Unmasking the hidden culture

Canadian education needs more involvement and influence from Indigenous culture

Indigenous education is becoming a greater priority amongst educators and the Canadian government, following calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).

The TRC calls to action asks the federal government to implement a new legislation regarding indigenous education with the full inclusion and consent of indigenous peoples. The TRC first released these calls to action in 2015, which reinforced many high schools across the country to include the history of residential schools in their curriculum.

Some of the other demands include improving education and student success rates, creation of a culturally appropriate educational program, to preserve indigenous language by offering language classes as a credit course and valuing and recognizing Treaty relationships.

Concordia University is responding to these calls to action. On Nov. 2, the university announced the appointment of two special advisors to the provost on Indigenous directions, Charmaine Lyn and Elizabeth Fast. Lyn said she and Fast are spearheading Concordia’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.

“This is kind of an expansion of some of the work that I’ve been doing at our faculty level,” said Fast, as she was originally just an associate professor for applied human sciences before being offered this position.

“Essentially over the next three years we’re hoping to explore, identify and recommend priority areas,” said Fast. She said currently she and Lyn are in the process of creating a leadership group to assemble and help guide them in identifying what the university should be focusing on in terms of indigenous representation.

“A lot of things are still unknown right now, but we really hope to set up a process with indigenous leadership in order to help guide us, including faculty, staff, students and elders,” said Lyn.

She said they are seeking improvement on indigenous student support across the university and increasing the amount of and degree to which all educators include indigenous perspectives in their courses—not only in regards to content, but in the ways and lenses these histories are taught.

“Everything is going to be including the [indigenous] leadership team, but Charmaine and I really have the mandate to coordinate and move on things that the leadership team is identifying and recommending to us,” said Fast.

Along with the hiring of these advisors, the university will soon release an online indigenous hub on Concordia’s website which will provide an online environment for communication.

The appointing of these special advisors was initiated through the First Peoples Studies Member Association meeting with Concordia president Alan Shepard. Shiann Wahéhshon Whitebean—president of the First Peoples Studies Member Association and founder and main organizer of the Indigenous Student Council at Concordia—was involved in the push for this change.

“We did a petition and it resulted in a meeting with president Shepard in May, where we were able to talk openly for a couple of hours face to face about the things we’d like to see,” said Whitebean. “Concordia’s seriously lacking in terms of indigenous presence, voice and all around indigenous engagement initiatives.”

Whitebean is also a part of an indigenous Concordia working group, to which she said the group initiated in response to the TRC’s suggestions. Faculty, alumni, staff and students came together across campus to address their common concerns over the lack of indigenous immanence on campus. “We were really working together to push administration to push indigenous engagement initiatives in the strategic planning,” said Whitebean.

Whitebean said she was invited by Fast to join the Truth and Reconciliation Leadership Group. “I know from my part I would be able to just contribute my perspective and my experience as an Onkwehón:we:* person,” said Whitebean. She said, with this position, she will make sure student voices are part of these student initiatives moving forward.

She said she sees the hiring of Lyn and Fast as a positive move. “It definitely demonstrates the commitment of Concordia as an institution and the administration to really engage with indigenous initiatives and people,” said Whitebean.

“The university picked two fantastic people for special advisors,” said Karl Hele, associate professor and director of First Peoples Studies at Concordia and member of the Garden River First Nations community of the Anishinaabeg people. “An advisory committee has been created—finally, I wait to see if the university will actually do more than engage in endless meetings, committees and reports.”

Hele said he would like to see concrete action made by the university, beginning with financial support. He said the university should support First Peoples Studies financially and all First Peoples on campus. In terms of the university funding First Peoples Studies, Hele said this includes funding resources, awards, research, elders involved, mentors and tenure stream hires.

Hele said he has heard the university and the Faculty of Arts and Science treats First Peoples Studies equally with all other programs and departments. “Problem is when you have a program that starts from a lesser unequal footing and then reduce it, the faculty and university is reinforcing inequality masquerading as equality,” said Hele.

Concordia needs to realize it will take time and money to create indigenous presence and resources on campus, said Hele. However, he is doubtful the university will spend much time and money on this. “Hopefully the committee is more than an effort at publicity by the university,” said Hele.

Whitebean suggested the university can still improve with the implementation of a First Peoples House. She described this as a central space where the First Peoples Studies program could be potentially housed, along with an aboriginal student resource centre and a space for ceremony and other indigenous events. “Really, it marks a presence, acknowledgement and respect of first peoples and it’s a physical reminder for people on campus about the history, the [politics] and the people that the university occupies that space,” said Whitebean. She said McGill University already has a First Peoples House.

“A First Peoples House is one of the possibilities that will be explored by the special advisors to the provost on indigenous directions,” said university spokesperson Chris Mota. “All options are on the table.”

