Reconciliation must mean action, not words

U of T must implement tangible changes to campus space and curriculum to better reflect our Indigenous communities

Reconciliation must mean action, not words

Three years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its summary report on the racist history of the residential school system. It provided settler Canadian institutions with 94 calls to action in order to address this legacy and achieve ‘reconciliation’ with Indigenous peoples.

The discourses of the educational system have historically justified the practices of separating children from their communities and by extension their culture, land, and livelihood. Schools and universities are arguably central sites in which redress for past and ongoing wrongdoings must occur.

As U of T scholar Monica Dyer notes, this is especially true for our university. U of T played a role in shaping the racist discourse that informed residential schools. Religious colleges and missionary organizations on campus were also connected to the propagation of residential schools.

Education is a vital mechanism for acknowledging and respecting the treaty relationships to which we are bound and for confronting settler Canadian ignorance about Indigenous communities. Hence, the TRC specifically calls for educational institutions to do better for Indigenous peoples.

Namely, it recommends increased funding to ensure that First Nations students have better access to postsecondary education, the creation of postsecondary programs in Indigenous languages, the education of teachers on the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms, and the establishment of a national research program to “advance understanding of reconciliation.”

Since this summer, universities across Canada have been stepping up initiatives in response to the TRC’s calls. At U of T in particular, it is a timely moment to reflect on education in the reconciliation era. Last week, First Nations House hosted its annual Indigenous Education Week — an important opportunity for the U of T community to “celebrate Indigenous contributions” and “Indigenous presence on campus.”

Last month, the Decanal Working Group (DWG), commissioned by the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS), announced its report’s recommendation — among 19 others — to create an “Indigenous College with residence space” by 2030. According to the report, the FAS has an important role to play in the inclusion of Indigenous languages, cultural expressions, and knowledges within academia.

Aside from the Indigenous college, the report calls for enhanced services and support for Indigenous students, curriculum changes, new programs of study, increased recruitment of Indigenous students and staff, and training for staff and faculty. All these recommendations are commendable and should be implemented by the FAS.

However, a major point of concern surrounds the report’s call for the dean to respond to the report and provide a roadmap for implementation “as soon as possible.” FAS Dean David Cameron, who established the DWG, is leaving next summer, and there is no indication as to whether or not his successor will be committed to the report’s recommendations.

This reflects a central issue with the university bureaucracy’s approach to reconciliation: it largely revolves around promises. Concrete action is slow to materialize.

The DWG’s report largely echoes many of the recommendations that were made by U of T’s Steering Committee in response to the TRC in January 2017. It also called for the creation of a physical space for the Indigenous community, increased recruitment of Indigenous faculty members, and curriculum changes to reflect education about Indigenous peoples.

The Varsity interviewed President Meric Gertler and asked about the progress made on reconciliation since the 2017 report. Gertler pointed to increases in funding to hire more Indigenous staff and faculty.

However, as a result of other universities pursuing similar initiatives, he noted that there is a “competitive labour market” for this objective — and that this corresponds to a lengthy time frame for realization. When asked about specific projects, he often deferred his answers to specific divisions and campuses, or the newly appointed advisor on Indigenous issues, as sources of action. Above all, he seemed most excited by the existence of “conversation” about reconciliation on campus.

In essence, U of T appears to be stuck in the realm of words, ideas, and slow progress as opposed to concrete action. This shortcoming was cautioned by Indigenous leadership at the time of the release of the TRC report. U of T’s lack of action cannot simply be excused as the result of administrative processes that are natural to the governance of universities.

Indeed, other schools are considerably ahead of U of T in taking action for reconciliation. For example, in 2016, the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University became the first two universities to introduce an Indigenous course requirement for incoming students.

Rather than solely rely on the labour of First Nations House to annually educate the community, U of T must take responsibility and implement its own initiatives — including an expedited implementation process in response to the DWG and Steering Committee reports. This, in turn, will show that settler society is committed to re-educating itself on its true history and reforming educational institutions to do more for Indigenous peoples.

