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)

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

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Photo submitted)
Ponoka Kids Summer Camp registration opens next week

Registration opens next week for the Ponoka Youth Centre/ Boys and Girls… Continue reading

Town of Ponoka logo
Town council approves 2021 capital and operating budgets

Ponoka town council approved the 2021 capital and operating budgets at its… Continue reading

(Advocate file photo)
Lacombe man to apply to withdraw manslaughter guilty plea

Tyler John Campbell wants to change plea after judge rejected seven-year sentence

Supporters gather during a rally against measures taken by government and health authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 at the Whistle Stop cafe in Mirror Alta, on Saturday May 8, 2021. The Whistle Stop was shut down by AHS for not complying with COVID-19 rules. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Police hand out tickets to dozens leaving anti-lockdown protest in Alberta

Hundreds gathered outside the Whistle Stop Café in the hamlet of Mirror, Alta.

Winnipeg Jets’ Andrew Copp (9) and Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) watch an incoming shot during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Monday, April 26, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
‘Very jealous’: Canadian teams can’t take advantage of NHL’s relaxed COVID-19 rules

League eased some tight COVID-19 health and safety protocols over the weekend for fully vaccinated clubs

File photo
Arrest made for armed robbery in Millet, Wetaskiwin RCMP continue to investigate

Wetaskiwin RCMP are investigating an armed robbery took place May 4, 2021 in Millet, Alta.

Dr. Karina Pillay, former mayor of Slave Lake, Alta., is shown at her medical clinic in Calgary on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
10 years later: Former Slave Lake mayor remembers wildfire that burned through town

Alberta announced in 2011 that an unknown arsonist had recklessly or deliberately ignited the forest fire

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman travelling from Alberta found dead in B.C. park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel’s approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

Wolf density in Jasper is low enough that the animals would not be expected to be a major threat

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Canada’s chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Post-inoculation, Theresa Tam says the risk of asymptomatic infection and transmission is far lower but not obsolete

Most Read