Colonial institutions

An illustration in white lines on a green background. It shows a graduation cap and diploma.
Illustration by: Amelia Rankine

After the final recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were released in December of 2015, universities in Ontario scrambled to respond.

Canadian post-secondary institutions were directly called upon in one of the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action, and asked to create diploma and degree programs in Indigenous languages.

“We call upon post-secondary institutions to create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages,” Call 16 reads.

More broadly, other recommendations called upon the federal government to remove financial barriers to post-secondary education for Indigenous students, and asked schools and teachers to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into classrooms.

Ontario universities—including the University of Toronto, Carleton University in Ottawa, and Queen’s University in Kingston—all assembled committees and task forces to release their own recommendations and address on-campus reconciliation.

Some Ontario universities have incorporated Indigenous naming into student group spaces, buildings, and programming, and others have introduced language courses in the Ojibwe, Mohawk, and Oneida languages.

Universities in Ontario and beyond have responded to the report’s 16th Call to Action by creating Indigenous language certificate and minor programs.

In British Columbia, The University of Victoria offers a certificate program in Indigenous language revitalization, which includes courses in Indigenous languages.

Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, Ont., offers a specialist’s certificate and minor in Algonquian languages.

In Regina, the University of Saskatchewan also offers a certificate in Indigenous languages.

While Carleton, Queen’s, and U of T have yet to fulfill Call 16 in its entirety, the Indigenous members of administration and staff who formed much of those action groups at these schools say their institutions have done good work for language revitalization in the past five years.

Some point to the creation of new Indigenous initiative positions, an increase in hiring of Indigenous staff, and new language credits as areas of success.

Others also question how far reconciliation can go within the walls of Ontario’s largest universities when many of these institutions stand on unceded territories and were founded by historical figures tied to racism.

Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the TRC’s final report, these Indigenous admin and staff members looked back at the past five years of successes and new initiatives—and where institutions are still far behind.

Reconciling educational institutions founded by settlers for settlers, though, isn’t easily done.


On colonized institutions and performative action

For some, the strides made by their institutions in the past several years live alongside the knowledge that their universities have a colonial past and present.

Kanonhsyonne (Janice Hill) is the director of Indigenous initiatives at Queen’s. She is a member of the Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan from Tyendinaga.

In April 2016, Queen’s assembled its TRC Task Force—of which Hill is a member—to respond to the TRC’s recommendations.

However, in the years that followed, Queen’s has been central in student discourse surrounding anti-Indigenous racism on its campus.

“We had a pretty bad year last year,” Hill said, referring to the 2019 to 2020 school year. “We had some pretty racist incidents happen on our campus.”

In Oct. 2019, a racist, homophobic, and threatening note was placed on a door in a residence building at Queen’s. The note directly threatened LGBTQ2S+ and Indigenous students.

A statement published in the Queen’s Gazette written by principal and vice-chancellor Patrick Deane stated that the poster “sought to intimidate and foster hate toward, and fear in, Indigenous and queer-identified” members of the campus.

Then, in June 2020, Indigenous and LGBTQ2S+ flags hanging outside the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre were slashed. The vandalism was considered a deliberate and “hate-motivated” crime by the Kingston police, according to Global News.

A month later, a second vandalization occurred—campus security found a five-foot tear in a teepee at Four Directions.

In the aftermath of these racist acts, the Queen’s administration has made symbolic moves away from its colonial past.

In Oct. 2020, Queen’s announced it will rename a law building named after former Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who established the residential school system in Canada, after years of calls by students and staff to rename the building.

Despite this, the work is far from finished.

“If you [look] at all three years of the [implementation and progress reports] you can see the growth and you can see the commitment,” Hill said. “There’s always going to be the naysayers and there’s always those who think this work is not important.”

A few hundred kilometres away at Carleton, slow progress—but progress nonetheless—is being made.

Anita Tenasco, director of the Kitigan Zibi Education Department and co-chair of Carleton’s Indigenous Education Council, said she believes Carleton’s efforts towards reconciliation have been genuine. Tenasco is Anishinaabeg from Kitigan Zibi.

Like many other universities, Carleton’s Indigenous Education Council—then the Aboriginal Education Council—formed a TRC committee in 2013 to coordinate the school’s response to the report’s recommendations.

In Oct. 2018, the Carleton University Strategic Indigenous Initiatives Committee (CUSIIC) also formed in response to the TRC’s report. The committee consulted over 600 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from within the university and beyond, according to Carleton’s website. They keep an updated list of their annual accomplishments.

The CUSIIC consultations resulted in the creation of Kinàmàgawin, which means “learning together” in Anishinaabemowin, a “revitalized Indigenous strategy” for the university. The strategy’s final report was released in May 2020.

Kinàmàgawin’s final report includes a list of the Indigenous initiatives taken by Carleton since the 1990s.

Tenasco added that, although she believes Carleton is doing its due diligence in listening to Indigenous members of the Carleton campus, university officials should be wary of performative action or efforts that do little but look good on paper.

