Reclaiming First Nations’ education

Panel discusses schooling for natives

Education isn’t just what’s picked up in the classroom; it is also the intergenerational passing-down of cultural and spiritual vibrancy, something aboriginal people have long been pressured to forget.

Learning within the circle, a presentation coinciding with last week’s First Voices Week, sought to bring together for a mostly non-aboriginal audience a First Nation perspective on the struggles, setbacks, and attainments of aboriginal education and cultural pedagogy.

“You have to control education if you want your people, your culture, [and] your language to survive,” summed up Kenneth Deer, editor of the Mohawk community newspaper The Eastern Door and co-chairman of the National Indian Education Council in Canada. Alongside Deer were artist/writer/documentarian Alanis Obomsawin and Queen’s University Assistant Professor and Rhodes Scholar Lindsay Morcom.

Between the 19th and later half of the 20th century, the Indian Act determined how First Nations people would be incorporated into the Canadian social and legal system. For the time, the laws were at least nominally trying to better the lives of the country’s original inhabitants, though in reality it perpetuated a system of exploitation and led to, amongst other things, the residential schools into which aboriginal children were forcibly placed, and in which they experienced forced Europeanization.

Despite decades of struggle on the part of aboriginal people for recognition, slightly less than half of aboriginal individuals aged 18-64 have attained a postsecondary certificate—diploma, degree, trade school—compared to the almost two-thirds for the rest of Canada. That number falls to slightly above one-third amongst the Inuit population. Today, funding per student is thousands of dollars less than their non-aboriginal counterparts in the public system.

“We don’t ask for a right to self-determination. We exercise it,” said Deer, who helped set up aboriginal-run schooling in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Kahnawake. “If you believe that you’re sovereign, you’ll act like you’re sovereign.”

This education that he searches for is something deep. “By culture I don’t mean [just] songs and dances. I mean something more holistic: our politics, our clan system, our chiefs, the way we relate to our world,” said Deer.

“If we ever stop struggling we’re finished, we’re dead, we disappear,” he said. “So we are going to struggle, and sometimes we’re going to butt heads, because we’re not going to assimilate, we are not going to disappear.”

Another speaker, Obomsawin, referenced personal experience on those days of disappearing. Hers were the most poignant examples of the drive to stamp out the spirit of the culture.

“I knew one thing, I was going to a very dangerous place,” recalled Obomsawin of the humiliation heaped on her in the residential school system.

Despite this, she embodies hope, talking about an aboriginal rebound spearheaded by experienced activists and, most hearteningly, a generation of enthusiastic youth unapologetic of their origins initiating movements such as Idle No More.

The future of Canada’s stance towards aboriginal educational and the catch-up Bill-C33 was discussed. Here there was some disagreement on whether or not it was a step in the right direction. The bill, which aims at increasing the quality of aboriginal education through curriculum improvements and increased funding, has drawn criticism for maintaining the same unequal power dynamics and disparities.

Morcom drew allusions between the bill and civil unions for gay people wanting marriage: an ‘almost there’ solution that gives just enough budge to weaken public support and make those pressing for change look like they’ve overstayed their welcome. She also explained how it wouldn’t cover funding, services like libraries and immersion programs. By refusing to consult the hundreds of First Nations communities scattered across the country, Morcom believes Canada has once again taken on the paternalistic patronizing of its predecessors in deciding what it believes is best for aboriginal populations.

“It’s actually an extremely unjust piece of legislation,” she said.

Deer too blasted the bill, admitting he hadn’t and wouldn’t read it at all.

Morcom believes the way forward in the future is for Canadians to fully question and explore their past, and to realize their nation isn’t merely a friendly stereotype but has a history as a ‘colonizing culture’: “We need to think about how we think about history, how we think about each other’s rights.”

The aim isn’t a continuance of guilt for those of European descent, but an acknowledgment of inherited privilege and a critical acceptance that allows for the fact we may not be quite the friendly, open Canadian stereotypes we make ourselves out to be.

“We need to question that narrative or we’re never going to go forward,” says Morcom. “We all share a responsibility in the dialogue.”

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.



Keeping up the pressure on divestment

First Nations speak on aboriginal fight for land and air

Four notable keynotes spoke at the inaugural event of the Fossil Free Canada Convergence that took place Nov. 7 to 9 at Concordia and McGill universities. The event, which focused on the growing divestment movement calling for the shedding of income and profit from fossil fuels, brought together students and activists from all around the country and gave them a chance to discuss and collaborate on climate change and environmental justice.

