Seeking indigenous studies

Two decades after the Oka Crisis, McGill's community for studying native issues is breaking ground

A few years ago, I saw a documentary for a Canadian cinema class that permanently changed me. Abenaki and NFB filmmaker, Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 years of resistance (1993) depicted the events of the Oka Crisis of 1990 in gripping detail. Scenes of military confrontations and incredible racism came to a horrifying climax as a young adolescent woman was bayonetted in the chest by an officer while holding her baby sister.

Watching these images, I became painfully aware of how very little I knew about Canada, my “home and native land,” and its relationship with indigenous peoples of North America. Up to that moment, in my second year of anthropology and cultural studies, I had been largely interested in indigenous peoples of other countries. I realized that before I could study the relations between different cultures elsewhere in the world, I needed to take a critical look at North America. So I decided to declare my major in indigenous studies. There was, of course, one significant problem: there was no Indigenous Studies program at McGill University.

In my third year, I began taking courses – essentially native studies courses – such as ANTH 436: North American Native Peoples and CANS 403: Canadian Material Culture First Peoples. It became obvious to me that almost 10 other students were creating their concentration in native studies.

Around this time, Dick Pound was criticized for using a politically contentious term for native peoples of Canada in an interview, during the preparations for the 2010 Olympics. Although this was distasteful, the incident brought about an incredible stroke of luck.

On a political forum discussing the controversial articles Margaret Wente wrote following Pound’s remarks, I came into contact with an editor of the last edition of the Canadian Journal of Native Studies. This is where things really fell into place for the creation of KANATA, McGill’s indigenous studies community. In April 2009, the first edition of McGill’s Undergraduate Journal on Indigenous Peoples’ of North America was launched in the hopes of creating a ripple effect within and outside of McGill.

The founding members of KANATA began working on a proposal for a minor program in indigenous studies at McGill with a focus on North American focused studies. For months, we contacted graduate students, faculty members, and teamed up with a representative on the Society for Equity and Diversity in Education-Joint Senate Board on First Peoples. Working on this proposal revealed some of the barriers facing the creation of a program, and somewhat explained the lack of a program.

There is, in fact, administrative support for such a program as well as strong faculty support for indigenous studies. The problem lies more in academia’s reception of interdisciplinary programs, and the relatively recent emergence of indigenous studies as it is understood in the academic tradition.

The demographics of Quebec also play a role. The overall focus on native issues in Quebec and Ontario, for instance, is rather different than it might be in Alberta and Manitoba, where there is a greater population of self-identified native persons.

It is precisely because indigenous people are often “invisible” in Quebec that indigenous studies is needed. In economical, political, cultural, environmental, humanitarian, developmental, and international sectors, knowledge of indigenous peoples is crucial. The presence of indigenous studies at a prominent university is crucial for how people will understand and create relations between native people and newcomers.

In 2010, it is the twentieth anniversary of the Oka Crisis – and in the span of less than one year, things are changing at McGill for the better in terms of indigenous studies. KANATA is now established with a clear mandate: to act as a community for students interested in indigenous studies and advocate for the creation of a minor in indigenous studies at McGill, which we believe is part of creating and promoting equity and diversity in education. At the moment, KANATA is working on its second and third volume of the journal as well as preparing for next year’s peer-to-peer conference. As well, KANATA is holding two events to commemorate the events of the Oka Crisis of 1990. KANATA is working on networking with important partners here in Montreal as well as nationally and internationally to open up learning experiences at McGill for students and the community.

Other signs of positive change are visible in the recent Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence, and Community Engagement which took submissions on reaching out to aboriginal communities. A group of medical students have begun the aboriginal health interest group, which is holding a film series on the social determinants of aboriginal health.

There is also the aboriginal working group, an indigenous studies seminar series held by post-doc scholar Kate Muller, and an undergraduate symposium on indigenous cultures planned for next semester, to be put on by Professor Michael Doxtater and Professor Michael Loft. An indigenous student network as well as an Aboriginal Law Association are growing.

There is still ground to be gained for Indigenous Studies at McGill. If we can keep up with the growing interest and build on public and academic recognition of the excellent work done by students, it’ll become clear that it’s in McGill’s interest to follow their lead.