Each year, the First Nations House (FNH) hosts a week-long series of events at the University of Toronto for students, staff, faculty, and the community to highlight the contributions of Indigenous peoples to the academy. The week also serves as an opportunity to learn about the diversity of Indigenous peoples, their cultural and religious practices, and their languages.

Running from February 22 to 26, Indigenous Education Week’s (IEW) provided audiences with the chance to take an honest look at Canada’s history of colonization and to reassess the responsibilities Canadians have to advocate for truth and reconciliation

What is truth and reconciliation?

Arthur Manuel, a First Nations political leader and chairman at the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade, gave a presentation at the The 150 Years of Canadian Colonization and Our Right to Self-Determination event during IEW. In his presentation, he explained that colonization in Canada is ongoing and that it is still a major problem in the US, New Zealand, and Australia.

Manuel argued that there needs to be more conversation about what colonization is and its implications for Indigenous peoples, especially regarding the dispossession of land, the creation of a culture of dependence, and the oppression of Indigenous peoples.

Manuel believes that dispossession of land is the root of other related struggles: “A lot of people don’t understand how the dispossession happens, how the dependency happens or even how the oppression happens. But it all happens here in Canada and it starts with the constitution, the first constitution of Canada.”

The British North America Act instituted in 1867 was the piece of legislation in Canada that gave land rights to the British. This left Indigenous peoples with only marginal control over their land and resources.

Currently, Indigenous communities comprise 0.2 per cent of territorial Canada, leaving the bulk of the land and resources in the hands of occupiers to decide how it is managed, preserved, and allocated.

“I think most Canadians have some really distorted pictures of Indigenous communities. They know we are poor but they do not understand how systemic impoverishment really works,” Manuel said. “[They] try and say that our poverty is really because our chiefs are paying themselves too much money… That may be the case in a small minority of cases, but we are basically underfunded and we have no land base to solve the problems dispossession has caused us.”

Manuel believes that the current situation cannot and should not be solved without the support of all Canadians. He explained that establishing and maintaining a collaborative relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada is an important step towards reconciliation. 

“It is essential that both the colonizer and the colonized need to decolonize together,” he told The Varsity. “It will require the genius of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to create the massive amounts of pressure needed to make the fundamental change from assimilation to recognition of Aboriginal rights.”

Wab Kinew at U of T

The Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU) collaborated with the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the FNH, the Department Of Aboriginal Studies, and the Department of Anthropology to bring Wabanakwut “Wab” Kinew to speak at the Isabel Bader theatre on February 24.

Kinew is a journalist, hip-hop artist, and associate vice president for Indigenous relations at the University of Winnipeg.

Kinew gave an overview of the history of the ongoing colonial project in Canada. “Persuade me how it’s consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that one group of children in this country gets an unequal shot at life because of where they start,” he challenged the audience.

Wab Kinew signs NSA petition to support mandatory indigenous education. Rusaba Alam/THE VARSITY

Wab Kinew signs NSA petition to support mandatory indigenous education. Rusaba Alam/THE VARSITY

“Convince me that it’s consistent with your ideals of what this country stands for — that one group of kids in this country gets a poor quality education, gets less access to health services, and in cases where there’s family breakdown, gets less access to assistance when they’re at their most vulnerable,” Kinew said.

He also spoke about his own family’s experiences with intergenerational trauma resulting from residential schools. These schools were a state-sanctioned system designed to “kill the Indian in the child” and were sites of widespread abuse and human rights violations. “That was not long ago,” Kinew said during his talk. “That’s within living memory.” The provisions in the 1876 Indian Act that created the framework for residential schools were not removed until late 2014.

“Consider what happens after a person leaves residential school… the overall dynamic of how [my father] was being socialized, of how he began to understand how an adult should relate to a child. His whole conception of what a parent should be, of how an adult should relate to a kid, was formed in an environment where he was raised by people who didn’t like him and in many cases, hated him. And then a few cases, were very abusive to him,” Kinew explained. “These model behaviours and these patterns of dysfunction become transmitted down through the generations.”

After his talk, Kinew took questions from the audience. Many people asked how they could better support Indigenous communities. Kinew said that listening to and respecting Indigenous experiences are among the best things that those wishing to help can do.

Activism on campus

The Native Students’ Association (NSA) has been pushing U of T to institute a mandatory Indigenous course credit for all students. They are circulating a petition that has garnered 1,400 online signatures, and roughly 3,000 on paper. Kinew signed the petition, adding his name to a list of prolific figures that also includes Carolyn Bennett, minister for Indigenous and northern affairs.

Speaking on the behalf of the NSA, Bear Clan leader Roy Strebel hopes that Kinew’s signature will increase support for their initiative. “When you have a high-profile Indigenous person like Wab endorsing what we are doing, it can be humbling,” he said. “It was great that he was able to speak about the need for greater content of Indigenous studies at the University of Toronto.”

According to Strebel, the NSA is still discussing a draft proposal on an Indigenous credit mandate to put forward to the university. “[The] response we have been getting is incredible, and our members are doing a great job at getting signatures,” said Strebel. “I think our members are to be commended for their ongoing commitment to what we have proposed, and the ongoing support is overwhelming.”

What can universities do?

Strebel believes the majority of the population is either “unaware, and/or misinformed about the relationship of First Nations, and the government of Canada.”

“Issues such as residential schools is something that all students should be aware of,” he said, adding that educating people on the effect the Indian Act has had on First Nations since its inception in 1876 is also crucial knowledge. “I think that these two issues should be discussed and considered in the university curriculum.”

The NSA is currently petitioning to have an Indigenous credit component as a part of every degree. “[The] NSA envisions U of T to an implement Indigenous content mandate to incoming undergraduate students to complete an Indigenous degree requirement before graduating from any of the Arts & Sciences department,” said Dhanela Paran, Loon Clan leader & CFO of the NSA.

“This does not mean all students would have to complete one newly designed specific course; rather students would take any existing course from any department, as long as there is Indigenous content in it,” Paran explained, adding that it would be best for the Faculty of Arts & Science to design and select the eligible courses for these requirements.

“[This] means putting the right people in place, and providing proper support and resources to implementing a requirement for the long term effectively,” she said.

“I think all universities should follow Murray Sinclair’s call to action he put in the Truth and Reconciliation Report,” Manuel said.

“I think working with Indigenous students and local Indigenous knowledge keepers and elders would help increase our capacity to build a better Canada.  I think the Indigenous Education Week is a really positive step for U of T to take and that more effort needs to be put in these events so they become recognized across Canada,” he said. 

“I think there’s always room for more conversation,” said Strebel.