When a chemistry professor approached Mitchell Souliere-Lamb for guidance on how to include more Indigenous material into her syllabus, Souliere-Lamb felt conflicted. A third-year mechanical engineering student at U of T, Souliere-Lamb is Anishinaabe from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. In an interview with The Varsity, he explained that he felt pressured as an Indigenous student to educate students and faculty at U of T to fill their knowledge gaps.

Souliere-Lamb eventually told the professor to include material that was relevant and culturally sensitive. After the interaction, though, he still felt uncomfortable. “I was compensated, but it did make me feel like, ‘Why?’… I’m only one person,” he said. 

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) published the 94 Calls to Action in 2015, there were sections in the document that were dedicated to change in Canada’s education systems. These changes included plans to remove the education and employment gap between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations, opportunities for Indigenous people to contribute to the drafting of new education legislation and initiatives for education on reconciliation. In the Calls to Action, the TRC urged all levels of Canadian government to provide funding so that Canada’s post-secondary institutions can better “educate teachers on how to integrate indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.”

According to survey results published by Universities Canada in 2020, progress has been made since 2015. 70 per cent of universities are “incorporating Indigenous knowledge and methods into teaching and research,” and “working to increase representation among faculty.” In response to the document the TRC created, U of T made its own 34 Calls to Action. It included a goal to integrate “significant Indigenous curriculum content in all of [U of T’s] divisions by 2025.” 

However, these documents don’t tell the whole story.

Conversations with Indigenous members of the U of T community who work in different areas of the institution highlight that Souliere-Lamb’s interaction with the chemistry professor did not occur in a vacuum. Despite the strides the university has made toward reconciliation and incorporating Indigeneity, interviews with Indigenous students and faculty members at U of T emphasize that there are still critical institutional gaps that make it harder for Indigenous members of the U of T community to exist in these spaces.

The “native informant”

“The TRC shed a big spotlight on everything in a whole different way,” Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo shared with The Varsity. Hamilton-Diabo is Mohawk from Kahnawake. He is a professor of theology at Emmanuel College, and his teaching focuses on the impacts of residential schools, the TRC, and the Calls to Action. He was also on the Steering Committee for creating U of T’s own Calls to Action.

Hamilton-Diabo recalled how the TRC’s final report raised awareness about Indigenous issues in Canada to a degree that has not been reached before. To him, this uptick in engagement, as well as U of T President Meric Gertler and Provost Cheryl Regehr’s initiative to answer the TRC’s Calls to Action, were encouraging developments in a movement that had been years in the making.

Yet, this new increase in interest gave rise to the phenomenon of the “native informant,” where Indigenous people who are not necessarily experts in the field of Indigenous knowledge systems and culture feel coerced into sharing their lived experiences and knowledge for the benefit of their settler peers. 

Iehnhotonkwas Bonnie Jane Maracle is a member of the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation at Tyendinaga Territory, and was the Indigenous learning strategist at U of T from 2014 to 2022. In an interview with The Varsity, Maracle spoke about the phenomenon of the native informant. She recalled how First Nations House was “flooded with all kinds of requests” to help professors implement Indigenous knowledge in their curricula, and cited a lack of resources and knowledge keepers to meet the needs of indigenizing curricula at U of T. 

“We’re in our thirtieth year of existence as a First Nations House,” Maracle explained. “It’s 2023, and still, we have one traditional teacher that works one day a week… this is what we have to serve all of that need.” 

In an interview with The Varsity, U of T’s Senior Director of Indigenous Initiatives Shannon Simpson said the university has elders and knowledge keepers at UTSC, UTM, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, First Nation House, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Faculty of Law, and Temerty Faculty of Medicine. Simpson added that elders and knowledge keepers will soon be hired at the Faculty of Arts and Science. 

Simpson said, “There aren’t very many” full time knowledge keepers and elders on staff because the university wants to ensure that their duties are “a good use of their time and their work in community.”

The final report of the Steering committee of U of T, which was published in 2017, also mentions this issue. The report noted how the then four traditional teachers appointed across U of T’s three campuses are “overextended in terms of their commitments” and leave “a significant amount of unmet need in terms of those wishing to benefit from the guidance offered by Elders.”

Simpson also highlighted that, for several years now, U of T has employed an Academic Advisor on Indigenous Curriculum and Education, whose role is to “advise the provost on… directions that units, departments and divisions should go in terms of incorporating content.” That advisor can also work directly with departments to help bolster curricula, bring experts into the classroom, and connect with resources like training.

However, due to continued barriers to access and massive need for guidance on Indigenous knowledge and cultural sensitivity, the burden to fill knowledge gaps may still fall on Indigenous students at U of T. Maracle highlighted the pressure an Indigenous student may feel to help their professors because the latter occupy a position of power: “They’re being put in this… very intimidating position of trying to help the professor simply because [they’re] an Indigenous student.” 

Maracle also noted that the position of the native informant becomes doubly uncomfortable because Indigenous students often grow up removed from their respective cultures and come to university to learn more about their identity.

To Souliere-Lamb, the pressure to constantly explain Indigenous knowledge to his peers makes him hesitant to disclose that he’s Indigenous. “If you get put into those types of positions, where you’re always the one that has to help people learn, it does make you feel tired and make you want to not help people learn because it can be exhausting,” he said. 

Representation versus tokenism

Sometimes, universities’ attempts to implement Indigenous knowledge into curricula fall into the category of tokenism — giving the appearance of sexual or racial equality in a workforce or institution by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups. 

To Souliere-Lamb, being tokenized at U of T is a constant worry. Both the TRC and U of T’s calls to action address the need to get more Indigenous students into university. However, Souliere-Lamb believes that, presently, the low numbers of Indigenous students make it easy for tokenism to occur. 

Souliere-Lamb recalled joining a Zoom orientation for Indigenous students entering their first year in engineering, and only seeing two other students in the meeting. He also notes the imposter syndrome he feels is one of three Indigenous students in the faculty of engineering. Later on in his undergraduate career, he met more Indigenous engineering students; however, the low numbers of Indigenous students still make him feel isolated. “You can tell that U of T wants to be diverse,” Souliere-Lamb said. “It kind of makes you think, ‘Am I only [here] because they want that [quota]? Am I really here… based on my academic merit?’ ”

Beyond the scope of individual students, tokenism is also a risk on an institutional level. As outlined in U of T’s calls to action, one of the key ways to alleviate the pressure placed on Indigenous students to provide knowledge is to hire more Indigenous faculty and staff. 

Throughout his time at U of T, Hamilton-Diabo has seen an increase in Indigenous faculty members across various departments at U of T. He also feels encouraged by an increase in non-Indigenous faculty making real attempts to implement Indigenous knowledge into their classes in a manner that does not fall into the category of cultural appropriation. 

However, Hamilton-Diabo also stressed the importance of not pigeonholing Indigenous faculty members into just teaching Indigenous content. “What we’re doing is ignoring the fact that they can contribute in so many other ways,” Hamilton-Diabo said. “We don’t want to make this assumption that they’re going to now go out there and educate their department.” 

Hamilton-Diabo has witnessed encouraging changes in how Indigenous knowledge keepers and elders are consulted in the process of building programs and curriculums. However, he reminded The Varsity that when indigenizing programs and spaces, the university should consult Indigenous peoples in every step of the process: “Nothing for us without us.”

Moving from calls to answers

Sometimes despite our best efforts, interactions with Indigenous students at U of T may lack cultural sensitivity. The Varsity is no exception. Souliere-Lamb recalled an uncomfortable interaction with writers from The Varsity during last year’s National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

Following a Hart House event commemorating residential schools, Souliere-Lamb was conversing with a group of Indigenous students. A writer from The Varsity then approached the group and asked for a comment about what Orange Shirt Day meant to them. Souliere-Lamb was surprised at the request. “You mean right here?” he asked them. 

Souliere-Lamb explained that no one he was speaking with wanted to talk. Instead, the writer asked Souliere-Lamb to give his comment through email. He never sent one.

Situations like this partly happen because there is a lack of awareness regarding how much emotional labour gets exerted when Indigenous individuals are asked to comment on a subject as heavy and traumatic as residential schools. Souliere-Lamb carries a degree of understanding for the writer’s actions. What frustrates him, however, is the lack of student engagement when there is cultural competency training being offered. 

Souliere-Lamb is a lead on the Indigenous Reconciliation team in U of T’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. He recalled the club heavily advertising an Indigenous cultural competency training session to be run by him and John Croutch, U of T’s Indigenous training coordinator, only to see a handful of students show up. “People don’t care,” Souliere-Lamb said. “I think that’s why I wanted to do this [interview].”

Hamilton-Diabo echoed Souliere-Lamb’s statement when commenting on the discomfort some may feel when faced with the reality of sweeping structural change to answer the Calls to Action. “In some way, many people are okay with the inclusion component,” Hamilton-Diabo explained. “When it comes to the actual transformation, there has to be a change in the way things run — no more status quo. That is the [most] difficult piece.”

Space is a significant component of transforming the status quo to answer the Calls to Action. Hamilton-Diabo stressed that indigenizing space on campus goes beyond creating physical spaces for Indigenous members of the U of T community, but creating a sense of presence across campus. “If you walk across [U of T] right now, are there signs that there’s a visible [Indigenous] community?” he asked. 

One of the first things that comes to mind when reflecting on Indigenous presence is the Land Acknowledgement. Initially, a university-wide statement given at the beginning of courses or school events, the Acknowledgement, Maracle worried, became a mandatory preamble and “people lost that connection of purposeful acknowledgement.” However, an encouraging development she has been seeing is the tweaking of the standard land acknowledgement to tailor toward the specific relationships that departments or even individuals at U of T have with the land they work and live on.

