explain it,” said Naytowhow, laughing.

While Naytowhow didn’t directly address what universities can do to bring Indigenous knowledge to school curriculums, he said that “learning is about observation, insight,” and that schools could benefit from using that approach in classrooms across Canada.

Universities across Canada are starting to introduce ways to further bridge the gap between Indigenous ways of learning and universities.  According to a University Affairs 2016 article, “Indigenizing the academy,” the University of Regina, Brock University, Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg, among others, have introduced measures to better include and represent Indigenous culture in their teaching.

Naytowhow said that relearning his Cree culture has helped and still helps him heal from his past in the residential school system. “I can’t hang on to this grudge forever—it’s going to kill me. I’m working on that.”

Indeed, Naytowhow still heavily works on healing and put a lot of importance on forgiveness once he started getting back in touch with his “Cree side.” “There’s still some debris,” he said. “I call them my little demons.”

Photo by Danielle Gasher

“I had to go to high mountains; I had to go to the valley; I had to go to sweats; I had to go to ceremonies. I went into Buddhist communities. I went through therapy, life skills; I went to the University of Regina. I got married, [at a] pretty young age—20 years old. I didn’t have a clue of what marriage was about,” he said, laughing again.

Above all, Naytowhow said he couldn’t have gotten through his healing journey without music.  “It’s hard to stop, I just want to keep on going,” said Naytowhow with a laugh as he ended a song he performed during the lecture. “Drumming saved my life,” said Naytowhow, with his drum still in hand. “It’s like a primal scream.”

While Naytowhow still has his demons, he will never forget the day a nun apologized to him for all the harm the Catholic Church caused Indigenous peoples in Canada. “At the time, I was still angry. I didn’t really respond in a compassionate way,” he said. Today, Naytowhow said he would have.

Student Life

Discussing identity and politics of adoption

Annette Kassaye and Nakuset explore their identities as adoptees in first event of series

On Friday Jan. 30 the Centre for Gender Advocacy will begin a semester-long series focused around race, gender, and political resistance.

Events will be held every month, each one tackling one particular nuance of these intersections between gender and cultural background.

“There is no possible way, as we see it, to separate gender form race or from class or anything else,” said Maya Rolbin-Ghanie, Publicity and Promotions Coordinator for the Centre for Gender Advocacy.

Annette Kassaye and Nakuset will discuss their experience as adoptees. Photo courtesy of the Centre for Gender Advocacy

“We wanted to have a space where some of these issues could be focused on more than they generally are, we feel that any kind of feminist discussion that isn’t looking at race or cultural identities is quite limited in many ways,” said Rolbin-Ghanie. “It weakens any struggle when intersections aren’t acknowledged.”

The first event, “The Racial and Cultural Politics of Adoption: Adoptee Perspectives”, will be a discussion on politics of adoption, with guest speakers Annette Kassaye and Nakuset.

Kassaye, a Concordia graduate, is a transracial Ethiopian adoptee, who was adopted into an anglophone family from the Eastern Townships when she was a year old. She currently writes for an online magazine, Gazillion Voices and Lost Daughters, which aims to be a forum for adoptees to have their voices heard. She is also the founder of Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora, an organization which also serves as a platform for Ethiopian adoptees to share their stories.

“Adoption is much more of a political issue than people may realize, and being an adoptee can be as well,” said Rolbin-Ghanie. “She’s going to talk about how women, especially women of colour, come up against certain issues when they’ve been adopted into white families.”

Nakuset is Cree from Saskatewan, adopted into a Montreal Jewish family. Growing up, she found it difficult to assume her own identity as a Native person within her adopted family, and has dedicated her adult life to advocating for Native rights. She is the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, and works with Aboriginal children in care.

The discussion is sure to be eye-opening for anybody interested in identity issues, as well as the general cultural and political implications of adoption, from an adoptee’s eyes.

“Whether or not somebody has been adopted, having this kind of discussion can bring to the forefront a lot of identity issues that a lot of us struggle with,” said Rolbin-Ghanie. “So many of us have to deal with being isolated identity-wise in so many ways, whether its race, being a minority, language, class, gender, and I think the discussion on adoption will raise some really interesting questions about notions of adoption, and how many people see it as a really benevolent act to adopt a child, but theres so many racial and cultural undertones and implications to it.”

The talk will be held Fri Jan. 30 from 6 to 8 p.m. in EV 1.605, 1515 Ste-Catherine St. W.


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