The divestment movement, not only active at Concordia but also on nearly 30 campuses across Canada, calls for responsible investments by educational institutions.

The event united four women activists intimately involved in different but connected movements such as aboriginal rights, climate change and the divestment effort. It was led by the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition and supported by both the Concordia Student Union and the Student Society of McGill University.

Denise Jourdain, an elder representative of the Innu community of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam and active participant in various aboriginal rights movements like  Idle No More, opened the event. She presented parts of her memoir and spoke about aboriginal identity and culture, and on the conflicting governmental policies over their traditional territories. She went on to talk about her own experience with the ever-present judicial issues surrounding the uncertain rights of the aboriginal community, going so far as to share a personal moment about her weakened mother’s desire to relate to her ancestral culture. Throughout, Jourdain underlined the importance of preserving the various and very distinct aboriginal cultures.

Following her was native youth-focused activist Heather Milton-Lightening, currently working as the co-director of the Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign out of the Polaris Institute. Milton-Lightening strongly advocated  active participation of youth in the activism process, notably on aboriginal-related issues. Her testimony about her difficult childhood with foster parents and her teenage years in Winnipeg served as an example of a generation that was subject to past and present controversial Canadian policies.

Alyssa Symons-Bélanger, an anti-pipeline activist who has participated in and organized events around Québec, talked about the array of projects she has been involved with, like the Marche des Peuples de la Terre Mère. Symons-Bélanger also recalled her background in theatre and defined what is known as theatre of the oppressed, a type of theatre that looks at people involved in power struggles against oppressors. The Cabaret Olé Oléoduc, a play aimed at protesting pipeline projects, was cited as a good example of this type of theatre.

Finally, climate and energy campaigner for Sierra Club Canada Crystal Lameman addressed the crowd, and talked passionately about issues relating to land use and exploitation by Canada’s government and private companies over the years. She encouraged people to think about how to challenge such institutions who, as she put it, “keep making stupid decisions.” This call to action on the part of Lameman closed the keynote speaker’s event and set the tone for the rest of the Fossil Free Canada Convergence.

For more information on the divestment campaign in Concordia, visit


Kahnawá:ke: a native perspective on the KKR

A sit-down with professor and Kahnawá:ke native, Orenda Boucher-Curotte

Last week the Western media showed how it still views itself as the disapproving parent admonishing the errant Mohawk child, done through the coverage of the Kahnawá:ke Kanien’kehá:ka registry (KKR).

A Kahnawá:ke native holds a child at a community event on Sept. 19, 2008. The Kahnawá:ke Kanien’kehá:ka registry defines who is and is not a member of Kahnawá:ke on the basis of marriage and biological criteria. Photo by L. Lew on Flickr.

The KKR defines who can and cannot remain a member of Kahnawá:ke. It states that any member who marries or cohabitates with a non-native “will have their entitlement to receive any of the benefits and services … suspended for so long as they remain married or in a common-law relationship with the non-Indigenous person.”

This policy came into the spotlight with news of a $50,000 lawsuit brought before the Quebec courts. In it, seven members of Kahnawá:ke allege that their rights have been infringed upon and have been harassed and intimidated as a result of the KKR.

Instead of throwing another Western media hat into the ring, I sat down with Orenda Boucher-Curotte, Concordia University Religious Studies alumna, professor at McGill University, and Kahnawá:ke native to see what she thought of the situation.

The Concordian (C): What do you think of the media’s coverage of the lawsuit thus far?

Orenda Boucher-Curotte (BC): The media has jumped on the “this is racist” bandwagon, in part because I think it allows for people to vent their own colonial frustrations. People with very little understanding of what Kahnawá:ke has been through see this as a racist policy, but they have to first understand that those who support the evictions have a deep rooted fear that colonial laws set out to assimilate and destroy Indigenous peoples. Canadians know, or should know that residential schools, reservations, the Indian Act, etc., were all policies that set out to assimilate us [the Mohawk people] into the dominant [Canadian] culture … They fear allowing non-natives to live in Kahnawá:ke would eventually further those assimilation policy initiatives … I appreciate outside media giving a voice to those affected directly, for certain. But they also have a responsibility to speak about the injustices that led us to this point.

