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Interview with Professor Celeste Pedri-Spade, Associate Provost of Indigenous Initiatives

A look into the first year of her mandate

Last week, the Daily, alongside representatives from The Tribune and Le Délit, had the opportunity to interview Professor Celeste Pedri-Spade, Associate Provost of Indigenous Initiatives. Appointed in 2022, Pedri-Spade is the first person to serve in this position. In this interview, she discussed her mandate, the Office of Indigenous Initiatives (OII)’s work to support Indigenous students, and the New Vic project. 

Pedri-Spade is Ojibwe from the Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation in northwestern Ontario. She is a visual anthropologist and artist, having pursued art thanks to her mother, a well-known regalia-maker. She began her academic career at Laurentian University, directing the Maamwizing Indigenous Research Institute, and was a Queen’s University National Scholar in Indigenous Studies before arriving at McGill. 

Pedri-Spade explained that the role of the OII is to “champion the 52 calls to action and work with different academic leaders and administrative leaders to ensure that we’re all working in that same direction.” For her first year as Provost, Pedri-Spade has been working on developing a team structure and familiarizing herself with actors in the McGill community who should be accountable to the calls to action. 

“It’s really been about team building and getting to know one another, and really starting to unpack and organize ourselves according to respective portfolios,” she explained.

She has hired or promoted several Indigenous staff to form part of her team namely: Thomasina Phillips, Associate Director of Indigenous Student Success; Matthew Coutu-Moya, manager of the First Peoples House; Ann Deer, Associate Director of Indigenous Initiatives; and Aneeka Anderson, Indigenous Initiatives Associate. She has also been working with colleagues from universities that already have an established Office of Indigenous Initiatives to develop a plan for McGill’s. Many Ontario universities such as Western, Queen’s, and the University of Toronto already have this service.

Indigenous Awareness Week

As this conversation took place at the beginning of Indigenous Awareness Week, Pedri-Spade discussed her team’s role in bringing this event to life. It’s mainly coordinated by Deer and the events are open to everyone, from students to community members. She invites anyone interested to take part in the events.

“It’s a good entryway, I think, to learning more about Indigenous scholarship, different kinds of teachings that are delivered, maybe from a land based perspective,” said Pedri-Spade.

She added that they made an effort to include a diversity of Indigenous perspectives: “We’re different according to our nations, according to our gender, our race,” she explained. “And we’re really mindful of that.”

There are a wide variety of workshops and events being offered for Indigenous Awareness week. The week opened with a keynote speech from Anishinaabe author Waubgeshig Rice, one of Pedri-Spade’s colleagues. There were several panels, including one on Centering Indigenous Voices in Healthcare which she was particularly excited about, as it was led by new Indigenous women faculty members. There were also more practical events, such as a Rabbit Harvesting and Fish Skin Making workshop, and a film screening about education in Nunavik. Finally, there will be a comedy night exploring Indigenous knowledge through humour.

“It’s nice for the Indigenous community here who often have these very technical or intense topic-focused sessions […] to come together around other forms of Indigenous expression and knowledge that are about making us laugh,” said Pedri-Spade.

Indigenous Student Recruitment

The first 17 of the 52 Calls to Action concern student recruitment and retention, and this is also one of Pedri-Spade’s priorities. She says that the OII has been working on a needs assessment with the Indigenous student community over the past year, resulting in the creation of a position for an Indigenous mental health counsellor within the First Peoples House

“What I have witnessed in the last ten years is that Indigenous students are really calling upon institutions to think differently about the way in which we deliver programs, in this sense, in ways that are very respectful and complementary to Indigenous sovereignty over education and what’s happening within their communities,” she said.

Additionally, the OII is working with local Indigenous communities to develop special pathways for Indigenous students to attend McGill. Pedri-Spade said that they’re “in the process of establishing faculty-specific admission pathways and retention programs to help support increased enrollment.” One of their key partnerships is with John Abbott College, which has a high percentage of Indigenous students, although this partnership is still in the early stages. Additionally, McGill now provides upwards of $5000 in awards to any Indigenous undergraduate student who has exceptional grades and doesn’t receive an entrance scholarship. 

The OII is also considering establishing articulation agreements with colleges that have high percentages of Indigenous students already attending. These agreements would mean that Indigenous students would be able to enter university education with advanced standing from their previous college courses. Pedri-Spade added that having formalized arrangements where graduates of certain college programs are guaranteed a spot at a university have historically worked well for Indigenous students in other provinces, like Ontario.