In a CBC article, it was mentioned educators would be implementing the history of residential schools within high school curriculum, as per the TRC’s calls to action.

“There’s huge movement in all the provinces and territories in the continued development of this curriculum around residential schools,” said Charlene Bearhead, education lead for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). “But also around the history and culture of First Nations and Inuit people.” Bearhead added the work involved in this initiative is ongoing.

“There’s huge work being done across the country at the National Education Roundtable since then and, in fact, we’re planning for our second [roundtable] in January of this year,” said Bearhead. The National Education Roundtable is a gathering that discusses heritage preservation education and training in Canada.

Graphic by Florence Yee.

Bearhead identified the losses experienced by First Nations people as a result of residential schools including personality, knowledge, language and indigenous sciences. “Not only are indigenous people worse off for the loss of that knowledge, but all Canadians would benefit from those understandings,” said Bearhead.

Bearhead said there is a gap in the involvement of indigenous people in society. “The gap isn’t in the people, the gap is in the system,” said Bearhead. She said education including an indigenous perspective will be more relevant, meaningful and useful to indigenous students if they actually can see themselves in the education. “How do students see education as valuable when they don’t even see themselves in it?” Bearhead questioned.

Bearhead said indigenous students don’t see a reflection of themselves in their educators, worldviews, science, health, literature, music or art. “How is that different than residential schools? It’s still assimilation,” said Bearhead.

Hele is skeptical as to whether the inclusion of indigenous history into the curriculum will extend beyond First Nations contribution to the fur trade. “I doubt it will do actually very much on aboriginal history,” said Hele.

Hele said indigenous history should be taught in elementary schools. “It’s hard to teach the really rough history or rough politics.” However, he said there are certain parts of indigenous history which can be shared with elementary students. “Not everything in the past is negative,” said Hele.

For example, he explained Kahnawake community members were great boatmen in the Montreal river over the Lachine Rapids—a series of rapids on the Saint Lawrence River—where these boatmen would cross to transport tons of goods. He said when the Lachine Canal was constructed, the industrial development of these canals ruined the industry for these communities.

“That’s the negative story—industrial development ruined their industry,” said Hele. “The positive is they were the best boatmen on the river for like 100 years.”

Hele believes there should be mandatory courses at Concordia across all departments, with a focus on indigenous culture. “I say that because the English department should have a mandatory course in aboriginal literature,” said Hele. “First Peoples Studies is only a program.”

He said if some departments feel they cannot provide courses with content on indigenous peoples then they should require their students take an indigenous course outside of their discipline.

“It’s definitely about time they change the curriculum, and I think it is a good thing to incorporate more indigenous history, knowledge and perspective,” Whitebean said. “I think it’s also equally important that it’s done in cooperation with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people … or otherwise it just becomes another form of misrepresentation.”

“My experience in high school history classes, the image that they [have] given of us and the way that there’s that colonial history,” said Whitebean. “We’re made out to be as victims or as savage.”

“Indigenous studies is a growing field in education so I think it demonstrates that people are open to it,” said Whitebean. However, she said she believes there is caution needed in terms of respectfully approaching the issue.

She said Canada is forced to implement the teaching of residential schools after the TRC calls to action, after the Canadian government issued a public apology in 2008 for residential schools. Whitebean said the educational system in Canada needs to have a more meaningful development towards this issue.

Culturally-based models of teaching and learning by indigenous communities were not accepted, appreciated or valued, said Whitebean. “It’s like they’re perceived as flawed in that colonial lens.”

While attending Concordia and being engaged in the university, Whitebean said she has dealt with racism, ignorance and inappropriate comments. “I think that’s part of educating people for respect and respect for our cultures and for who we are,” said Whitebean. “We have a long way to go in that sense.”

“I think we could be that school that really can take on a leadership role in Quebec in terms of engaging with Indigenous people, implementing these recommendations from the TRC and all of that,” said Whitebean, adding that Concordia is currently the only university in Quebec to offer a major or degree program in indigenous studies. “I think that we’re just well positioned to take that on.”

*Onkwehón:we: is defined as the original, indigenous peoples, mainly of Turtle Island.


Editorial: Quebec turns a blind eye to indigenous history

A dark shadow hangs over this province, as many Quebecers overlook the fact that these lands were once inhabited by a thriving indigenous population, prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries.

There are approximately 1.4 million individuals who identified as Indigenous on the 2011 National Household Survey, representing 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, according to Statistics Canada.

Furthermore, in Quebec, the indigenous population is approximately 104,633, representing two per cent of the provincial population, according to data from the Quebec government.