We must move beyond the complacency and comfort of land acknowledgements and cultural appreciation. We should especially be creating physical spaces on campus and altering curriculum to reflect Indigenous histories, knowledges, and voices.

This performative reconciliation that lacks action is not unique to universities — it reflects a broader trend. The federal Liberal government may offer apologies and tears in the name of reconciliation, but it continually fails Indigenous peoples — for instance, by building pipelines without adequate consultation. Most recently, the Supreme Court announced that the government is not obligated to consult Indigenous peoples before drafting laws that affect treaty and Indigenous rights.

Frustration about the hypocrisy of settler institutions is most clearly articulated in MP Romeo Saganash’s claim in parliament that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “doesn’t give a fuck” about Indigenous rights.

Reconciliation is meaningless if institutions continue to perpetuate colonialism under the guise of empty promises. Indigenous students across Canadian universities know this firsthand as they continue to experience racism on campus. Campuses should not unilaterally pride themselves on reconciliation or ‘Indigenization.’ Rather, it is up to Indigenous students to determine the effectiveness of reconciliation policies on campuses.

The very discourse of reconciliation is also problematic because it implies resolution between two equal parties; it obscures the power dynamic between the colonizer and the colonized. We should acknowledge that reconciliation, if it is to be effective, is an uncomfortable process. It commits to decentring settler voices and centring Indigenous voices, and, most critically, to making material concessions that change how we organize our institutions.

At The Varsity, we know that we can and should do better as a media organization. This year, we are striving to improve our coverage of Indigenous issues and become a stronger platform for Indigenous voices.

Ultimately, university campuses must institutionalize a new mode of education that reflects the true history of this land, and take concrete action in pursuit of reconciliation. Until then, reconciliation is doomed to remain an idea as opposed to becoming a reality.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

UTM professor advocates transferring ownership rights of Indigenous song recordings back to Indigenous peoples

Inaccuracies in Ts’msyen song descriptions resulted from lack of Indigenous consultation, says Dr. Robin Gray at Indigenous Education Week event

UTM professor advocates transferring ownership rights of Indigenous song recordings back to Indigenous peoples
Dr. Robin Gray, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UTM, argued at an Indigenous Education Week event that the full rights to ownership of song recordings of the Ts’msyen Indigenous people — many of which are legally owned by Columbia University as part of its Laura Boulton Collection of Traditional and Liturgical Music — should be transferred to the Ts’msyen Indigenous people.

The talk was titled “Access & Control of Indigenous Cultural Heritage: When the ‘Object’ of Repatriation is Song,” held in the First Nations House (FNH) on October 23. The event was part of Indigenous Education Week, an endeavour by FNH to celebrate Indigenous contributions and Indigenous presence on campus.

During her talk, Gray explained how ethnomusicologist Laura Boulton recorded songs of the Ts’msyen people — an Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest — in 1942, and then sold the recordings to Columbia University in 1962.

At the time she sold them, Boulton created metadata for each recording — descriptive information about each recording. But, as Gray found in 2012, Boulton’s metadata was inaccurate.

“Columbia University provided me with the metadata for the collection,” said Gray, “which created an expectation that the recordings would be in order and that the Ts’msyen collection would be complete. But after researching and listening to every file — about a thousand of them in the Laura Boulton Collection — I discovered that Columbia only had an audio file for half of the Ts’msyen content.”

Columbia University not only underestimated the number of Ts’msyen songs in existence, but was also unaware of mistakes in Boulton’s written descriptions of the individual Ts’msyen recordings, according to Gray.

Dr. Aaron Fox, the Director of Columbia’s Center for Ethnomusicology, clarified that Columbia did not make any claims that the collection included all traditional songs of the Ts’msyen overall, “only a complete version of Boulton’s very amateur recordings of them.”

Fox also said that he worked closely with Gray on the issue of finding the missing audio.

