Truth and Reconciliation Recommendations in Action at Concordia

Indigenous Students Are Creating Space For Themselves, and the University is Responding

Illustration by Gabor Bata.

When Shiann Wahéhshon Whitebean first enrolled at Concordia University over four years ago, she never imagined how her graduation convocation would have gone.

As the valedictorian, she stood proudly on stage as university President Alan Shepard read out an acknowledgment that the ceremony was taking place on unceded Indigenous land for the first time in the school’s history—an acknowledgement of which she was the primary author.

Graduating from the First Peoples Studies undergraduate program, she accepted her degree in a traditional ribbon outfit and ensured that her identity as a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) student from Kahnawà:ke was an integral part of her valedictorian speech.

Now a graduate student in Concordia’s individualized program, Whitebean is also a research assistant for Concordia’s Indigenous Directions Leadership Group. The group is made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous faculty and students, working as special advisors to Concordia’s administration to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the school.

The group, chaired by Elizabeth Fast and Charmaine Lyn, has a three-year mandate that will end in June 2019. Whitebean was enthusiastic to join the group as a student voice. She had long advocated for improved resources and spaces for Indigenous students, having founded the First Peoples Studies member association and Indigenous Student Council in her time as an undergraduate student.

She said that faculty, staff, and students—including herself—had written a letter a few years ago, asking that Concordia’s administration do more to provide Indigenous students with resources and a “stronger presence on campus.”
“We’re going beyond just making recommendations,” Whitebean said. “We want to make changes, put in support systems and make sure that the work we’re doing is sustainable after our mandate.”

To Whitebean, the territorial acknowledgement at the spring convocation was a big step that she looks forward to see carry over into future ceremonies.

A primer on the TRC.

“I think it was hard for people. There was a little bit of hesitancy on some people’s parts when it came to saying ‘unceded’ and things like that,” she said. “We had to stand our ground, and I think Concordia came out pretty strong.”

The IDLG strongly advised that Shepard be the one to read the acknowledgement.

“I decided I wasn’t going to wear a gown when I crossed the stage. I was only going to wear my ribbon outfit because that was one of the other things that was never really supported or encouraged for Indigenous students,” Whitebean added.

According to Whitebean, a ribbon outfit is the traditional outfit of the Haudenosaunee Nations, including the Kanien’kehá:ka, worn at ceremonies such as graduations. It is handmade by women in the community and features ribbon and bead work.

“The women in my Nation often wear what is referred to as a ‘crown’ made of fabric and beads. We wear leather and beaded moccasins with it,” she explained. Whitebean’s ribbon outfit and crown represented her clan, the Wolf Clan.

While she didn’t wear the gown to receive her diploma, she wore her graduation gown for her valedictorian speech, to show that she is also a proud Concordia graduate. And in her speech, she addressed the crowd in both English and Kanien’kéha.

Julie Delisle, co-president of the First Peoples Studies member association, felt that the territorial acknowledgment was significant, and that the creation of the IDLG is a good step forward.

“I think the leadership group is good. I’m just nervous to see how much of what they bring back to Concordia is actually implemented, their suggestions after they do all this research and after they work with the students,” Delisle said.

While Whitebean acknowledges that there is still a lot of work to be done, she feels attitudes have shifted, particularly in the school’s administration, in terms of their willingness to listen to suggestions for improvement and their efforts to be more inclusive towards Indigenous students.

“We’re trying to do as much as we can to create resources for the Concordia community at all levels so that we can also put accountability on people’s shoulders,” Whitebean explained. “What often happens is that you have a small Indigenous core community at a university and then a lot of things get put on [their] lap, you’re drawing on that resource a lot and then you can burn people out.”

She said she wants non-Indigenous students and faculty to do that work as well.

Whitebean explained that it should be up to non-Indigenous students to educate themselves about the right terminology to use when describing Indigenous issues and people, and what questions are appropriate to ask Indigenous students, rather than solely depending on Indigenous students and faculty to educate them. She has seen many micro-aggressions on campus, among both students and staff.

“I think it’s hard for these [initiatives] to happen if you don’t have support from non-Indigenous people too because we are only a small marginalized population,” Whitebean said. “It should be all along the lines of standing in solidarity so that a lot of these things are Indigenous-led and it’s important for us to have our voices respected.”

