Concordia celebrates five years of First Voices Week

First Voices Week Concordia celebrated its fifth year last week, from Feb. 3 to 7.

The week-long series of events was led by Indigenous students, faculty and staff at Concordia University, in collaboration with several faculty departments and organizations.

The organizing committee offered workshops, documentary screenings, a solidarity gathering for the Wet’suwet’en Nation in their land defense, an art exhibit and lectures, among other events.

Cathy Richardson, director of First Peoples Studies, said that this event series sends a clear message.

“We’re here,” she said. “You didn’t kill us all off, I know the government tried. We still face issues of structural violence,  but we’re here. We’re trying to thrive and have influence.”

Richardson said that First Voices Week is crucial.

It affirms the Indigenous presence on campus, allows Indigenous students to see themselves reflected in the institution as well as taking a leadership role in the programming,” she explained.

For example, the week-long art exhibit, located at the EV junction, featured art from current Indigenous students at Concordia. Alyssa Isaac, a Mi’gmaq artist from the community of Litsugu, Quebec, studies electroacoustics; and Morning Star Fayard, a Metis, Cree First Nation from the Cree community of Mistissini, studies economics.

Isaac’s art piece was an auditory experience that used the sound of beads running over each other, which were altered and layered to give off a “dream-like vibe.” Fayard displayed traditional winter clothing made from moosehide, like gloves and mocassins, all decorated with beadings or sewn illustrations. The clothing was coupled with a poem titled “Thankful~,” which gave her thanks to the moose who was used to make the clothing, and whose body was used without a spare.

On Wednesday, the same day as the Solidarity Gathering for the Wet’suwet’en Nation, First Voices Week Concordia published a letter on Facebook, reiterating their solidarity. As stated in their press release, the Coastal GasLink (CGL) never obtained consent to operate within unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. In the release, First Voices Week Concordia condemns the use of violence against Indigenous nations by the RCMP and calls for their immediate withdrawal from Wet’suwet’en territory.

First Voices Week also gave their “solidarity to the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs who represent all five clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and who unanimously reject the CGL pipeline on their territory.” First Voices Week calls on everyone to pay attention to the violence and intimidation directed toward the Wet’suwet’en nation at this time and infers that these acts are a clear indication of persisting Canadian colonialism.

At the Loyola Campus, in collaboration with the Hive Free Lunch Program, there was a special lunch made from traditional Three Sisters recipes using corn, squash, and red beans, coupled with a virtual reality short film experience. According to the presentation, the three plants were historically the base of the Huron-Wendat and Mohawk diet. It was explained that the practice of growing these plants together is still done today, as the leaves of the corn plant protect the squash from the elements, like wind, while the squash leaves prevent weeds from growing. The beans, in turn, release nitrogen into the soil and climb up the corn stalks as they grow.

“Centering Indigenous achievements and issues raises awareness of the possibilities of Indigenous rights taking more space in Canada and having others accommodate these changes towards a just and equitable society, where Indigenous treaties and lands are respected,” said Richardson.


Photos by Laurence Brisson Dubreuil


“There is no such thing as ‘not Indigenous enough.’”

Indigenous artists explore their Indigeneity and navigate colonialism in Braiding Our Stories

The Cree are storytellers, like many other First Nations. Their worldview is lived through wahkohtowin (kinship) with the Land. “We continue to tell our stories, as best we can, as beacons for our relations to find their way home, so they too can live miyo pimâtisiwin—the good life,” wrote Melanie Lefebvre for her oral history class, which culminated in her short film, I Will Return.

A Cree/Métis mother, Lefebvre is a Masters student in the individualised graduate program focusing on Indigenous studies and is among the 12 artists navigating Indigeneity in Braiding Our Stories, an exhibition at the VAV gallery. In these many stories, Lefebvre’s short film I Will Return explores aspects of the Plains Cree worldview through her relationship with her daughter, Anne. Narrating Cree teachings, Anne exchanges and shares ideas of kinship relations within time and place.

In conjunction with First Voices Week and the VAV Gallery, the exhibition is curated by a graduate and undergraduate duo, Juliet Mackie (Métis, Cree, Dene and Gwichin from Fort Chipewayan, Alberta) and Alexandra Nordstrom (Plains Cree, Euro-Canadian, member of the Poundmaker Cree Nation, Treaty Six Territory, Saskatchewan). Selected by the Indigenous Art Research Group and guided by Dr. Heather Igloliorte, Mackie and Nordstrom have been braiding artists’ stories since November 2018.

The name, Braiding Our Stories, alludes to the curators’ own experiences navigating their identities and resonates with the experiences of the artists they’ve chosen to support.

Craig Commanda comes to terms with their heritage though playing the guitar, juxtaposing contemporary and traditional Indigenous music.

Dion Smith-Dokkie creates utopic spaces by drawing on cartography, mapmaking and satellite imaging technologies to talk about their perceptions of space and place in northeast British Columbia. As a member of West Moberly First Nations, a community located in the Peace Region of British Columbia, their experience with traditional land use studies forms the basis of these works.