According to Gray, nine of the Ts’msyen songs were attributed by Boulton to a Ts’msyen man named William Pierce. Boulton described Pierce as, “Eagle by birth, but Blackfish by adoption,” and claimed he “sang clan songs for her.”

But Gray said that Boulton’s lack of precision about Pierce’s heritage made it impossible for Boulton to verify whether his songs were Eagle or Blackfish, or if they were even “clan songs” at all.

Gray also criticized the titles of Boulton’s recordings as being “overly simplistic,” providing examples of Boulton categorizing songs as “Indian Songs” and “Folk Songs.”

Speculating on the reasons for the imprecision, Gray said that Boulton may have forgotten details as she “created the metadata for the recordings 20 years after the time of capture,” and that Boulton’s results were “typical of overly simplistic labels for classification given by someone who did not really understand the content, or the significance of it.”

Gray said that the inaccuracies resulted from a lack of consultation with the Ts’msyen people.

“As is typical in the early years of capturing, preserving, and representing Indigenous cultural heritage, Ts’msyen were not informed or consulted in any of these transfers and transactions. In all instances, Ts’msyen and oral histories were given new meanings and values ex situ — divorced from the appropriate sociocultural contexts, without consultation from the community.”

“In the Ts’msyen worldview,” wrote Gray in a 2018 peer-reviewed publication, “ownership is more synonymous with responsibility than it is with possession.”

But in the “Western property view,” said Gray in her presentation, “Ts’msyen never owned the copyright to the knowledge product, the tangible recording. Laura Boulton, the researcher, claimed ownership of it, then sold it and bequeathed it, and now multiple institutions control the means of access to our songs.”

Such access to Ts’msyen songs without proper context can encourage erroneous beliefs about Ts’msyen culture.

To provide proper context for Ts’msyen songs, they “must be put into the appropriate cultural context,” said Gray. Such a context would accurately answer questions such as, “Who composed the song? What’s the composer’s lineage? Why did they compose the song? Where does the song belong? Who has the rights to sing the song, and in what context?”

On the issue of the missing and incorrect metadata for the Ts’msyen song recordings, Fox said that such knowledge gaps are not unusual when collecting recordings of songs of Indigenous people.

“Such problems are endemic to such collections [as the Center’s collections of Navajo and Hopi recordings] and do point to a larger issue of colonialist mentality in the archiving of Indigenous recordings for sure,” said Fox.

Explaining how Gray helped Columbia complete the Boulton collection, Fox said, “What happened with the audio for the Boulton Ts’msyen recordings is that some of it wound up at the Indiana University archive of traditional music unlabelled.”

Fox and Gray “were able to determine that those unlabelled tapes were some of the missing audio.”

“So the pieces have been recovered — but that was a serendipitous thing had [Gray] not begun her inquiry when she did, and had not several clues aligned to point to looking at Indiana for missing audio.”

Gray concluded her talk by outlining her position on who should retain ownership of Ts’msyen song recordings, saying that institutions with ownership of “Indigenous cultural material” must “be prepared to give up control of Indigenous cultural heritage if that is what the source community wishes.”

This ownership would allow the Ts’msyen people to ensure that any listeners of the songs would experience them in their proper cultural context.

Update (November 8, 7:31 pm): This story has been updated to include comment from Fox.

The student responsibility for reconciliation

To create a more inclusive university for Indigenous students, student government must hold the administration accountable and take initiative on its own

The student responsibility for reconciliation

Last February, the Decanal Working Group (DWG) released its Report on Indigenous Teaching and Learning to the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS). It addresses the “central role” that the administration ought to play in advancing the calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to the FAS.

On September 17, it was announced that the faculty would fulfill a key recommendation by creating an “Indigenous College with Residence Space.” Many of the 19 other recommendations — including enhancing forms of support, curriculum changes, and divisional leadership — are still undergoing implementation or have yet to be announced, demonstrating that this is an ongoing process.

