News | Indigenous Studies conference calls for McGill program

Inaugural KANATA conference hopes to provide “greater understanding of indigenous realities”

Despite the presence of an active Indigenous Studies community on campus, McGill has yet to implement an official Indigenous Studies program – something that KANATA, a group representing the indigenous community at McGill, is working to change.

On November 24 and 25, KANATA will be hosting its first annual “Peer-to-Peer Indigenous Studies Conference,” which will include academic presentations, panel discussions, and opportunities that will allow “peers to come together to gain broader perspective and greater understanding of indigenous realities.”

KANATA’s first annual conference will host 16 presenters from five universities, with discussions on a wide variety of topics, including First Nation resource development in southern Alberta and the commodification of the Mayan culture.

According to Jocelyn Dockerty, the executive president of KANATA, “[We] also hope it will demonstrate to McGill’s administration that students are highly interested in a field that the University is choosing not to support, or support poorly.”

Dockerty explained that currently, “There is not a full-time professor at McGill who would be willing to instruct a necessary introductory Indigenous Studies [course].”

She added that, although many professors in a number of departments and faculties are willing to confront indigenous issues in their classrooms, they are preoccupied with other projects on campus.

Paige Issac, the interim coordinator for McGill’s First Peoples’ House, explained that while there are not many opinions opposing the development of an Indigenous Studies program, some are perplexed as to why McGill must compete for a program that already exists at Concordia.

Issac added that developing a new program will take time.

“I haven’t heard many opinions that were strongly opposed [to the program]; however, I have heard that it’s going to take a while – Concordia’s First Peoples’ Studies program took 10 years,” Issac said. “I think these are all comments that are only delaying action, and we need to strategize on how to move forward.”

In the winter of 2010, McGill’s Aboriginal Affairs Working Group submitted a proposal to the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement for the approval of a “minor concentration in Indigenous Studies and an Aboriginal Field Course…[that] is in an advanced planning stage and needs to be expedited through a collaborative and timely approval process.”

Despite these recommendations, no program has been created.

McGill graduate in Anthropology and KANATA co-founder Pamela Fillion stated that, although the idea of indigenous studies at McGill has not been rejected, “As a student, I was not privy to step beyond the red tape and see why it is that previous program proposals were dismissed. There are different issues that I heard may be stopping development in this area, but this has always been secondhand or speculative.”

In 1860, it was discovered that McGill sits on land that used to be Hochelaga, an Iroquoian village. In order to commemorate this settlement, Parks Canada established the Hochelaga Rock, which stands left of the Roddick Gates.

Dockerty explained that despite the physical closeness of the University with indigenous history, most students are unaware of this cultural attachment.

“Obviously, this represents a hole in our education system at all levels… A minor program in Indigenous Studies can offer one more world view and knowledge system that is particularly useful and important in a university, especially one that rests on Mohawk territory, but also within the nation of Canada,” she said.

According to Issac, “Creating a platform where students can think critically about the different processes and policies that exist today and how this has an impact on peoples’ lives, would do tremendous work in bridging this gap between the indigenous and non-indigenous worlds.”

Issac added that “the Aboriginal population in Canada is growing, and it’s growing fast, and we are not going anywhere. We are highly resilient people.”

Will Straw, director of McGill’s Institute for the Study of Canada, explained that, “At this point, the ideas for a program in Indigenous Studies are still in their early stages. It is likely that [Indigenous Studies] would be a minor at present, growing as interest and resources allowed.”

McGill has an estimated 300 Aboriginal students enrolled – 1 per cent of the student body – and employs two full-time Aboriginal professors.

In an email to The Daily, Dean of Students Jane Everett stated that she does not have “sufficient information on these matters to provide useful answers.”

Concordia’s First Peoples Studies is open to native and non-native students, and includes aboriginal history, health, and educational practices, native folktales, and contemporary aboriginal politics and social concerns.

However, Fillion explained that McGill may not necessarily model their program after Concordia’s.

“Since students from Concordia and McGill can so easily take courses from each university…it is in McGill’s interest to create links between Concordia’s program and what would be [the] McGill Indigenous Studies program,” she said.

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