The exhibition welcomes Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples into the space with Creation, a large, six-by-four-foot painting by art education student from Akwesasne, ON, Destiny Thomas. Creation illustrates the Mohawk Creation Story of Turtle Island (North America) and the birth of Mother Earth.

After Sky Woman landed on Turtle Island, she gave birth to a daughter. She was warned to never walk West, but she ignored her mother. The daughter walked West and saw a man figure. Due to shock, she fainted. When she woke, she had two arrows resting in an ‘X’ on her belly and was pregnant with twins. While in the womb, these twins would argue. When it came time to giving birth, the Right-twin was born the proper way, while the Left-twin was born through his mothers armpit, killing her. Sky Woman became the Grandmother to the twins and raised them herself. Together, they buried the daughter and from her soil came corn, beans and squash, these are known as the Three Sisters. From her heart, grew tobacco and from her feet, grew strawberries. Along with her burial, came the daughters name, Mother Earth. With time, the brothers would create humans and other beings. They were never in agreement, so when one created something good, the other would spite his creation. Predator and prey, sickness and medicine, night and day… This is recognized as the perfect balance of good and evil.
(Text by Destiny Thomas)

While painting, Thomas thought of how the universe has come to be. “Everyone has their own interpretations: aliens, god, some superior being,” she revealed. “I tried to pry away from the Creation Story that I was constantly told as a child. But as I thought about it, it became the Mohawk connection or interpretation to all creation stories.”

Next to it is To My Dearest Friend, a much smaller beaded work dedicated to Thomas’s childhood friend, who passed away in 2018. In making this piece, Thomas found herself needing to take many breaks. “When doing beadwork, how you’re feeling shows […] If you’re tense and angry, the work will be tight and wavy. If you’re happy. the work will be slightly loose. If you’re content, the work almost always comes out perfectly,” explained the artist, “while beading the flowers, you can tell where the happy, sad, and content moments were in my work.”

To My Dearest Friend is meant to be looked at closely and from different angles—the artist’s process is parallel to that of art therapy. With fluid and controlled movements, she makes herself aware of her breathing throughout the entire process. The bead work allowed Thomas to grieve and come to terms with how she was feeling. To My Dearest Friend became the perfect vessel to symbolise the grieving process.

Mackie, Nordstrom, Lefebvre, Thomas, and all the artists exhibiting in Braiding Our Stories have one thing in common; they are Indigenous artists. To some, this may bring visions of “traditional” Indigenous ways of making, beading, basketry, braiding sweetgrass… but Indigenous Art is more than that; Indigenous Art, which is capitalized to express the significance of the genre, doesn’t have to look traditional. “Indigenous Art means that it was made by Indigenous people,” explained Mackie. “There is no such thing as ‘not Indigenous enough.’”

First Voices Week is celebrating its fifth edition with a week’s worth of lectures, workshops, panels and discussions. Visit their Facebook event page for more information.

Braiding Our Stories will be open at the VAV Gallery until Feb. 15, Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

For more information on how to be a true Indigenous ally, read the toolkit created by Dakota Swiftwolfe and Leilani Shaw of the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network.   


Bringing awareness to indigenous culture

A workshop was given to students and staff on the impact of racism towards indigenous people

It was a powerful afternoon on Feb. 1 during the Arts and Science Federation of Associations’ workshop on anti-racism and appropriation of indigenous cultures. As part of First Voices Week, the session was facilitated by Chantel Henderson and Vicky Boldo, who spoke about the impacts of racism in healthcare, education, justice, employment and housing. They shared their personal stories on how these issues affected their lives.

The event began with Boldo, a board member for the Native Women’s Shelter and the First People’s Justice Centre of Montreal, reciting “Greetings to the Natural World,” a prayer giving thanks for life and the Earth.

“We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her,” she recited. “It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one.”

Henderson, who recently earned a graduate degree in community economic development from Concordia, spoke about her experience living in what was reported by Maclean’s magazine as the most racist city in Canada: Winnipeg.

She also discussed the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, where participants take on the roles of indigenous people in Canada. It was not demonstrated at the event, however.

“The blanket represents the lands, and the exercise shows the effects of colonization and how connected our people are to our land,” Henderson said. Standing on blankets, the participants walk through pre-contact, treaty-making, colonization and resistance. Facilitators, who play characters such as a narrator or European colonizers, direct the participants.

Henderson added how the exercise also demonstrates the lasting impact of colonization: racism, environmental destruction and loss of culture. “The reality now is that we only have 0.2 per cent of our land, and people wonder why our people are in poverty. It’s because our land was taken away from us and that was our livelihood.”

“We are people who have been discriminated against and have been the victims of cultural genocides for more than 500 years,” said Henderson. “I think people need to understand our story.”

The event finished with some participants forming a closed-session circle, where they shared their own personal experiences regarding racism and cultural baggage.


First Voices Week wraps up

Deborah McGregor’s keynote address was part of Concordia’s annual First Voices Week

Concordia University’s First Voices Week wrapped up with a keynote address from Osgoode Hall Law School’s Deborah McGregor, who discussed sustainability, environmental justice and indigenous law.