The land acknowledgements Carleton officials deliver at the start of every university-sanctioned event, she said, could be performative if they’re not backed by other indications that high-level officials are trying.

“If they’re going to say publicly that their institution is situated in the heart of our territory, then they have to act on it,” Tenasco said.

As a leader in Indigenous education, Tenasco said she wants to see concrete change.

“[We don’t need] just a report at the end of the year where the university checks off, ‘We addressed this, we had a conference,’” Tenasco said.

She added that furthering reconciliation on university campuses can be inherently difficult.

“Universities are colonial,” she said. “The institution itself has to think outside the box and keep self-evaluating.”

Carleton’s campus stands on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin nation. Many Ontario universities and colleges—Seneca, Algonquin, Nipissing, Huron, and Mohawk—bear the names of Indigenous nations and communities despite being founded by settlers.

Some universities have direct connections to colonial figures, such as McGill University in Montréal, Q.C. The institution is named after James McGill, who owned five Black and Indigenous slaves. His death resulted in the founding of McGill after his wealth was donated on the condition a college was founded under his name.

McGill has also been working to confront racism on their campus. They announced in April 2019 it would be changing the name of their varsity sports teams, which was an anti-Indigenous racial slur. The school announced the men’s teams’ new name on Nov. 17: the McGill Redbirds.

Moving away from a colonial past calls for real growth, Tenasco said, involving structural and policy shifts, such as changes to the way non-Indigenous upper-level administration communicates to Indigenous people on campus, a commitment to listening, and attempts to meet the needs of Indigenous peoples.

Hill agreed.

“We’re never going to defeat colonization in such a colonized institution as a university,” she said. “[But] we’re doing what we can, you know, within the confines of where we are.”

Overcoming barriers

Hill has been working at Queen’s for 30 years. She said she’s seen the number of Indigenous administration and staff members at Queen’s increase dramatically—a marker of progress.

Hill said when she first started working at the university, she was the only Indigenous person in the faculty of education.

“There were a couple of other Indigenous people that I knew on campus, but not very many,” she said.

Now, the university has an Indigenous employee network, which includes over 100 Indigenous people who work on the Queen’s campus.

In addition, Hill said the number of Indigenous students attending Queen’s has increased to about 400 in the last decade. An area of improvement, Hill said, is the upward trend of Indigenous students in each academic program.

She said she wants to see more Indigenous students studying law, the sciences, medicine, and every other area of study available at Queen’s.

Tenasco agreed.

“I want [Carleton] to really help [Indigenous students] become well-rounded people in the field of their choice, whether that’s art, whether that’s journalism, or whatever area they have an interest in,” Tenasco said.

Indigenized Hiring

Over at U of T, university employees see the need for more Indigenous members of faculty and staff.

Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo was co-chair of U of T’s TRC steering committee, which was created in January 2016 to coordinate the university’s response to the TRC’s report. As a Mohawk from Kahnawake, he currently works as a professor and special advisor on Indigenous issues at Victoria University in Toronto.

Diabo said one of the accomplishments of the steering committee was creating the position of director of Indigenous initiatives. He held the position from 2017 to early 2020, when the role was appointed to Shannon Simpson, the current director.

He agreed with Tenasco and Hill that an area that needs strengthening is representation in all fields.

“Not just necessarily in Indigenous fields,” Diabo added, referring to the U of T Indigenous studies program. “That’s kind of where you see the concentration.”

Less than two per cent of people working in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) occupations in Canada are Indigenous.

If the number of Indigenous people in various industries were to rise, it could improve self-determination, autonomy, and reconciliation relationships for individuals and communities.

Medicine is one area where Indigenous voices and authority is sorely needed.

After the story of Joyce Echaquan—an Atikamekw mother who filmed herself pleading for help from a hospital bed in Québec and died after being verbally degraded by hospital staff—made headlines, many spoke out to say her death was an example of systemic racism.

The TRC’s 23rd Call to Action demands an increased number of Indigenous healthcare professionals.

More Indigenous professionals in every field—such as medicine—decreases the likelihood of systemic racism being perpetuated by the individuals working for an institution.

Diversifying the types of programs Indigenous students enter, Tenasco said, means breaking down post-graduation barriers to employment in any chosen field.

For Hill, she wants people to understand that there is a place for Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing in the sciences. Hill said Indigenous teachings of science could be incorporated into university curriculums.

“Some people in the sciences think, well, the sciences are [like] this and there’s no place for that here,” she said. “But there is.”

Incorporating Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into post-secondary classrooms—not simply as “myths” of the past—was part of the TRC’s 62nd Call to Action.

Further, incorporating traditional forms of governance and decision-making is one way to decolonize the relationship between Indigenous and settler members of the university, Hill said.

“We carry all that knowledge within our own teachings. To be able to share that with people, I think, is really important.”

The importance of language

The TRC’s 16th recommendation asked post-secondary institutions to develop and instate degree and diploma programs in Indigenous languages. Neither Queen’s, Carleton, nor U of T have instituted Indigenous language programs.