Creating Indigenous Space on Campus

Entering Concordia for the first time, Whitebean was faced with a culture shock and felt unsafe in her new environment. She feels what helped her, and what helps many, was regular visits to the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre, located on the Hall building’s sixth floor on the downtown campus.

There, she was able to meet and make friends with other First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students, and learn about the similarities and differences in their cultures. The centre also hosts events and offers writing services and student mentors. They also point students in the right direction when they’re in need of other resources.

Delisle and her co-president of the First Peoples Studies member association Autumn Godwin agree that the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre has been an important tool in making Indigenous students feel welcome, but added that the centre is often overflowing with students, and feels there should be more spaces offered to them. Now with a new lounge for the member association, located in the basement of the CI building on 2149 Mackay St. behind the Hall building, they hope to provide that space for students.

“We’re over-flowing and we’re only growing, so a lot of times we’ll be sitting out in the hallway,” Delisle explained.

One of the biggest projects Whitebean hopes to see accomplished before the end of the IDLG’s mandate in two years is the inauguration of an Indigenous cultural space at Concordia. She feels the space will allow Indigenous students to have a more visible presence on campus and will transform the campus atmosphere as a whole.

“Some campuses have a First Peoples House and things like that,” Whitebean said. “[It’s] one of the biggest challenges I think for us to pull off cause you’re talking about a lot of money and investment and that’s where you have the most resistance sometimes.

“This isn’t just about Indigenous students or Indigenous communities, this is about our entire Concordia community, this is about everybody being included,” added Whitebean. “We have some incredible allies at Concordia who are examples of what a respectful relationship looks like.”

Godwin added that students coming from smaller communities may feel intimidated to have their voices heard in a university setting, and need a safe space to do so. She said it is up to other students to make them feel safe and welcome, and give them that space.

She points to the importance of engaging in those conversations as students, and in leaving their comfort zones. Equally important is not overpowering another person with questions or demands.
“You don’t want to speak for somebody,” Godwin said. “Listening is probably one of the biggest ways that you can advocate—just sit back and really listen.”

“Listening is probably one of the biggest ways that you can advocate—just sit back and really listen.” – Autumn Godwin

The First Peoples Studies member association also plans on hosting an Indigenous music and arts event this winter semester to celebrate Indigenous artists at Concordia, and to encourage engagement from students of all backgrounds.

It is a common misconception that students must identify as Indigenous to join the member association—it is open to all students as long as they are enrolled in the First Peoples Studies program. Students from all programs and backgrounds can also participate in their activities.

“We’ve had people on the member association from all different backgrounds and I think their involvement has shown them new things that they weren’t aware of,” Delisle added. “You learn a lot more by being so directly involved in volunteering and things.”

To Godwin, another issue is victimization, or focusing on negative stories and history at the expense of successes.

“We need to move forward into celebrating our history and celebrating that we’re here and that we’re part of this,” she said. “We’re not going anywhere, and celebrate it with us.”

Sharing Knowledge

This summer, Whitebean co-facilitated a training session for Concordia faculty members along with other members of the IDLG, including project coordinator Charles Joseph O’Connor. Vicky Boldo, an Indigenous urban Elder who will be helping at the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre this semester, also facilitated the training.

It took place over one day and looked at everything from appropriate terminology, backgrounds and cultures of different indigenous groups, identity politics, cultural appropriation, and identity theft.

The session started with a sharing circle, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants could share information about their ancestry and personal experiences. In the future, Whitebean hopes to include Kairos blanket exercises in the training.

The blanket exercise is an interactive activity aimed at uniting Indigenous people with non-Indigenous people, while acting as a teaching tool for the effects of colonialism on Indigenous communities. It aims to teach people the elements of Canadian history that many courses do not teach.

While this session focused on educating the Students Services and Dean of Students office staff, the IDLG also hosted two more trainings co-facilitated by Alannah Young Leon, who teaches a course on Indigenous Research Methodologies at the University of British Columbia, and Denise Nadeau, who has taught courses in Concordia’s First Peoples Studies and Religion departments.

These trainings were open to all members of the faculty and graduate students in August. They have both facilitated similar workshops in other communities together.

The sessions integrated Indigenous knowledge in different areas of the university. Similarly, they plan on releasing a series of videos as a tool for staff and students to educate themselves on Indigenous cultures and experiences.