In March 2014, SSMU endorsed two proposals submitted to the University by the Subcommittee on Equity for First Peoples and the Aboriginal Affairs Working Group. The first was to raise the Hiawatha Belt Flag on National Aboriginal Day; the second was the long-standing proposal to relocate the Hochelaga Rock to a more visible location on campus. SSMU’s constitution commits to demonstrating leadership in social justice, and we recognize solidarity with Indigenous peoples – especially on our own campus – as a key component of this leadership.
Both projects seek to educate McGill community members on Indigenous peoples and histories; build a welcoming environment for Indigenous students, staff, and faculty to engage with the academy; and strengthen relationships between McGill and Indigenous communities.
The proposals would fulfill a shared function. They would acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land, the Kanien’kehá:ka (‘People of the Flint,’ also known as ‘Mohawk’). Also, the Hochelaga Rock commemorates the Haudenosaunee (‘People of the Longhouse’) village of Hochelaga on which McGill is situated, while the Hiawatha Belt Flag has served as the representative symbol of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy for hundreds of years.
SSMU’s constitution commits to demonstrating leadership in social justice, and we recognize solidarity with Indigenous peoples.
In speaking with Kanien’kehá:ka people on and off campus, the Hiawatha Belt Flag has been described as a symbol of peace, and an invitation of camaraderie between nations. The central tree depicted on the flag, representing the Onondaga nation, symbolizes the Great Tree of Peace under which the nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy – the Seneca and the Cayuga to the left of the Tree, and the Oneida and the Kanien’kehá:ka to the right – buried their weapons after being united by Hiawatha and the Great Peacemaker. The two lines on the Hiawatha Belt Flag extending outward on either side symbolize the outstretched hand of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, inviting other nations to join them in peace.
This summer, SSMU received word that the proposal for the raising of the Hiawatha Belt Flag had been rejected on the grounds that “while there is support for the spirit of [the Subcommittee’s] request to acknowledge Indigenous faculty, staff, and students, and express McGill’s commitment to greater inclusiveness, there remain questions about doing so by raising the flag. People feel that we should more fully consider this request in the context of other community members who may have a similar interest in celebrating a particular group or tradition.” Additionally, not only has the Rock remain unmoved after over four years of requests, but all traces of its presence have been removed from McGill’s website.
Building relationships means respecting Indigenous voices, listening to these proposals, and taking action.
This response denies the colonial history of this continent, and of the University. Any form of solidarity begins with acknowledging that Indigenous peoples have a relationship to the territory on which we are living that predates those of all others – a relationship that separates Indigenous peoples from being any “particular group or tradition.” Standing with Indigenous peoples means acknowledging this relationship, and that means acknowledging whose territory we are on through initiatives like the ones proposed.
Acknowledging traditional territory is a norm among student unions and universities across Canada. These acknowledgements range from flying the Métis flag on ceremonial dates at the University of Saskatchewan, to stating an acknowledgement of territory at the beginning of every legislative council meeting at the University of Alberta Students’ Union and the University of British Columbia (UBC) Alma Mater Society. UBC even installed signs bearing the names of its various host nations across its campus. Universities across Canada are recognizing the inseparability of standing with Indigenous peoples and acknowledging territory, and McGill is dragging its heels in the push to catch up.
The commitment […] is hollow if the priorities of Indigenous community members aren’t taken seriously by McGill.
The final report of the Principal’s Taskforce on Diversity, Excellence, and Community Engagement, released in February 2011, commits McGill to “developing and sustaining long-term relationships with local Aboriginal communities,” as well as making “improvements in the support offered to Aboriginal students […] at McGill.” The report goes on to state that “an active process of inclusion [of Indigenous students] is crucial” for supporting student retention. The University’s reluctance to act on the initiatives proposed by the Subcommittee on Equity for First Peoples and the Aboriginal Affairs Working Group is a dismissal of these commitments.
Building relationships means work on both sides. Indigenous community members are working to consult their peers on and off campus; develop proposals to support Indigenous students, staff, and faculty; and mobilize support for these proposals. Building relationships means respecting Indigenous voices, listening to these proposals, and taking action. The commitment to “an active process of inclusion [of Indigenous students]” is hollow if the priorities of Indigenous community members aren’t taken seriously by McGill.
The historical relationship between the academic community and Indigenous communities is fraught with exploitation, objectification, and paternalism. As participants in the academic system, McGill and non-Indigenous community members have a heightened responsibility to support and prioritize Indigenous voices at every opportunity. The creation of the Indigenous Studies program after a decade of pressure from Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, staff, and faculty is a step toward fulfilling this responsibility, but it is not an end in itself. Institutions across Canada have committed to moving past legal hurdles to build new relationships with Indigenous communities based on a shared acknowledgement of past and current colonial realities – so can McGill.
In the article’s original form, the Kanien’kehá:ka were referred to as the “first custodians of the land.” This has been changed to “traditional custodians of the land.” The correction has been appended to reflect the fact that the relationship between Indigenous custodians and their land is more than just temporal, as well as to mirror Indigenous voices on this issue.
Claire Stewart-Kanigan is SSMU Vice-President University Affairs. To contact her, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.