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Room for Indigenous engagement at UTSC

SUMAYYAH AJEM/THE VARSITY

Room for Indigenous engagement at UTSC

An interview with Indigenous Engagement Coordinator Juanita Muise

“I love the position that I’m in because I get to share some of my culture and really help people connect and pass it down, pass it on,” said Juanita Muise.

Juanita is the Indigenous Engagement Coordinator, a new role at UTSC instituted in August. I met Juanita one early morning in the TV Lounge at the Student Centre to learn more about the role.

When asked to describe her job, Juanita explained, “The engagement part is [about] engaging with faculty, staff, students. Also, engaging with the Indigenous community outside our campus to build relationships and also… having a space for Indigenous students where they can connect with programming.” She added that the Indigenous Outreach Program “touches on First Nations, Métis, and Inuit… cultural events.”

“[The parents of] a lot of students that grew up in the urban setting… may not have gotten the cultural teachings because of what happened in the residential schools, or if their family moved off reserve… or they married outside of their culture, then a lot of them were not permitted to practice their culture.”

A significant part of Juanita’s role is to make it possible for those students to reconnect with their culture. And it’s working — she shared several anecdotes about students who’ve already benefited from the program. “This creates a safe space,” Juanita said, “where [students] can learn and grow and ask those questions and inspire everybody to learn and grow together, to create that community here on campus.”

Reconnecting with the past

Juanita had her own experience of reconnecting with her Indigenous identity. “I grew up in western Newfoundland and [was] non-status, so for most of my life until I was a young adult, we were not even acknowledged or recognized in my community.”

She explained that this was a consequence of Indigenous erasure. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Indigenous community was all but extinguished, both physically and psychologically. Joey Smallwood, the first Premier of Newfoundland, claimed that there were no Indigenous people left in Newfoundland. In other words, this violent history is accompanied by a tradition of denial. Even today, Juanita said some Indigenous Newfoundlanders claim that “they’re mixed race, they’re not real,” instead of claiming their identity.

“I didn’t even identify because even in the school system, you’re treated differently if you’re native,” said Juanita. “In my small town, when I was 15, my uncle was a chief of the band… and he went and brought over from Nova Scotia some traditional teachers to teach us more about our culture. So, the Mi’kmaq people from Nova Scotia… came and were teaching some of the songs and the dance and some of the ceremonies… There’s been this huge revitalization.”

“When my uncle started doing this and more people started identifying as being native, my aunt started helping people find their roots and their history. People wanted to know, ‘Where do I come from,’ ‘Who am I?’ A lot more people started feeling like a part of them and it was okay now. It was okay. Someone was giving them the right to say it’s okay to be proud of where I come from.” She continued, “Because during that revitalization that sense of community that was lost started to grow. And that’s how it grows. Community grows by giving people a place where they can grow and flourish and learn.”

Juanita also explained how she reconnected with her Mi’kmaq roots after moving to Ontario. “I went to the Friendship Centre downtown and I really felt like it was open to everybody. There was one lady who was Mi’kmaq and she had a drumming group and I… felt a connection,” she shared.

Two themes that Juanita mentioned repeatedly throughout our conversation were community and knowledge. It was easy to tell that she’s passionate about both. When she spoke about community, her use of the word encompassed the UTSC community, the broader Scarborough community, and the Indigenous community.

Her studies, Indigenous perspectives, and tokenization

During her undergraduate studies, Juanita became aware of the need for discussing Indigenous issues and Indigenous perspectives.

She also emphasized that there can be many reasons why some students don’t identify as Indigenous. For example, there’s a risk of becoming “a token,” especially when there are few Indigenous students around. Students who openly identify as Indigenous are sometimes forced to act as cultural intermediaries, and answer many questions about Indigenous culture and related issues.

I asked Juanita if the Indigenous history of Canada was discussed in her courses when she was an undergrad.“No,” she said. “I [studied] social welfare and social development and they focused mainly on the social system that started out in the UK. So, they explored the history there, that system, and how other countries, as they were colonized, took on that approach. So, a lot of it was European and looking at European history and not so much Canadian.”

“So what I did in my undergrad, to really bring awareness, is a lot of research on Indigenous issues in Canada and Ontario on my own, because I wanted to bring that to the discussion. But not everybody is confident enough to do that. It was just, to me, like the professors weren’t doing it so someone needed to.”

I asked her what reaction she got.

