Content warning: This article mentions the genocide of Indigenous peoples.

UTSC held a series of events throughout the week leading up to the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day on September 30. 

These events, which included a reconciliation workshop, an Indigenous garden livestream, and a film screening of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, aimed to recognize the historic and ongoing legacies of the Canadian residential school system. They also aimed to make space for community members to reflect on Canada’s systemic and unjust treatment of Indigenous peoples and on how community members can respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 Calls to Action and the final report of U of T’s steering committee.

As part of U of T’s tri-campus recognition of Orange Shirt Day, Every Child Matters flag was raised at UTSC, and all flags across the three campuses were lowered to half-mast on September 30.

Reconciliation Workshop: Walking the Talk

On September 26, the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Office and the Department of Student Life jointly held “Reconciliation Workshop: Walking the Talk” at the Meeting Place. In this workshop, participants sat in a sharing circle and reflected on scenarios around answering calls to action on campus.

Facilitated by Juanita Muise, UTSC’s Indigenous Engagement Coordinator, the workshop began with a land acknowledgement and a smudging ceremony, an Indigenous custom in which sage is burned to bring purification and positivity.

Participants were then arranged into smaller groups to discuss the differences between tokenism — the promotion of diversity without inclusion — and inclusive excellence — the promotion of “enriching contributions” that emerge from the diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences represented in the community. Inclusive excellence is a key value that the UTSC administration will continue cultivating on campus through its strategic plan. 

Participants suggested various means of combating tokenism and promoting inclusive excellence. For example, one participant suggested that initiatives should centre the inputs of Indigenous peoples instead of adding them as an afterthought. Others said that tokenization and discrimination can look like homogenizing all Indigenous cultures, customs, and knowledge or using Indigenous peoples to promote something without having a clear inclusion policy.

At the end of the workshop, participants spoke about feeling more informed and inspired to continue working toward reconciliation.

Indigenous Garden livestream

On September 30, UTSC hosted a YouTube livestream of the Indigenous Garden, a medicine garden that is located at the Campus Farm and showcases plants that are common in Indigenous cultures such as corn, beans, and squash. The livestream ran for almost five hours and showed rows of garden beds, as well as an orange shirt hanging in the background.

The livestream was intended to create a space for quiet contemplation. “We hope this view of the garden will encourage reflection about the ongoing impact of residential schools,” the UTSC Office of Vice-Principal and Dean wrote in an email to the UTSC community.

According to Isaac Crosby, an Indigenous mentor at the farm, the Indigenous Garden enables non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples to come together and “see the work that Indigenous [peoples] have done for thousands of years.”

It’s important to me to bring this knowledge back so that in the future, when this farm is still here, and other Indigenous students come down here, they will have some sort of connection to the land,” said Crosby. 

Other events at UTSC included the Moccasin project, in which participants made moccasins for Indigenous children in care, a film screening of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, and an Indigenous Book Club meeting. 

Professors question U of T’s commitment to reconciliation

In a statement about commemorating Orange Shirt Day, Kelly Hannah-Moffat — U of T’s vice-president, people strategy, equity and culture — wrote, “Reconciliation is a lifelong process. It requires a sustained commitment to learning, listening, reflecting, and respecting action.” 

However, Katherine Blouin — an associate professor at UTSC’s Department of Historical and Cultural Studies — and Girish Daswani — an associate professor at UTSC’s Department of Anthropology — questioned U of T’s sustained commitment to reconciliation, given that U of T commemorated the Queen just two weeks ago. 

We have been dismayed by the paradox of what has been the University administration’s recent eulogy of the Queen and display of royalist sympathies and their quick about-turn messaging about Orange Shirt Day,” Blouin and Daswani wrote in an email to The Varsity. There is a direct link between the British monarchy and the genocide of Indigenous Peoples, including the horrors of the residential school system (which the Queen never apologised for).” 

The Queen was the embodiment of the Canadian Crown, which signed treaties with many First Nations. The Crown then violated these treaties, leading to the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands, resources, and ways of life. 

In May, residential school survivors and Indigenous leaders also called on the Queen — as Canada’s head of state and leader of the Church of England — to apologize for the operation of residential schools and to provide financial reparations, which the Queen never did.

For Blouin and Daswani, U of T’s failure to acknowledge the complicity of the Crown and the Queen in the genocide of Indigenous peoples “poses serious questions regarding the nature of UofT’s commitment to decolonization.” 

In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson stated that the university “occasionally issues institutional statements about major events that directly affect our community.” The spokesperson continued, “The death of Canada’s head of state – a key role in our system of constitutional government – merited such a response, in keeping with the University’s role as a major public institution.” 

The spokesperson also noted that the university recognizes “that diverse experiences and viewpoints exist on our campuses,” and students are encouraged to “explore the range of clubs and courses at the University that assess world events from a range of perspectives, or to contact the relevant Equity Office.”

– With files from Alexa DiFrancesco

If you or someone you know has been affected by the residential school system, you can call: