Elizabeth Phillips (seated) is the last remaining fluent speaker of Halq’emeylem. Phillips and Mission Indigenous educator Peggy Janicki were honoured in a blanket ceremony at Abbotsford’s UFV campus on June 12, 2019. (Darren McDonald/ UFV)

What does ‘We are all treaty people’ mean, and who speaks for Indigenous students on campus?

Universities have mostly adopted a top-down approach to Indigenization

While there has been a recent growing awareness of Indigenous cultures at Canadian universities, racism, violence and dismissal still dominate conversations on campus.

In December 2015, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued its Calls to Action, education was at the centre. Many Canadian universities have been working to incorporate the recommendations.

But universities have mostly adopted a top-down approach to Indigenization. In many cases, the Indigenization process lacks substance. The process often comes with a slogan: “We are all treaty people.”

“We are all treaty people” is intended to emphasize that all people have treaty rights and responsibilities. But I believe that it conveys instead a false sense of equally shared benefits between Indigenous Peoples and settlers.

The phrase ignores the social, economic and political devastation of Indigenous communities through federal betrayal and mismanagement of Canada’s treaty obligations. Sociologists Eve Tuck (Unangax, Aleut Community of St. Paul Island) and K. Wayne Yang have discussed false senses of equality as a “move to innocence” by settlers.

Often, the university is positioned as the institutional saviour, as being uniquely able to help Indigenous students succeed. A recognition of the university’s complicity in past inequities is not usually the starting point but may come after public pressure from Indigenous activists.

Indigenous voices that denounce the continued marginalization of Indigenous

Peoples within these projects are viewed as radicals by university administrators. This institutional distrust long predates the TRC.

Much stays the same

In June 1966, when the refrain was the “Canadian Mosaic,” members of the Canadian Indian Youth Council (CIYC) disagreed about how students on campus should learn about Indigenous issues. The CIYC, initially housed at the University of Manitoba, was a student-led activist group that advocated for Indigenous rights and self-determination across Canada.

The disagreement strained the relationship between the CIYC and the Canadian Union of Students (CUS). The CUS was a national coalition of Canadian university students councils, including the CIYC.

Harold Cardinal (Sucker Creek Cree), who vocally opposed the White Paper and later wrote The Unjust Society, was a founding member of the CIYC. Cardinal praised campus awareness programs run through the Canadian Union of Students. The teach-in style programs had been set up “in an attempt to dispel the ignorance of the non-informed and, at times, apathetic public.”

But rather than leave the programs under the control of the CUS, Cardinal wanted to encourage Indigenous students’ involvement as partners. He believed these programs were a perfect opportunity for Indigenous students to voice “great disapproval for the shameful, ironical, and disgusting breach of Treaty Rights which have been perpetuated on us for many years.”

Two months later, fellow CIYC member Kahn-Tineta Horn (Kahnawá:ke), argued against Cardinal’s idea. Not against Indigenous students speaking out, but against collaboration with the CUS. Her preference was for the CIYC to work alone.

Horn wrote that “it has been my privilege to make clear that the Canadian Union of Students, and all students, in fact, should mind their business and keep their nose out of the affairs of Indians.”

She continued that “all you can do is confuse the issues, block reality and develop a situation which will, in the end, damage the interests of Indians.”

Despite their conflicting opinions, both shared a vision of Indigenous students telling their own stories on college campuses. At a time when there were almost no Indigenous faculty in Canada, student voices were essential in raising awareness of the disparities Indigenous Peoples faced.

Cardinal, Kahn and their CIYC cohort were, however, considered radical by most fellow students and news media. This was primarily because they vocally rejected societal, institutional and state interpretations about Indigenous pasts, presents and futures.

Fifty plus years later, contemporary Indigenous students express similar concerns about how they are represented, and by whom, on campus.

Pressure on Indigenous faculty

Indigenous faculty represent 1.4 per cent of Canadian professors.

This low percentage places excessive pressure on Indigenous faculty, staff and students. Most are expected to be the voices of Indigenous Peoples on their campuses; few are part of the executive decision-making process.

This paradox means Indigenous faculty are placed in a spotlight and marginalized at the same time. This dynamic puts faculty, staff and students at risk of reprisal if they speak out against policies they see as detrimental to Indigenous students.

Those who speak out can find themselves, in much the way that Cardinal, Horn and the CIYC were, classified as radicals. This leaves little space for them institutionally.

This situation can be rectified: Indigenous faculty, staff and students should lead Indigenization projects rather than just being consulted on them. How can this happen, when such faculty are already over-committed on campus?

As a settler scholar, I believe it is vital to relieve this pressure on Indigenous colleagues. We must push our institutions to allow Indigenous faculty, staff and students to lead the decision making processes. We can relieve service expectations elsewhere.

We must help change institutional perceptions. Universities need to accept the legitimacy of Indigenous legal and cultural systems.

There are too few institutional attempts to dismantle or restructure the current system to properly decolonize. Exceptions include The Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, and the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.

Corporate motivations

Campus-corporate partnerships are a reality in Canada. How might these partnerships influence the kinds of programs that are developed or lauded? How do such partnerships impact what’s valued in Indigenization?

For example, Thompson Rivers University has a “community benefit agreement” with Trans Mountain Pipeline.

According to Trans Mountain, the company has signed 15 such agreements to benefit communities along the proposed pipeline route. The TRU agreement includes funding towards bursary programs for students in fields related to the energy industry.

The TRU agreement contains a clause that says the university would provide a copy of any public announcements regarding the program to Trans Mountain for approval. Would research or scholarship opposed to the pipeline be approved under such circumstances?

Elevating voices of protest

The majority of contemporary Indigenous students yearn to see their communities reflected and represented on campus.

Students want this representation to include those community members and activists fighting against pipelines, telescopes and other forms of settler intrusion on Indigenous territories. Usually, the public is informed by media agencies reporting these issues from the settler perspective.

We must be as informed by Indigenous Peoples who want to fight the settler system as we are by those who want to work within it. This includes faculty working to change the system from within and community members who reject the system outright.

Universities cannot proclaim reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples while silencing Indigenous voices of dissent. As in the 1960s, Indigenous students need spaces to speak to power. Indigenous students need platforms where they can speak for themselves, on their terms. They need to know that they will be heard, listened to and that their concerns will be acted upon.

Indigenization cannot take place without radical change. Radical change cannot take place until institutions actively listen to the “radical” Indigenous voices they currently exclude.

Paul McKenzie-Jones, Assistant Professor, Indigenous Studies, University of Lethbridge , The Canadian Press

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