McGill’s sixth annual Indigenous Awareness Week, organized by the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office (SEDE), launched on September 19. It was immediately preceded by the 15th annual McGill Pow Wow, organized by the First Peoples’ House, on September 16. The week typically consists of a series of events featuring prominent members of Indigenous communities, and aims to raise awareness about the challenges that these communities have faced and continue to face, and to facilitate communication on and off campus. It also serves as a valuable platform for educating McGill students and staff about Indigenous cultures, practices, and ceremonies.
This year’s Indigenous Awareness Week featured 15 events, including the opening ceremony, a presentation by Dr. Taiaiake Alfred on the effects of environmental pollution on Indigenous peoples’ culture, a screening and discussion about the pass system, a discussion on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in relation to religious communities, a reconciliation ceremony, and the launch of the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education.
Indigenous Awareness Week is particularly important for the McGill community, given that the University is located on unceded Kanien’kehá:ka (or “Mohawk”) land. McGill’s administration still refuses to officially acknowledge this, and has faced criticism from a variety of groups over its continued failure to adequately recognize and honour Indigeneity. Significantly, Indigenous groups and individuals from McGill and elsewhere have been at the forefront of organizing Indigenous Awareness Week since its inception.
On Monday, September 19, McGill’s sixth annual Indigenous Awareness Week officially began. Allan Vicaire, the Indigenous Education Advisor at SEDE and First Peoples’ House, welcomed attendees to the Opening Ceremony by acknowledging that the land on which McGill stands is unceded territory belonging to Indigenous peoples. “We are meeting together on land which has long served as a site of meaning, meaning and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples […] and we recognize them as the traditional custodians of the lands and waters on which we meet today,” Vicaire said.
Several notable figures participated in the ceremony, including Elder Delbert Sampson of the Shuswap First Nation in British Columbia, Elder Jean Stevenson from Cree of Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, and two members of the Indigenous band Odaya, who performed three songs for attendees. The Elders extended a blessing to the attendees and the land on which Montreal rests. They also emphasized the significance of learning about Indigenous culture and the necessity of incorporating it into society.
“When we talk about reconciliation, the important thing is that Indigenous peoples’ voices are being heard,” said Stevenson, “and it’s important to listen to those voices, to have some understanding about the history and what has happened, and what is going on today, and what the plans for the future are.”
“When we talk about reconciliation, the important thing is that Indigenous peoples’ voices are being heard.”
The ceremony celebrated the efforts of various organizations at McGill, such as the First Peoples’ House and SEDE, for raising awareness and building a stronger Indigenous community on campus. Kakwiranó:ron Cook, Aboriginal Outreach Administrator of First People’s House, concluded the ceremony, noting that the number of incoming Indigenous students at McGill has increased from twenty in 2010 to one hundred this year, which fulfills SEDE’s target for Fall 2018. “It’s exciting to see more awareness of McGill programs, making McGill more attractive and inclusive for Indigenous learners.”
“It’s exciting to see more awareness of McGill programs, making McGill more attractive and inclusive for Indigenous learners.”
The keynote speaker of the event, Dr. Taiaiake Alfred, was unable to make it to the ceremony. He delivered a powerful lecture on reconciliation and justice later that day, however, at the Moot Court in New Chancellor Day Hall.
Examining the pass system
The first day of Indigenous Awareness Week concluded with the screening of the film “The Pass System,” in partnership with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
The room was filled to capacity, with a strong turnout from McGill staff and students alike.
“The Pass System” centered on Canada’s systemic segregation of its Indigenous population through the historical pass system on reserves. Implemented in 1885, this system prohibited Indigenous people from leaving their reserves without a pass signed by a so-called “Indian agent,” a state-appointed official who wielded immense power over the Indigenous communities within his jurisdiction. Although it was never formally written into Canadian legislation, this was the grim reality for many Indigenous people.
Director Alex Williams interviewed Cree, Soto, Dene, Ojibwe, and Blackfoot Elders of the regions where the film took place in order to share their experiences living under a system that limited their basic right to mobility.The documentary also used historical documents to show the injustices inflicted under the pass system.
A panel discussion on “silenced Indigenous histories” followed the screening, with Allan Downey, an assistant professor in the McGill department of History and Classical Studies, whose specialization is Indigenous History, moderating the discussion.
The panelists, including director Alex Williams, Ellen Gabriel, Sandra-Lynn Kahsennano:ron Leclaire, and Orenda Boucher-Curotte, discussed their take on the pass system and the modern struggles Indigenous people face today.
Gabriel, an Indigenous human rights activist, emphasized the need to share these stories with Indigenous youth as the voices in the film have so far remained largely unheard.
“Not much has changed. We still feel like we only belong in reserves,” Gabriel told the crowd.
“Not much has changed. We still feel like we only belong in reserves.”