Hamilton-Diabo also spoke about the benefits of taking a pause and giving a land acknowledgment. He stressed that land acknowledgements shouldn’t be a static statement, because the relationship between the land and the people who live on it is ever changing. 

Hamilton-Diabo slightly tweaks the land acknowledgement every time he gives it. To him, it goes beyond moral obligation. “It’s more about just helping understand that there’s this relationship that we have with the land, and that yes, there have been Indigenous people that are people on this land well before the establishment of Canada, and to also recognize those stories as well.”

What does cultural sensitivity look like?

So, what does cultural sensitivity look like, and how does the status quo at U of T need to change?

Maracle noted the stark differences between how Western academia and Indigenous communities view credibility and knowledge. In contrast to how educational certifications are obtained in the West, Maracle said that Indigenous worldviews take stock of a person’s life experience, character and community contributions as markers for if the person is qualified to give guidance. “It’s not from what I’ve studied, it’s the person that I am.” 

Hamilton-Diabo also observed this difference in worldviews, noting that the knowledge of elders is often overlooked in Western academia because they don’t have the credentials that these institutions value, such as being a PhD, despite having knowledge and wisdom that is on par, or even surpasses, that of a PhD.

Maracle also recalled how she witnessed settler professors initially having a fear of being required to neglect everything they have learned in their academic and professional careers in order to indigenize their syllabi.

“The fear factor was, ‘I have to throw out everything that I’ve been doing, to change it to this other way of doing, and I know absolutely nothing about it,’” Maracle explained. “‘And I’ve been on this pedestal for how many years?’ There was a real threat to egos, basically.” 

Yet, Maracle believes that neglecting Western ways of knowing was never the expectation, as integration does not mean an all-or-nothing approach. She has seen positive change in her seven years as the Indigenous Learning Strategist, where different departments are slowly integrating Indigenous knowledge in their curriculum in a non-intrusive way.

Hearing Maracle speak in the capacity of the former Indigenous Learning Strategist made it clear that cultural sensitivity is crucial in aiding the success and well-being of Indigenous students on campus. For example, to help Indigenous students understand U of T’s academic integrity guidelines in a non-intimidating manner, Maracle organized guidelines to fit the Seven Grandfather Teachings. 

The Seven Grandfather Teachings are the central set of principles that Anishinaabe people live by. At the start of the new school year, Maracle ran a workshop called Preparing Your Bundle, where she equated information that students new to U of T needed to know to things to put in their bundle for the school year. A bundle is a collection of sacred items that many First Nations people have to help them with guidance. About the framing of orientation information in an Indigenous worldview, Maracle said, “It’s just the terminology used in the perspective that the students can relate to.”

However, outside First Nations House, there’s still a disconnect between Indigenous worldviews and the demands of Western academia. Maracle found that one of the biggest disconnects between Indigenous students and settler faculty members was their conflicting views on what makes a good essay. Maracle said that she noticed Indigenous students cited their personal experiences when providing evidence in their writing, especially when topics could be told from an Indigenous perspective. 

“The [professor’s] expectation would be regurgitating research,” Maracle said. “But the Indigenous student would have a different slant on it, from a personal perspective, still have references and things but it would be interpreted more in a personal way.”

Maracle has witnessed PhD candidates have their final theses rejected because of a lack of understanding from the committee. Staff at U of T’s writing centers have referred Indigenous student papers to Maracle saying that they could not follow what the student was writing, despite the essays being coherent and up to par to a reader with the proper context — an issue, Maracle pointed out, that an increased presence of Indigenous staff and faculty would solve.

Hamilton-Diabo mentioned that another important aspect of being culturally sensitive is to avoid the pitfall of viewing Indigenous communities as a monolith, because doing so erases the diverse worldviews and cultures encapsulated by the word “Indigenous.” 

“A course here, in a particular area, would look very different than a course out in Manitoba, because we’re talking about different contexts, different people, different experiences, different worldviews.” Hamilton-Diabo explained.

Since 2017, real change has occurred. There has been an increase in hiring Indigenous faculty and staff, according to Hamilton-Diabo and Maracle, and people have grown more reflective of the land acknowledgements they give. “I would say things are progressing nicely, but not quickly,” Maracle said.

Souliere-Lamb echoed Maracle’s thoughts; he sees real, incremental change happening around him. He hopes to see this awareness of Indigenous issues moving beyond something that only moves into the spotlight once a year during Orange Shirt Day and become something steady and ongoing. “For Indigenous people, every day you have to deal with remembering everything. I think as long as people are aware and sensitive to that, things will get better,” said Souliere-Lamb.

With files from Nawa Tahir.