Today marks the beginning of McGill’s Indigenous Awareness Week, an annual event series organized by the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office (SEDE). The events are presented by Indigenous scholars, leaders, and elders to engage the McGill community on topics including environmental pollution, ongoing settler-colonial violence, and instances of racial segregation such as the pass system and residential schools. Although raising awareness is a crucial step in tackling oppression, the McGill administration does not provide enough support for Indigenous initiatives and education on campus year-round, perpetuating the colonial values in which the university is rooted.
McGill, as an institution, is founded on colonial violence. James McGill’s ownership of the land is said to be a violation of the Kaia’nere:kowa, the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee, who were the original inhabitants and keepers of this land. He is also known to have been a slave owner. Despite being aware of these facts, the administration still thought it appropriate to name the new bookstore “Le James” – as if there aren’t enough reminders on campus of his idolization.
In addition to an oppressive institutional history, the administration continues to prioritize profit over the demands of Indigenous community voices. Last year, the McGill Board of Governors refused to divest from fossil fuels, alleging it poses no social injury. Fossil fuel extraction, aside from being a detriment to the environment, has also been the subject of global protest by Indigenous and Native peoples, who recognize the severe harm it causes to the original inhabitants of the land, and to traditional kinship ties with sacred cultural territory. Instead of feigning ignorance, McGill must end its complicity in the violation of Indigenous rights, and listen to the wishes of those affected.
This blatant disrespect for Indigenous voices is illustrated further by the insufficient number of Indigenous classes and faculty members – according to a 2015 SSMU investigation into equitable hiring practices, only 0.3 per cent of the staff at McGill identify as Aboriginal, while 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population identify as such. Additionally, McGill has no Indigenous studies major, only a minor program that was implemented just last year.
Indigenous Awareness Week sets the stage to promote greater knowledge and understanding of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit experiences and histories. It is now up to students to engage with these initiatives, and show support for their Indigenous peers, as well as a desire to give more room to Indigenous voices on campus. McGill University must make space for Indigenous voices and rights throughout the year – this responsibility ultimately falls on the community and administration in our roles as settlers.