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Active allyship, not passive shame: teachings from John Croutch, Indigenous cultural competency trainer

How his U of T workshops encourage “a continuous process of self-reflexivity”
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For some U of T students, the start of the term brought an opportunity to learn more about Indigenous cultures and histories in Canada and how to actively tackle reconciliation as a current solvable issue. 

John Croutch, U of T’s Indigenous training coordinator with the Office of Indigenous Initiatives, offers workshops on Indigenous cultural competency to U of T faculty, staff, and students. As a man with Ojibwe and German-Canadian ancestry, deepening the collective understanding of Indigeneity is especially important to him. 

He is currently offering three workshops, available through CLNx: “Reconciliation: Walking the Path of Indigenous Allyship,” “Reflecting on Indigenous Land Acknowledgements,” and “Speaking Our Truths: The Journey Towards Reconciliation,” the last of which is held in two parts. Students can register online for his workshops, which offer a holistic exploration of Indigenous histories and cultures, and discuss topics such as how reconciliation impacts the world today. 

However, Croutch’s workshops are not just history lessons. For several students from the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy who were able to take these training sessions in early January, the workshops presented an opportunity to critically examine personal interpretations of Indigenous policies and representation in Canada. 

Jessica Macdonald, a first-year graduate student in the public policy program at the Munk School, found that the two-part reconciliation workshop she took in January reiterated how important it is to be an active ally for Indigenous communities in the reconciliation process. Being an ally is a task easier said than done. 

“[It] is more correct to say that one can only aspire to be an ally as allyship is a continuous process of self-reflexivity, learning and acting in a way that decentres whiteness,” Croutch wrote in an email to The Varsity.

Understanding active allyship

There are usually two reactions from people who attend Croutch’s workshops: denial and shame. Macdonald recalled Croutch explaining this during a workshop, and him explaining that while shame is an understandable response, it can be passive. 

Instead, the workshop emphasized how to respond actively. Rather than only thinking about how shameful and embarrassing our education system’s curriculum has been on issues affecting Indigenous peoples, Croutch wants people to ask themselves: what am I going to do about that? 

For Macdonald, some ways to avoid being a performative ally are paying attention to the activists she follows on social media and making the effort to read as many readily available resources as there are. Going to this workshop was the first step in her journey toward understanding and mobilization. She decided that one of the next steps for her is to read the entire Truth and Reconciliation Report. 

Croutch’s workshops also directly tackled the complications of performance-based allyship. “Reflecting on Indigenous Land Acknowledgements” examines how effective land acknowledgements are in achieving reconciliation. When they are not not combined with an understanding of their purpose, land acknowledgements can be performative and actually diminish their original purpose. 

Macdonald learned that while land acknowledgements “should be habitual… sometimes you get into a habit of saying things and then it loses its meaning,” she said. “We have to actually reflect on what we’re saying.”

Liam Caldwell, a first-year graduate student at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, noted that the workshops he attended with Croutch made the performative nature of land acknowledgements evident. 

“The land acknowledgements should be a way of recognizing the wealth that has been accrued by the acquisition of indigenous land, but it should also serve as a reminder that indigenous people live, work, and play on these territories to this day, and are not just part of some by-gone era,” Caldwell wrote in an email to The Varsity.

Examining Indigenous histories 

Because the stories of residential schooling and Indigenous oppression are often difficult to digest, apprehension built up around learning about these unsettling topics can become a barrier to learning and understanding. 

“Some of the information is very disturbing,” said Pavlina Faltynek, a second-year student at the Munk School. “It’s meant to be disturbing, and it’s the truth. You do a disservice by diminishing the truth or trying to manipulate the truth in a way to make it more palatable for people.” 

The students said that because the information was shared in a constructive and holistic manner, it was easier to grow from the discomfort that the information invoked instead of shutting down. “John has so much to share and shares it in a very accepting space for people to learn things that they may not have known before,” said Macdonald. 

Macdonald noted that Croutch included personal anecdotes in the workshops, which helped demonstrate how history is linked to the present day. “Part of what I think was so effective in this discussion of what had happened was [Croutch’s] willingness to share what that meant for him in terms of his own personal story,” Macdonald said.

“It wasn’t necessarily the focus of the workshop, but he sprinkled in a bit of his own personal journey in his own identity and embracing his identity as an Indigenous man, which really made it a lot more personal than just hearing stories.” 

Faltynek also noted how encouraging Croutch was with students, telling them not to be afraid to ask the important questions, like how people choose to identify or how to pronounce somebody’s name. This openness encouraged students to discuss the ideas that they were unsure of and opened up the opportunity for more understanding. 

Caldwell emphasized that not only did Croutch offer a workshop that was “absolutely comprehensive,” but he was also a “fantastic speaker and super engaging.” Caldwell described Croutch’s style in a spoken interview with The Varsity as a “very non-confrontational way of dealing with really complex, awful subjects. He takes you through everything and he’s open to all perspectives. Whatever you have to bring to the table, he’s willing to meet with you where you’re at.”