The DWG’s call reflects an often overlooked problem at U of T: the absence of Indigenous methods in academia. If U of T is to be an inclusive, accessible, and empowering environment for Indigenous students it must become a place where forms of Indigenous expression and thinking are integrated into academics, including being “critically and rigorously studied at the most advanced levels.”

While the implementation of these recommendations are a step in the right direction, the broader systemic issue — the discriminatory and unwelcoming environment for Indigenous students on campus — is a problem that the purely academic- and faculty-based report cannot fully resolve. We, the students, must do more.

Therefore, although written for the FAS, the DWG report is also a legitimate and worthwhile document for other bodies and student government representatives to follow. This includes the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), the colleges, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), and Governing Council.

Most initiatives appear out of the immediate jurisdiction of student governments. Nevertheless, they can participate by holding the administration accountable during the implementation process. Above all, the recommendations can inspire student groups to pursue their own initiatives in the spirit of reconciliation.

In fact, the concerns at the heart of the report fall completely in line with the intentions of student government. After all, Indigenous students are represented by the UTSU and ASSU, so student governments should work for the welfare of those whom they represent.

It is also consistent with the UTSU’s mission statement to “safeguard the individual rights of the student” and “foster their intellectual growth and moral awareness.” Indigenous students have the right to an inclusive university experience, and the UTSU’s cooperation with the DWG’s initiatives, from an academic perspective, can also help to intellectually and morally enrich non-Indigenous students.

The fact is that these initiatives also benefit the broader U of T community by promoting active learning and understanding of Indigenous peoples and their forms of expression. More importantly, this will aid in the progress of reconciliation between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Canada — a process that requires the active remembrance of a painful past, as well as action in the present that can contribute to ending quasi-colonial institutions and discrimination.

The first recommendation — the creation of an Indigenous college — is already planned for opening in 2030. The UTSU and ASSU, however, can contribute their voice to these plans, such as encouraging particular aspects of student life within that new space.

There is also the essential role of accountability: to maintain a careful eye in ensuring that the administration does not make empty promises. Additionally, this does not preclude existing colleges from making themselves more accommodating. The Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council, for instance, is pursuing an initiative to rename the Ryerson residence house and VicOne Ryerson stream to something derived from Indigenous academia or language.

One particular area that student governments can take proactive and immediate action in is by providing more support and services for Indigenous students. This seeks to address unique problems and barriers that Indigenous students face in a racist and colonial structure, in which there is a profound lack of understanding of Indigenous cultures, languages, and ways of approaching the world. Student government must play its part to counteract and remove barriers for Indigenous students.

Such initiatives are not completely new to student governments. For instance, there are plans to expand the pilot ASSU Mentorship Program, a support system for students, to include a stream specifically for Indigenous students. It should also be mentioned that this can be done through active participation in several groups on campus — such as the Indigenous Law Students’ Association and Indigenous Education Network — that have taken up the call to action.

Student government must consider the DWG’s recommendations seriously, for it presents an obligation to hold the FAS accountable, and an opportunity to act on more reconciliation-based initiatives for the creation of an inclusive environment for Indigenous students.

Sam Routley is a fourth-year Political Science, Philosophy, and History student. He is The Varsity’s UTSG Campus Politics Columnist.

Book Club: What There There by Tommy Orange teaches us about urban Indigenous life

Storytelling and the enlightening power of art: Orange’s debut novel is a call to action

Book Club: What <i>There There</i> by Tommy Orange teaches us about urban Indigenous life

The title of Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is derived from Gertrude Stein’s memoir, Everybody’s Autobiography. Upon seeing that her childhood home had vanished, Stein famously remarked: “There is no there there.”

As one of Orange’s characters observes, this feeling of despair and loss is not unfamiliar to Indigenous people. The novel’s title is perhaps better interpreted as defiant sarcasm rather than as a soothing sentiment, for the characters in There There seldom find stablilty and comfort.