Boucher-Curotte, who is part of the McGill Institute of the Study of Canada, echoed that sentiment. “The Canadian government is still restricting us, just in different ways,” she said.
Reconciliation and dialogue
On Wednesday September 21, a group of around 50 McGill students and staff gathered on the front lawn outside of New Chancellor Day Hall for a reconciliation ceremony. The ceremony focused on Indigenous law, justice, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The ceremony was led by Algonquin Elder Dominique Rankin and his partner Marie-Josée Tardif. John Borrows, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria Law School, along with fellow University of Victoria law professor Rebecca Johnson, also participated in the ceremony.
Generally speaking, ceremony forms an important part of Indigenous law, and the event was set up to reflect that. Elder Rankin began the ceremony by explaining the significance of the fire, the “sacred fire,” he said in French, that was in the center of the circle formed by attendees and speakers.
Borrows then performed a song which he said Justice Murray Sinclair used as guidance when asked to be the chair of the TRC.
“Law can actually be expressed not only through story and other fashions, but it can also be expressed through song. So this song is one way that law can be communicated in the Anishinaabe legal tradition,” Borrows said.
“Law can actually be expressed not only through story and other fashions, but it can also be expressed through song.”
Elder Rankin shared his experience in a residential school: “The first day in the residence school, they took my clothes, my hair, my moccasins, and my feathers. They burned everything,” he said in English. He described how he was taken away from his parents, how he was not allowed to speak the Anishinaabe language, and the effect this had on him physically and psychologically. “I judged a lot. I judged everyone,” he said in French.
“You can’t forget that,” he added in English.
“The first day in the residence school, they took my clothes, my hair, my moccasins, and my feathers. They burned everything.”
But for Rankin, “today is a difference. For my vision is a difference. Everything comes back to see me. The creator [….] I listen to him,” he said. He shared how his mother saved him, how she found him and told him to come back home.
“I am Anishinaabe today. Pas une victime. No more victim. Je ne suis plus une victime […] I am a winner. Je suis gagné et la vie est belle,” he concluded in both English and French.
Tardif expressed how the event gave her hope, saying, “We heard about […] what you’re trying to implement here slowly and surely, and that really is touching.”
Speaking to The Daily, Borrows concluded that “the ceremony is a representation of how people can gather in a way that’s patient and takes the time needed today to engage in conversation and understanding.”
Provost’s Task Force Launches
On the afternoon of Thursday, September 22, a ceremony was held to mark the relocation of the Hochelaga Rock, a cultural landmark established by Parks Canada to commemorate the Iroquois settlement that once existed on the land currently occupied by McGill’s downtown campus. Voices on campus had been advocating for the relocation since 2012, on the grounds that such a crucial piece of the region’s history should be displayed in a more prominent location.
During the ceremony, the administration also officially launched the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Issues, which Provost Christopher Manfredi described as “being animated by two core themes: recognition of Indigenous history, contemporary presence, and ways of knowing and learning; and reconciliation, by heeding the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, specifically through educational and institutional efforts, aimed at redressing historical legacies of injustice, and restoring relationships with Indigenous peoples.”
Manfredi explained that he had instructed the Task Force to address a number of things, including, but not limited to, increased physical and symbolic representation of Indigenous history, facilitation of Indigenous student access to McGill, more effective recruitment of Indigenous staff, and incorporation of Indigenous perspectives and issues “within McGill’s curricular and research mission.”
Indigenous rights activist Ellen Gabriel of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation and Turtle Clan, and a former employee of McGill’s First Peoples’ House, was one of many Indigenous leaders invited to speak at the ceremony.
“This [Task Force] isn’t something McGill did willingly,” said Gabriel to the crowd. “There was a lot of resistance at the beginning, so I’m glad to see the door open a bit, because there’s a lot of work [left] to do.”
“Education in Canada’s dark history, in its colonial past, was used as a weapon of assimilation and genocide against Indigenous peoples and their nations,” she continued. “If there is to be true reconciliation, and if McGill is to be part of that, there needs to be restitution, and there needs to be some help, understanding, and compassion, because as the former Auditor General of Canada [Sheila Fraser] said ‘It’s going to take 28 years for [Indigenous] community schools to catch up to the quality of education that you see in the rest of Canada.’ And that’s a lot of work.”
“If there is to be true reconciliation, and if McGill is to be part of that, there needs to be restitution, and there needs to be some help, understanding, and compassion […]”
“We are looking forward to the [Task Force’s] recommendations, so that we can take concrete actions to accomplish those goals,” said Principal Suzanne Fortier in her address to the crowd. “I am convinced that with such highly committed people […] who will be participating in the work of this Task Force, and our very engaged campus and community, we will be able to make great steps in acknowledging the presence of Indigeneity on our campus.”