On March 30, the Newman Institute of Catholic Studies hosted a panel at Moot Court in Chancellor Day Hall to discuss the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada, and the unique challenges these findings present to universities.
The panelists were former prime minister Paul Martin, Michael Loft, an academic associate at McGill and member of the Mohawk community, TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson, and Ronald Niezen, a professor of law at McGill.
Speaking to The Daily, several students remarked on the fact that there was only one Indigenous speaker on the panel. Two audience members who spoke at the panel also identified themselves as Indigenous and spoke about their experiences.
Legacy of residential schools
“Those children going into off-reserve communities, losing their ability to have their culture, losing their parents, losing their language, is probably the single greatest tragedy and the single greatest black mark that this country has faced.”
Established in 2008, the TRC aims to document conditions in the Canadian residential school system, and the experiences of the survivors, families, and communities affected. Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and placed into residential schools, where they experienced physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of their caretakers. The conclusion of the TRC report contains 94 recommendations to help non-Indigenous Canadians and Indigenous peoples move toward reconciliation.
Speaking to the impact of residential schools, Martin said, “Those children going into off-reserve communities, losing their ability to have their culture, losing their parents, losing their language, is probably the single greatest tragedy and the single greatest black mark that this country has faced.”
“Last I looked, there were about 1,500 institutions that were claimed unsuccessfully as Indian residential schools. The majority of these were Indian day schools.”
Wilson focused largely on the TRC’s mandate of informing Canadians about the truth behind residential schools. She noted the importance of Canadian leaders who are “well rounded in our notions of country and notions of relationship to the other and a truthful understanding of our national history.”
Niezen called for caution about what truth is discussed, and whose truth it is. According to Niezen, the TRC has an overly limited definition for residential schools. “We see this focus on federal, federally funded, federally mandated Indian residential schools in the subject matter of the TRC. Last I looked, there were about 1,500 institutions that were claimed unsuccessfully as Indian residential schools. The majority of these were Indian day schools,” Niezen said.
This limited definition, and the “incompleteness of the TRC,” Niezen explained, poses a challenge to universities hoping to implement the TRC’s calls to action, which include, for example, requiring medical and nursing students in Canada to take a course concerning Aboriginal health issues, including the history and legacy of residential schools.
Indigenous narratives on campus
According to the panelists, another challenge faced by universities stems from the lack of space given to Indigenous narratives on campuses.
“For me, it’s about what’s missing – signs that are able to connect Indigenous people to the promise of education at this institution.”
Loft conceded that there has been some progress made in Indigenous visibility at McGill, such as the creation of the First Peoples’ House and the minor in Indigenous Studies; however, he also argued that there was room for improvement.
Loft said, “For me, it’s about what’s missing – signs that are able to connect Indigenous people to the promise of education at this institution. […] For example, when walking up from Sherbrooke, we see on the right the James McGill statue. We go a little further and we see the Quebec flag and Canada flag. We see the classic Greek columns of the Arts Building, and on the top, of course, the martlet flag. That’s it.”
Loft continued, “Yes, we have the Hochelaga rock, but the problem with that is that no one knows about it. […] It’s been staring at everyone since 1925, right by Roddick Gates. It’s impossible to see.”
Jimmy Gutman, a McGill student in attendance at the panel, spoke to The Daily about the small number of Indigenous students in universities, which Gutman believes stems from Indigenous students getting less funding for primary and secondary education per student.
“Yes, we have the Hochelaga rock, but the problem with that is that no one knows about it.”
“In general, if you live in an upper middle class neighborhood, you get more than if you live in a poor neighbourhood, and you get even less if you live on a reservation. So there’s a big discrepancy in what Indigenous people have historically received,” Gutman said.
Audience members and panelists alike discussed the necessity of including Indigenous voices in materials taught, as well as encouraging diversity on campus.
Loft proposed “a micro-approach,” for McGill, which would consist of two steps: moving the Hochelaga Rock to a more visible space, and raising the Hiawatha Belt flag on the Arts Building on June 21, National Aboriginal Day. “It’s nice to talk about big ideas, but we’ve got to get the ball rolling,” he explained.