During the mid-twentieth century, the United States government instated an “Indian termination policy,” which was intended to terminate tribal life and assimilate Indigenous populations into urban society. The policy forced them to move out of reservations and into American cities to find employment as full tax-paying citizens.

The Indigenous people who ultimately emerged in cities, however, were not mainstream Americans as had been imagined, but what Orange calls “urban Indians,” who had arrived there by their own volition. This is where There There, Orange’s story of modernity and tradition, of innocence and guilt, and of hurting and healing, begins.

“Massacre as Prologue” is the title of one section of There There’s introduction, as Orange proposes that the history of violence against Indigenous people in the Americas serves not only as a prologue to his novel, but to life itself as an “urban Indian.” Each of the novel’s character carries the burden of hundreds of years of subjugation.

Another character is a mother who teaches her daughters about their heritage by taking them to a protest off the shore of San Francisco. She reminds the reader of the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz, when Indigenous activists camped out on the island for 19 months in a fight to reclaim their land and their rights.

Orange’s tragic stories of addiction, homelessness, and domestic abuse should be a testament to the fact that this fight is not over. While the novel focuses on Indigenous populations in the United States, its themes and diverse cast of characters speak volumes about Indigenous life and history all over the world.

On Indigenous identity, Orange writes about the importance of names and labels. He refers to the “blood quantum” laws which came to widely define membership to Indigenous tribes — many of which had not previously implemented such definitions — in the United States in the early twentieth century.

Some tribes still follow these membership laws. In Canada, the Indian Act grants status to individuals generationally, historically excluding Métis and Inuit peoples. In There There, Orange insists that these complicated labels and legislations can be dehumanizing, reducing Indigenous identity to “undoable math” and “insignificant remainders.”

Through Orange’s brilliant ability to write both intimately and expansively, connecting people, places, histories, and emotions, There There paints a remarkably extensive portrait of urban Indigenous life.

In Canada, the number of Indigenous people living in urban centres has been steadily growing. In fact, it was recently uncovered by Our Health Counts (OHC), a research project aiming to shed light on health and social inequalities experienced by urban Indigenous people, that data published by Statistics Canada on urban Indigenous populations has been misreported.

The OHC study of Ottawa found that the Inuit population in the city is four times larger than reported by Statistics Canada. The OHC also found that there are three to four times more Indigenous adults in Toronto than estimated by Statistics Canada in 2011.

This is all to say that there are more stories to tell — more than we think, and probably far more than we will ever know. In this view, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Tommy Orange’s debut novel is that it demonstrates the enlightening power of art.

Another part of the novel’s courage is its ability to uncompromisingly confront grim realities, as violence and trauma infiltrate the lives of Orange’s characters, particularly women.

Between 1984 and 2012, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported 1,017 cases of murdered Indigenous women and 164 cases of missing Indigenous women, of which 225 are unsolved. In There There, a female character recalls seeing a post “about women up in Canada” — referring, of course, to this crisis.

However, as Orange highlights in the novel, “it’s not just in Canada, it’s all over. There’s a secret war on women going on in the world. Secret even to us. Secret even though we know it.”

Indeed, the crisis is global. 

A 2008 report from the US Department of Justice found that “some counties have rates of murder against American Indian and Alaska Native women that are over ten times the national average.”

As part of a move to thrust this issue into the spotlight, the junior US Senator from North Dakota Heidi Heitkamp found that 5,712 cases of missing Indigenous women were reported in the United States to the National Crime Information Centre in 2016, and in July 2017, Indigenous women in Alice Springs, Australia marched in the streets to raise awareness about the violence against women plaguing their community. 

There There is a call to action. It is a call for storytelling, if not for one’s own sake, then in honour of those who are silenced and who have been silenced from telling their own stories.