Centring Indigenous experiences

According to Croutch, a crucial aspect of “Speaking our Truths: The Journey Towards Reconciliation” is to take learning about Indigenous cultures and the histories of treaties involving Indigenous peoples, and ask participants to “shift their focus from the differences of Indigenous peoples, to how ones’ [sic] own beliefs, practices and histories have impacted the health and wellness, self-esteem, and the socio-economic wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples.” 

For Macdonald, Faltynek, and Caldwell, this personal approach to learning about the modern effects of colonial history made the sessions more impactful and further encouraged them to consider how they can use their own experiences to help elevate Indigenous voices.  

Faltynek reflected that one way to avoid becoming a performance-based ally is to bring the issues of Indigenous experiences to the public. She believes that voting is a huge part of being an active ally. She noted that many Indigenous peoples experience geographical barriers to voting, and that, as a result, it’s the responsibility of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who can vote to support politicians who will prioritize issues affecting Indigenous peoples. 

A key part of reaching reconciliation in Canada is to increase the amount of education surrounding Indigenous peoples and cultures, and to emphasize reconciliation as a current event. Faltynek emphasized the importance of integrating this knowledge into classrooms and courses. “Make it mandatory,” she said about education on Indigenous histories. “Just formalize it… a little bit more [and expand] it from a single workshop into a course or a program.”

The formalization of education on issues affecting Indigenous peoples has already had some successful applications in other faculties. In one of Caldwell’s classes, Indigenous knowledge systems were integrated into the study of architecture.  

Caldwell explained how the studio featured guest instructor Amos Key Jr., a member of the Mohawk Nation and Brock University’s first vice-provost Indigenous engagement, and his brother Alfred Keye, a Faith Keeper and author. They gave a presentation on the Haudenosaunee creation story and spiritual worldviews, and Croutch also held workshops as part of the introduction to the course. 

Caldwell and the other students in the studio then had to design a museum room around Haudenosaunee objects, which came from the Woodland Cultural Centre and the Mohawk Institute Residential School. Caldwell emphasized that this integration of Indigenous knowledge systems and learning is the “way forward for architecture,” which he noted still had a “long way to go.” 

He explained that while this process was exciting and new, “it’s really hard to move forward without completely unpacking everything about how the practice [of architecture] is situated.” Much of the discipline is rooted in Westernized and Eurocentric knowledge, and it has remained that way for a long time. 

However, for Caldwell, although the process of unlearning was difficult, it was not impossible. Given the right resources and the breadth of knowledge that instructors like Croutch can provide, centring Indigenous experiences in our education just takes active participation and dedication. 

A necessary wake-up call 

Indigeneity and its histories are often described as ‘complicated.’ This notion seems to be one of the largest barriers to learning about Indigenous histories, cultures, and current affairs in Canada. But the truth is, the more education and understanding you obtain about the differences, the similarities, and the ways that Indigenous worldviews can be integrated with even the most Westernized disciplines, the more solvable these seemingly unsolvable issues can be.

“It was a really good reminder that reconciliation is a two-way street,” Macdonald said about the necessity of active engagement over issues affecting Indigenous peoples from those who do not belong to Indigenous cultures. She referred to it as a wake-up call about how a lot of her understanding of reconciliation was framed in a Western perspective. 

“Without being able to appreciate, understand, and celebrate the differences and different understandings of what reconciliation might look like to another culture and to people who have a different way of knowing, there’s no way we’re going to be successful,” she said. “Just because it’s complicated isn’t a good enough reason to say that it’s too hard.”

Faltynek believes that although many people understand issues affecting Indigenous peoples as being an overwhelming problem to address, learning more about them showed her that, while they’re nuanced, it is very possible to engage with them. 

“It has the same solutions that… we’ve used for other populations,” she said. “It’s the same playbook. We just need to do it, and just having an awareness… and knowing that we can do something about this — hopefully that brings people the comfort to sandwich or bookend any aversion or intrinsic guilt or whatever negative emotions they might experience when they learn about what’s happened.”

There is no singular way to become more of an active ally and participant in Indigenous reconciliation. However, talking with Croutch and these three students revealed some concrete steps to check off along the way. 

Firstly, seek awareness and encourage your own curiosity. Attend workshops such as Croutch’s. Take two hours of your day that you would normally spend watching Netflix to attend the workshop. Pay attention to who you are following on social media. Demand more from the education system. Altering curricula is difficult but clearly not impossible. 

Secondly, consider how your current experiences relate to Indigenous experiences. As Faltynek suggested, ask your professors or yourself about how a topic you are studying impacts Indigenous peoples.

Finally, see every learning experience as another step toward resolving a completely solvable situation. Vote for parties that prioritize Indigenous peoples. Disseminate knowledge about issues affecting Indigenous peoples to others. After all, there is a long avenue to reconciliation, but many of the steps along the way are simple — they can be as easy as listening to others or asking a question. 

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