C: What has led to this point specifically?

BC: Restricting our resources to the point where we end up fighting about this: the blame on that lies with the government. The government includes [the Canadian Government as well as] our own band council system; a system put in place by the Indian Act. Essentially we are in a catch-22. If we had more resources, this would not be a problem. But our own traditional laws, such as ‘The Great Law of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’ which SHOULD supersede federal laws makes room for things like adoption and integration.

C: What has been the reaction in Kahnawá:ke to both the news coverage and the lawsuit itself?

BC: The reaction has been anger and frustration I think, but not all directed at those filing the suit. There’s resentment that those who would potentially make a decision on the case would be an outside court. That risks further imposing colonial laws on a community that is pushing for self-determination and self-government. On the flip side, those suing don’t have any other real recourse.

C: Do you have any concluding thoughts for our readers on the situation in general?

BC: All sides, and there are more than two on this issue, have strong conviction for their argument. It’s important to understand that it’s not the whole community who supports these evictions, but rather a group within the community. Many want to open up a space that encourages a dialogue where consensus can be reached, or alternatives offered. That can’t happen in one meeting, or even two. This issue has been ongoing for decades.


Washington can’t run out the clock: sack the racism

Team’s caricature of Native culture is way out of bounds

Over the past few months, new voices continue to join the ongoing pressure on the National Football League team based in Washington, D.C.  to change their controversial name and logo.

In the past year, politicians like U.S. President Barack Obama, celebrities like Mike Tyson, John Oliver, Sarah Silverman, and even former players on the team have spoken up about the need for a name change.

Websites like Etsy and Canada’s Apple store have changed their policies to ban the team’s name. Several major newspapers, including the New York Daily News, have also jumped on the ban-bandwagon in the recent months.

In June, the United States Patent and Trademark office cancelled six trademark registrations for the team’s name on the grounds that it is “disparaging to Native Americans.”

Now, owner Dan Snyder and his team are attempting to sue the group of Indigenous people who were responsible for the trademark cancellation—a lowball move in an attempt to curb that growing pressure to change the name.

Sorry to break it to him or anyone that supports the team’s name, but that pressure is just going to grow stronger.

The offending Washington NFL team refuses to change their name, despite growing calls of racism.” [Press photo from the Washington site]

For years, Indigenous people have been expressing how they are offended by the name and stereotyped imagery. Unfortunately, when it comes to Indigenous people, society has a hard time understanding how Native mascotry and other forms of cultural appropriation is a form of racism—something that would not be tolerated if it were any other race, ethnicity or culture.

While opinions toward examples of cultural appropriation among Indigenous people are diverse, nothing is more annoying than having non-Natives trying to disprove what is and isn’t offensive to Indigenous people that speak out against the name.

A team’s traditions and their fans’ attachment to the name seems to always trump our traditions and concerns.  We constantly have to defend our own identities from being mocked, used as a trend, a form of entertainment and giving people a false sense of honoring Indigenous people.

 There is no denying that we have “more important” or “real” issues in our communities, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, housing shortages, healthcare, unemployment, etc.

However, Indigenous people are also seen as less than human by some and that is certainly a real issue too.

The problem with sports mascots and logos using Native imagery is that it is the same issue as other forms of cultural appropriation: they undermine the diversity and true identities of Indigenous peoples by creating highly inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals.

Our distinct cultures become a fictionalized and heavily stereotyped monolith rooted in colonial ideology. Those images in sports, on television, on the runway, or even Halloween costumes affect what people know and think about Indigenous people. They add layers of misinformation about who we really are. That really affects how society understands those real social, political and economic issues—and it’s kind of hard to do when society’s notion of Indigenous people is bound to something fictionalized and set in the past.

That is reflected in how we are treated by society and the government and poses dangerous implications on how we see ourselves.

According to a 2004 study by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, when Native youth are exposed to these images, their self-esteem is harmfully impacted, their self-confidence erodes, and their sense of identity is severely damaged.

That impact on our identity is very much prevalent in our communities, such as judging another Indigenous person’s “authenticity” based upon their appearance, internalizing fictionalized stereotypes, focusing on “blood quantum”, or tanning to “look more Native.”

We don’t need our youth dealing those issues. Change the name.

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