An op-ed published in The Varsity, U of T’s student newspaper, in September 2019 says that academic institutions like U of T must play a stronger role in preserving Indigenous languages, which are in danger of being lost.

The author of the op-ed, Conroy Gomes, wrote that U of T offers two levels of language learning in Anishinaabemowin and Inuktitut, while European languages like Italian or German are offered at four or five levels at the university.

“As Canada’s number one university, continually pushing the boundaries of education, should we really have to ask ourselves whether three offered Indigenous languages are enough?” writes Gomes.

Hill said Queen’s has made Indigenous languages a fundamental part of its new Indigenous studies program in an effort to address the need for bolstering language skills and awareness.

She said Queen’s currently offers Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin), Mohawk (Kanyen’kéha) and Oneida (Onʌyotaʼa:ka) language courses. U of T’s Indigenous studies degree also mandates that students take an Indigenous language credit in order to graduate. 

Hill said she is trying to learn the Kanyen’kéha language to bolster her connection to her culture, “[but] it’s not easy.”

She agreed it can be difficult for those who have never experienced not being able to speak a language so closely tied to one’s identity, culture, and community, to understand why language is so important.

“Language carries our identity, […] the ideology, and the philosophy of the people,” she said. “You don’t really understand [that] if you know nothing about the language.”

She said even though she has a lot of cultural knowledge and is a part of her traditional community in Tyendinaga, her understanding of cultural teachings and ceremonies is affected by her language skills.

“I know I miss parts because I don’t have a full enough grasp of the language,” she said.

Diabo added this history of lost language was no accident.

“If you speak to Elders, the first thing that they say to you is if you don’t have the language, you lose a massive part of your culture,” he said. “There [are] large parts of the culture that [are] so ingrained in the language that you can’t replicate it in English.”

The loss of language, Diabo said, is part of the legacy of the residential school system in Canada. Children who were taken from their families and home communities to live in residential schools were often punished for speaking their language instead of English or French.

Becoming more flexible in their qualifications is something universities can do to move towards reconciliation, Tenasco said, since an aspect of colonialism affecting language teaching in universities is the emphasis on post-secondary credentials or degrees to be employed by the university—or as Tenasco called it, “letters after their name.”

“It’s a struggle to hire teachers because often, our language speakers do not have a doctorate degree [or] a master’s degree,” Tenasco said. “But they certainly have the equivalent, if not more, level of experience and knowledge.”

“And it’s not a piece of paper that’s issued in June that’s going to tell them so.”

Indigenization and visibility

Another vital step towards reconciliation is visually changing campus spaces to reflect aspects of the Indigenous communities from the land on which the school stands, according to Hill.

Indigenizing buildings can mean flying the flags of the nations represented on campus, installing art by Indigenous artists, and naming buildings or other spaces in Indigenous languages.

Some students at Canadian university say their schools haven’t invested enough in public Indigenous art displays. An editorial published in the Charlatan, Carleton’s student newspaper, in Oct. 2019 says Carleton “barely has any installations displaying Indigenous art and culture.”

Shannon Simpson, the director of the Office of Indigenous Initiatives of U of T, said one of the reasons for the existence of outdoor Indigenous spaces and visibility is that it serves as a reminder to non-Indigenous students.

“It’s spaces like that that remind non-Indigenous students of Indigenous spaces and Indigenous reality, and that Indigenous people have ties to the land here,” said Simpson, who is Anishinaabe and Scottish, and is a member of Alderville First Nation.

Simpson was the director of First Nations House at U of T, a support and services hub for Indigenous students at the university, before her current position as the director of the Office of Indigenous Initiatives. While working at First Nations House, she said she never felt alone or isolated.

“[First Nations House] is kind of this safe bubble of Indigenous wonderfulness,” Simpson said. “[Obviously you] go out and interact with other parts of the institution throughout your week, but your home base is very Indigenous, and everyone you work with is Indigenous.”

Working towards decolonization

Despite efforts to increase the number of Indigenous faculty and staff on the Queen’s campus, some evidence suggests students at Queen’s are “deeply uninformed about Indigenous presence,” according to The Queen’s Journal.

In 2018, Queen’s geography professor Anne Godlewska led a study on how much Queen’s students knew about Indigenous issues in Canada.

Godlewska later told The Queen’s Journal her study found Canadian students have limited understanding of the Indian Act, the concept of Indigenous sovereignty, and other legal and political issues Indigenous peoples face in Canada.

Tenasco said even though Carleton has made strides towards implementing its own recommendations based on the TRC’s report, that doesn’t mean colonialism has been eradicated from within the school’s walls.

“Racism is still alive and well.”


Leila El Shennawy is currently a journalism student at Carleton University, minoring in Canadian and Indigenous studies. She is also the former op-ed editor of the Charlatan. Her current journalism interests include accessibility, the Ottawa Muslim community, and other community-focused stories. 

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