She said that it’s important to work in partnership with local communities because initiatives that look good on paper may have unintended consequences. Pedri-Spade gave the example of tuition waivers, which would remove tuition fees for Indigenous students. She claims that this might impact the funding allotted to Indigenous nations by the federal government for post-secondary expenses. To avoid this, the OII may instead provide financial support through stipends or awards of equal value.

Pedri-Spade additionally suggests that universities should consider how they can deliver education in a way that is conscious of the reality many Indigenous students experience today by offering more flexibility in when and where they undertake their studies. For example, this could be done through offering more cohort-based learning and intensive models, which may be more accommodating  for students who have to balance studies with a full-time job. 

“I worked full time when I went back and I did my master’s degree,” Pedri-Spade explained. “I was lucky that I could find a program where it was cohort based and it was intensive learning.” This arrangement also allowed her to spend more time in her home community while studying. She is also looking into ways that universities can deliver education to Indigenous students in their home communities. 

“A lot of students don’t appreciate the city as much as people who are born and raised in a city,” Pedri-Spade explained. “It’s a very different environment. They want to be at home on the land. They want to be participating in their traditional land activities. They can’t do that here.”

Finally, Pedri-Spade spoke about the importance of mentorship, which is why the OII is currently developing an official Indigenous Alumni Association. She believes that Indigenous Alumni offer an important perspective when shaping the OII’s priorities and supporting current students.

“They can tell us about what they would have liked to have seen as a student as part of the student community, [and] could be really important connections [for current students] as they proceed through their education here, but then beyond that as they’re thinking about future education,” she explained.

Indigenous Studies Course Offerings

When questioned as to why only two Indigenous studies courses (INDG 200 and 420) were being offered this semester and asked what the university is doing to increase its Indigenous curricula, Pedri-Spade responded that there were many courses on Indigenous topics outside of the Indigenous studies minor program. In order to increase this offering, she emphasized the importance of hiring First Nation and Inuit scholars.

“They not only speak from their nationhood, but they speak from their own lived experience and positionality,” she explained. “My office has been really active in saying ‘okay, well, if we want to do this, we actually have to build capacity for having Indigenous faculty members.’”

As part of creating a welcoming environment for Indigenous faculty, the OII hosts a Welcome Ceremony to invite new staff into the university. This year, on October 23, she’ll be welcoming ten new Indigenous faculty members, all who she says are offering Indigenous courses.

She’s especially excited that the Schulich School of Music, which had previously never had an Indigenous faculty member, will now have three. One of the new faculty, Rob Spade, will be teaching a class on Ojibwe song and drum. Janine Metallic, previously the only Indigenous member of the Faculty of Education, will now be joined by three Indigenous colleagues. Dr. Amy Shawanda from the department of Family Medicine will be teaching a course on Indigenous health perspectives, and helping the department to integrate these perspectives into their curriculum.

For other faculty members looking to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into their courses, the OII offers a service called ‘tea with Geraldine.’ Through this service, lecturers can meet with Geraldine King, Senior Advisor, Indigenous Curriculum and Pedagogy, and discuss ways in which they can ‘Indigenize’ their teaching.

The New Vic Case

When asked about the OII’s role in McGill’s New Vic project, which has caused significant tension between McGill and the Mohawk Mothers, Pedri-Spade said that she and her team were responsible for ensuring that McGill is working within the terms of the settlement agreement; They are also supporting relationship-building with Kanien’kehá:ka stakeholders.

In relation to this, Pedri-Spade explained that she is trying to build an Indigenous Advisory Council for McGill. She said that they’re approaching this project as “striking a steering committee,” all while being mindful to not replace existing Indigenous governance structures in different parts of the university. The OII will be inviting representatives from these existing units alongside community representatives from Indigenous nations to come together to develop the terms of reference to define how this council will operate in relation to existing governance structures. They have currently enlisted the help of First Peoples Group, an Indigenous-led consulting firm, and Dr. Gerald Taiaiake Alfred to make this project a reality.

Pedri-Spade recommends that students who are concerned about the way in which McGill is handling this project should address their concerns to the Indigenous Affairs Commissioner at SSMU. Additionally, she encouraged students to work to build relationships with Indigenous students whose land they’re on.

“I think we often live and work in Tiohtià:ke, in Montreal, in the city,” she said. “I always encourage students, if they’re Indigenous or not, to go into the community, go to Kahnawake, and build those relationships and listen and learn.”