Yet, education surrounding aboriginal issues is constantly disregarded and evaded—in order to pander to Quebec’s sovereignty debate. Many of us here at The Concordian do not recall ever learning about the atrocities that greatly affected First Nations populations in elementary or high school history classes, such as the implementation of the Indian Act or residential schools.

How could it be that many of us are uneducated about these events and their horrific impacts until we reach adulthood?

Lack of education surrounding First Nations history and culture continues to persist for children growing up and learning today. A new history curriculum for high school students was unveiled earlier this year, after being conceived by the previous Parti Quebecois government under Pauline Marois.This curriculum virtually excludes all minority and aboriginal narratives, according to CBC News.

This curriculum is absolutely unacceptable and insulting, because the indigenous communities played a massive role in both Quebec and Canada’s history, and continue to do so today.

This was also a major aspect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued a call to action, and strongly urged governments place a greater emphasis on First Nations history.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also referred to as the TRC, was created to understand and investigate almost a century of misconduct towards First Nations’ children in the residential school system. The commission was launched in 2008 and a final report was released last December, providing evidence there was indeed a cultural genocide in Canada against the indigenous peoples.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard acknowledged the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and admitted there was indeed a cultural genocide in this nation for more than a century, according to another report by CBC News. In the same report, the premier even stated his government needed to work more closely with indigenous communities across the province.

It’s highly hypocritical, to say the least, to green light an educational pilot project that essentially misinterprets our province’s past and oppresses several minority groups, including First Nations.

If we look within our own university, we can see there is progress being made compared to our own government. Concordia University just announced the creation of Truth and Reconciliation Leadership Group last week, which shall advise the university’s provost regarding a wide range of indigenous affairs. The group will be comprised of Elizabeth Fast, an assistant professor of Applied Human Sciences, and Charmaine Lyn, the senior director of the Office of Community Engagement.

Even though our university is slowly taking initiatives, we cannot let the rest of our society fall behind. Considering our own government cannot provide a proper educational history, The Concordian suggests that every citizen take it upon themselves to learn about First Nations history and culture—be it through books, articles, or the talks and events that take place at Concordia, like the one we covered this week, “Cree Ways of Knowing.” We also have a First Peoples studies program, and some classes are available as electives for those who are not in the program.

We cannot ignore the past, nor can we simply brush off the original inhabitants of these lands in order to address other political agendas.

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.


Improving indigenous education

Canada as a whole is still in denial of Aboriginal rights

On Thursday, Oct. 13 the John Molson School of Business (JMSB) hosted “The Role of Canadian Universities in the Development of Indigenous Communities,” a conversation that focused on the role of post-secondary education in indigenous economic development.

The conversation featured Ghislain Picard, the Assembly of the First Nations’ regional chief for Quebec and Labrador, along with Elizabeth Fast, a Concordia assistant professor in the department of applied human sciences and J.P. Gladu, the president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.

The event, moderated by Francois Bastien, an instructor at both JMSB and the Kiuna Institution, a First Nations college in Odanak, explored a number of issues that affect Aboriginal students and communities across Canada.

In his opening remarks, Picard reminded the audience that while progress has been made in recent years, Quebec and Canada as a whole still have a “denial of indigenous rights and indigenous title … We have a lot of catching up to do,” said Picard.

According to the panelists, an area that needs improvement is Canada’s education system. According to the C.D. Howe Institute, the high school graduate rate is significantly lower among First Nations students compared to other Canadians. The dropout rate is 58 per cent for students on reserves, while only 30 per cent for others. Likewise, indigenous university students face multiple barriers including racism, according to Fast.

“Universities aren’t culturally safe spaces. There is a lot of racism [and] it doesn’t get talked about or acknowledged enough,” said Fast. She said often, some of the most unsafe experiences happen in the classroom, one of the reasons for this being many students are coming to university knowing very little about what the contemporary indigenous person’s reality has been.

Fast’s proposed solutions included seeking more Aboriginal representation in university staff and having First Nations communities and Canadian institutions work together to develop educational strategies.

“One of the things we need to do is educate everybody, be ready to learn, and come from a co-learning perspective,” said Fast.

Fast was not the only panelist to discuss the importance of working with indigenous communities to create solutions.

Gladu said that negative stereotypes about indigenous people still exist, and both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians must move past them in order to empower future generations. Gladu said in the past fiscal year, First Nations-owned businesses had contributed $12 billion to Canada’s GDP.

“It’s just a matter of time before [indigenous] communities start generating and managing wealth,” said Gladu. “There’s a big opportunity to do that together … but we need to see ourselves as successful in every part of society, and other Canadians need to see us as successful as well.”

While the panel was meant as a reminder that there is still progress to be made in Canada, the discussion focused more on solutions than on problems.

“We need to find a balance. We need to measure our failures, but we need to measure our progress as well,” Picard said.

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