Op-ed: We must organize against the Trans Mountain Pipeline

The Canadian government’s investment in the oil industry exposes the pitfalls of centrist politics and the dire need for mass resistance

Op-ed: We must organize against the Trans Mountain Pipeline

On May 29, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline from Texas oil company Kinder Morgan at a price of $4.5 billion. Kinder Morgan’s plans to add a second line to this pipeline, which carries oil from the Alberta tar sands to the BC coast, have faced months of active resistance from Indigenous nations and allies in BC and across the section of Turtle Island now known as Canada.

After a series of delays since the construction was expected to start in September, the company decided the expansion was not worth the effort and expense. The week after the Trudeau government’s decision, snap actions at MP offices took place around the country as part of a National Day of Action against it. One of several Toronto actions was organized by climate justice group Leap UofT outside the office of Chrystia Freeland, the University—Rosedale MP and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In the lead-up to the action, as one of the organizers, I talked with friends and family who have supported the Trudeau government, and who had been willing to overlook Trudeau’s support for the pipeline as, at worst, an unfortunate political necessity. Until this recent decision, such discussions would generally stall: I would talk about how building a pipeline without consent from impacted First Nations communities violates inherent Indigenous rights, and about how committing to decades of further tar sands extraction is incompatible with doing our share to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. They would have agreed, but they responded that politics requires compromise. In other words, as long as it looked like the pipeline might be economically viable, the centrist position — which avoids declaring any action as simply unacceptable — could appear justified.

But this time was different. At the last Kinder Morgan rally I attended before the buyout decision on May 7, the message was clear: the Trudeau government is selling our futures to the oil industry. This time, we prepared an oversized eraser labelled “Kinder Morgan Buyout” so that MP Freeland could ‘erase’ Canada’s signature from the Paris Agreement. While this message was clear — if we buy pipelines, we forfeit our international climate obligations — it was also less targeted. Who, in this scenario, is the Trudeau government selling us out to?  

The language of Trudeau supporters generally focuses on his promise to back Alberta’s energy sector and create “thousands of good, well-paying jobs,” in the words of Bill Morneau, the Minister of Finance. However, the Canadian government vastly inflated its job creation numbers, and it is unclear how a project a Texas oil giant couldn’t profit from would benefit Alberta. There is no political calculus, no matter how cynical, that necessitates sacrificing the interests of the global community for Alberta’s oil industry. That inability to locate a clear target was palpable at the rally, and culminated in a general sense that we have crossed a line. Trudeau’s supposed simultaneous support for the tar sands and ‘climate action’ is a whole new level of centrist hypocrisy.

Instead of supporting a company waging war on Indigenous rights and the climate, Trudeau has taken up this battle himself, beyond economics. Until now, it was possible to understand the political calculus: being hostile to oil companies can make leaders look dangerous to all the powerful interests that contribute to upholding the economic status quo. In the air of bewilderment and cynicism surrounding the Day of Action, there is an emerging awareness that the centrist response — that there are always ways to compromise with those driving the crisis, that one can always pick and choose which promises are kept and which are sacrificed — is self-destructing and devolving from sinister political calculus into equally terrifying political farce.

In buying an unviable, unneeded, unconsented pipeline that locks us into extractions we cannot afford, especially after the company itself ran away, Trudeau has compromised with the economic status quo. His government has acceded to the dangerous logic of extraction and colonialism without an oil corporation to force his hand.

But if the politics seem farcical, the results of such decisions will be real and destructive. If the 173 billion barrels of oil in the tar sands are dug up and burnt, Canada will have used up a third of the carbon the entire world can afford to burn without exceeding two degrees of warming. As students, if we want a future where politics are anything other than outright rule by corporate oligarchy, we need to get out of the crumbling centre, quickly, and call out those who try to keep us there; we have to build a different kind of politics, one that refuses to accept untempered centrism.

In less than a month, the buyout will be finalized — but there is time. Rallying outside Freeland’s office, we were linked not only to more than 100 other actions that day, but to the years of organizing both in and out of BC that made it possible to pull together that many actions in only a few days. In the coming days, weeks, and months, it is imperative that we grow this resistance, that we make clear the political consequences of decisions like the Kinder Morgan buyout — that we do not allow the Trudeau government to cling to its eroding middle ground.