McGregor, a First Nation educator who focuses on the application of indigenous knowledge systems to legal and policy contexts, was introduced by Shiann Wahéhshon Whitebean, the leader of Concordia’s First Voices, the group that organizes the annual First Voices Week.

McGregor’s keynote address, “Indigenous Environmental Justice, Knowledge and Law,” was open to staff, students and the general public in the Hall building on Concordia’s downtown campus. McGregor’s address focused on legal and environmental issues affecting Indigenous communities in Canada and abroad.

McGregor began her speech by acknowledging that Concordia University stands on unceded Mohawk territory. Unceded territory is land that belonged to First Nation peoples that has not been officially and legally surrendered. Land acknowledgements have become popular gestures on university campuses, but McGregor emphasized that an acknowledgement is something more complex and significant than a mere act of political correctness.

“I take land acknowledgements very seriously, not just as a token gesture,” McGregor said. “It’s not just something to say. It means something. It’s based on thousands of years of knowledge and caretaking.”

McGregor went on to discuss the definition of knowledge through an indigenous lens, and explored a number of environmental issues affecting First Nation communities. McGregor explained how, in many First Nation communities, all knowledge is considered to be both a noun and a verb, and that gaining knowledge from elders, communities and the physical environment is just as important as knowledge itself. McGregor believes this perspective shifts the idea of knowledge from something personal to something community-based.

McGregor’s talk also touched on the issue of natural resources and overconsumption in modern society. McGregor believes that the environmental issues affecting indigenous communities, such as the well-publicized North Dakota Access Pipeline, begin when people value profit and consumption more than the safety of other people and the environment. This ideology is in stark contrast with the beliefs of many First Nation communities, who are often victims and vocal opponents of such projects.

McGregor recalled that, during her upbringing in McGregor Bay in Northern Ontario, her community would focus not only on what they could gain from their natural resources, but also on what “gift” they could give back to their environment and community. She used her family’s sugar bush as an example. She claims that, rather than profiting off the maple syrup they produced, her family used it to provide for her community while protecting the farm from overuse.

“You can’t live a good life unless you’re considering all the other beings as well,” said McGregor.

She also noted that, while the issues of indigenous sovereignty and environmentalism are complex, and solutions to these issues are not easy or straightforward, everyone is capable of showing gratitude to the environment. We are all capable of making choices to either help or harm the resources available to us, she said.

“Some of us are the heroes, some of us are the villains… but we are all in this story,” McGregor said.

Graphic by Florence Yee


Concordia First Voices kicks off with indigenous speakers

The speakers discussed standing in solidarity North Dakota Access Pipeline

Concordia University kicked off “First Voices: Indigenous Students and Community at Concordia,” an aboriginal awareness week, with an opening ceremony on Jan. 30, featuring a number of prominent indigenous speakers.

The ceremony, which was held in Concordia’s Hall building, is the first of a number of events, panel discussions and activities scheduled for this week. The awareness week was organized by First Voices Concordia, an on-campus organization aimed at increasing support and visibility for First Nations students.

The event began with traditional indigenous music, performed by the Travelling Spirit Drum Group, and opening remarks from Charlie Patton, an elder of Kahnawake, a Mohawk territory near Montreal. The First Nations event was open to all Concordia students and staff, as well as the general public.

While his opening remarks discussed a number of issues faced by all indigenous communities in North America, there was a focus on the ongoing struggle of North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The tribe has spent nine months protesting the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline, an energy project protestors claim will encroach upon the tribe’s sacred burial grounds and threaten their sole source of water.

“We don’t appreciate our water, and we don’t give thanks for our water,” Patton said, reminding the audience to be grateful for the resources available to them. Patton said he also worries about the safety of the water available to First Nations communities in Canada.

Next, the audience welcomed Stacey Huff, a First Nations woman who participated in the protest in North Dakota from July to December. Although Huff is a Canadian from the Mohawk tribe, she said she felt it was her duty to stand in solidarity with the Sioux tribe.

She was visibly emotional when describing a particularly violent instance of police brutality that the protesters—who prefer to be referred to as water protectors—were subjected to. Earlier that day, Huff had injured her leg, and was unable to retaliate or aid her fellow water protectors.

“One day was bad… They came and surrounded us all the way around,” said Huff, describing the mass arrest she witnessed. “I was up there, I yelled and cried and I couldn’t do [anything]. They were grabbing us, chasing us—it was like chaos. It was terrible, and I think, for myself, that was the worst day. A hundred and forty-eight people got [arrested] that day.”

She also implored those who were unable or unwilling to join the protest to help by divesting from banks funding the pipeline, which include TD, Scotiabank, and RBC.

Over the next week, Concordia will be hosting a number of events as part of the First Voices awareness week, including a community discussion on indigenous issues on Wednesday, a dreamcatcher workshop on Thursday and a closing social featuring traditional Aboriginal music, dance and food on Friday.

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