“It was a lot of the typical reaction. If issues came out about reserves, like if there’s flooding or economic hardship, [people would ask,] ‘Why don’t they just leave that place?’” To Juanita, this is “not really understanding or wanting to understand the reasons with the history behind that and why it’s like that.”

I wondered how Juanita found the courage to speak up like that. “I come from a strong line of women in my family. You know, I had to act. For me, sitting back and just not saying anything is worse,” she told me, smiling. “[But] there [were] days when I felt like, ‘No, I just don’t have the energy to debate this today.’” She felt it was necessary to “always have to have the facts, make sure to back up everything.”

“That’s why I went into education after my undergrad,” she explained. “Even with so much reconciliation in the schools, often I find that our Elders and students are used as tokens, symbols.

“That’s why I’m planning to go in to do my PhD in education leadership and policy because I really want to be a part of that change. So, me, in this role, building those relationships… with faculty [and] students, that is sort of prepping myself for my PhD. This here is a stepping stone where I can actually have more influence over change.”

Issues on campus

I’m curious about how Juanita feels about land acknowledgment.

“Well, I think when it comes to acknowledging the land, a lot of people are not from here, so I think before we can acknowledge, we should let them know where they are and some of the history behind that, but we don’t do any of that,” she said. “The idea of acknowledging the land out of respect for the Indigenous people who have been here before us is nice, but at the same time, it’s often undervalued.”

“[If a land acknowledgment] is a script that people are told they have to read and they’re just ticking off that box, there’s no value in it.”

The importance of understanding why we do something and what’s behind it was another recurring theme during our talk. Juanita brought up different traditions of knowledge, and the value gaps between them. She talked about the school system in an Indigenous community in the north, where she worked before coming to UTSC. “More than half of their programming is on the land. So, they’re not just following the Ontario curriculum. They’re actually also learning from their Elders… and members of the community, and that took up a large chunk of their learning.” This included learning about medicines and trapping and how to harvest foods.

“This is learning,” Juanita explained, “but it’s just not valued in our education system.”

Then, “when they finish grade eight, a lot of these students still have to leave their communities… [and] everything they’re familiar with.” Moreover, Juanita describes how these students are also disadvantaged because during their primary school years, they have had less access to support and special education, as compared to other students in Ontario.

I asked Juanita what it was like to come to UTSC. “I see there’s a lot of opportunities here at this campus because this campus is still fairly young and there’s room to grow.”

Still, she’s anxious to see improvements for the Indigenous community on campus. Her main concern at this point is the lack of space for the UTSC Indigenous Elder, Wendy Phillips. Juanita is told that change takes time, but she feels that finding an office space for the campus Elder is something that should be fairly simple.

She’s also committed to building relationships with faculty and staff. She thinks it’s necessary that people in leadership roles show their commitment to reconciliation. “We have all these events and we have pretty much the same leadership that comes to events. If you’re really on board with this change, come and see where our needs are, speak with the Indigenous students.”

Again, Juanita is concerned with the meaning behind the words. Just like reading a land acknowledgment for the sake of ticking off a box, the same goes for the engagement with reconciliation and the presence of an Indigenous Elder on campus. “It’s great that [our programming is] making people come together and connect and learn and have those conversations that need to happen. But we still don’t have a space [for Wendy].”

Juanita’s concern with a space for the Indigenous Elder is also about having safe spaces for Indigenous students. “That’s what I’m fighting [for]. Hopefully by next year, we’ll have something in place. They keep saying [that] in two years we’re going to have a First Nations House here, on this campus. We can’t wait two years. It’s not fair to our students that are here now. Everybody deserves to have a space.”

“A lot of people don’t understand the value behind having a space, why creating a safe space for Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students to meet with an Elder, or for our feast. We feast to celebrate the seasons. We just don’t have that space to celebrate the feast.”

Looking to the future

Despite her concerns about a space for the campus Elder, Juanita is very enthusiastic about her job. “When I heard about this position in the south, I just jumped on it.”

“I really love every day,” she said. “I have a wonderful team that’s supportive… I love connecting with the students, building relationships with faculty and staff… I’m not really in the position to bring about a lot of change but I know that I am having an influence on a lot of people and so I feel good about that.”

“That’s another thing about our culture. Everybody has gifts and it’s just about nurturing those gifts that everybody has and to be able to share. It’s all about sharing,” Juanita said.

“Everyone can create their own bundles and be able to bring that in their life journey wherever they go.”