Concordia Needs to Represent Indigenous People

  • Graphic: Nico Holzmann

A petition is currently circulating online demanding a stronger commitment from President Alan Shepard and Provost Benoit-Antoine Bacon to the indigenous community at Concordia University.

The group that launched the petition is the First People’s Studies Member Association, which represents students in the First People’s Studies program at Concordia. It’s also one of the university’s main voices for indigenous students.

The department formed its own student association earlier this year, breaking away from the School of Community and Public Affairs Student Association, which it had previously been a part of.

The petition found on change.org, focuses on changes that the association would like to see made to Concordia’s “strategic directions” plan, in order to ensure that “indigenous cultures, histories, and systems of knowledge” are respected inside and outside of the classroom.

The petition proposes measures for the university to take in order to rectify “issues of ignorance and misunderstanding resulting from educational failures of the past and present for Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.”

“What we need are concrete commitments and plans,” said FPSTMA President and Kanien’kéhá:ka Shiann Wahéhshon Whitebean. “Indigenous histories are hardly being taught at Concordia, with the exception of the First Peoples Studies program. This is one of the things that we hope will change with our petition.”

The suggestions include the creation of an Indigenous Advisory Board; reviewing and implementing the Truth and Reconciliation commission’s recommendations; and establishing a First People’s house to serve as a hub for Aboriginal culture at the school. The petition also asks that Concordia expand its “ability to support indigenous research grounded in the community.”

“These initiatives will benefit all of Concordia and facilitate positive relationships between urban indigenous in the Montreal area, local indigenous communities, and the larger Concordia-Montreal community.” Wahéhshon Whitebean said.

The authors of the petition are looking for 100 signatories before presenting their demands to Concordia’s administration.

Regarding indigenous representation, there is one area where Concordia is succeeding—relatively, at least. This is with its indigenous literature course, First Nations/North American Native Literature.

Although the focus is literature —which itself is an integral part of a culture’s history — students also learn about “the varying perspectives on Indigenous history and relationships with colonial powers,” according to Meredith Marty-Dugas, a student enrolled in the course.

Marty-Dugas also praised the professor teaching the course, Sarah Henzi—a non-indigenous person—for her acknowledgment of the different First Nations and ensuring each nation’s voice is heard through guest speakers brought into the class.

While a class like this is a strong step forward, it is not an absolute solution. This issue is present in all levels of education, and needs to be addressed as such.

Recently, the Quebec government has proposed a new history class that would be implemented in high schools around the province. This new course is being criticized for excluding non-francophones and its general lack of racial diversity.

The non-francophone groups, including indigenous nations, are being presented as antagonists against francophones, said John Commins, a Montreal teacher, during an interview with Radio-Canada.

In Ontario, the provincial government has taken an opposite approach. Ontario has mandated that every public servant, teachers included, receive indigenous cultural competency and anti-racism training.

“We as a country need to realize that there is a big difference, culturally, between the way we educate children from B.C., Quebec, the Maritimes or even in downtown Toronto. Therefore we need to realize that each Indigenous nation had and has their own way of educating their children,” said Bernard Leger, an indigenous high school teacher from Ontario who includes Aboriginal theatre in his lessons.

A disclaimer before the following section: it is written from the perspective of someone with a mix of French, Irish, and indigenous heritage who hasn’t experienced open discrimination as other indigenous peoples have.

Issues such as the representation of indigenous people begin on a small scale, but quickly explode onto a larger scale in a multitude of directions. For every step forward that has been found, a step back was always soon to appear.

Indigenous history is Canadian history. While this is not a particularly new or brilliant observation, it is one that is often overlooked.

By neglecting the needs and voices of indigenous students until recently, there has been a failure to acknowledge indigenous issues as part of those that face Concordia. By teaching a francophone-centric curriculum in high schools across the province, there is a failure to acknowledge the indigenous population as part of Quebec.

These problems stem from a divide that has been created in the Canadian identity—an identity which, in itself, is absurd, because of the immense diversity within this nation—which allows some to be “more Canadian” than others.

For the changes that the FPSTMA has proposed to succeed, those in the majority must show their support. If a marginalized group says there is oppression and things need to change, it is not the place of the majority to question them.

Again, nothing being said here is new or brilliant. However, the target of this article is not those that are well versed in this issue. The majority of the population needs to reach a basic understanding, if there is to be substantial progress.

Everyone’s duty, whether they are oppressed, privileged, or—in my case—a weird mix of both, is to fight inequality at all levels. Progress doesn’t just happen through protest and legislation. There must be a commitment on the personal level to a change in mentality.

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