Julia DaSilva is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Literature and Critical Theory, Philosophy, and Indigenous Studies. She is a co-founder and core team member of Leap UofT.

Canada’s reconciliation: unwilling, unready, undeserving

Examining the pitfalls of reconciliation in light of the deaths of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine

Canada’s reconciliation: unwilling, unready, undeserving

In 2015, the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) provided Canadians with documentation of the cultural genocide endured by Indigenous youth through residential schools. The purpose of the TRC was to lay the groundwork for ‘reconciliation’ where settler Canadians would work to close social, economic, and political gaps with Indigenous peoples created by centuries of colonialism.

Yet in February 2018 — less than three years later — the consecutive acquittals of Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier for the deaths of 22-year-old Colten Boushie of the Red Pheasant First Nation and 15-year-old Tina Fontaine of the Sagkeeng First Nation have blown away any remaining mystique of ‘reconciliation.’ Settler Canada, by reproducing the injustices it pledged to address, is not committed to reconciliation.

The ongoing failure of the Canadian criminal justice system for Indigenous youth is only part of the problem. The problem is how systems intersect to make Indigenous deaths possible. The problem is how, even after death, settlers continue to twist narratives and portray death as a normal, expected, and deserved outcome for the colonized.

Stanley’s trial revolved around the purported malfunctioning of the gun that killed Colten Boushie on a Saskatchewan farm. Yet much settler deliberation focused on Stanley’s ‘right’ to protect his property and family from ‘trespassers’ — a deeply ironic ‘right’ given that his farm sits on Treaty 6 land. The Indigenous peoples who signed the treaty, with the Crown in 1876 were unable to fully understand its meaning due to it being written in English; they were told that settlers were borrowing the land, when in fact it was being purchased from them.   

What do we make of the escalatory and disproportionate use of force, including guns, that is frequently justified against minoritized communities? Or of the fact that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) investigation of Bouchie’s death negligently destroyed evidence and treated his family as if they were suspect? Instead, Stanley was acquitted, received over $200,000 in GoFundMe support, and is currently pursuing publishers to write a book and explain his ‘side’ of the story.

Tina Fontaine, on the other hand, engaged with the police, hospital, and child and family services, which had placed her in a hotel prior to her disappearance. Her body was later recovered from Red River in Manitoba. Yet The Globe and Mail headlined a story, “Tina Fontaine had drugs, alcohol in system when she was killed: toxicologist.” Indigenous responses later caused the paper to change the title.

Invoking stereotypes of the ‘drunken Indian’ and suggesting that Fontaine’s death was her own fault rather than that of the killer who threw her body into a river, or that of institutions that abandoned their responsibility to protect her is how many absolve the Canadian state and settlers of any culpability. From Boushie to Fontaine, we — the criminal justice system, the police, the child welfare system, the media, and the settler Canadian public — have been shown to protect settlers and defame dead Indigenous youth. Settler Canada is unwilling, unready, and undeserving of reconciliation.

The criminal injustice system

The legal system is central to the pro-death policy imposed upon Indigenous communities — especially when it comes to the nature of juries. Battleford, Saskatchewan — where Stanley was acquitted — was also the site of the 1885 hangings following the Riel Rebellion, the largest mass execution in Canadian history. Eight Indigenous men were hanged and buried after an all-white jury trial, a judge, and Prime Minister John A. MacDonald all expressed antipathies toward them as “Indian rebels.” In 1971, an all-white jury wrongfully convicted Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq man, of murder. These historical examples of all-white juries are part of a trajectory that has led to an overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the justice system; they constitute 25 per cent of inmates despite being approximately four per cent of the population.

Tina Fontaine’s case, meanwhile, is paralleled by the 1971 murder of Helen Betty Osborne, among countless other missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people. Although Indigenous peoples constituted 30 per cent of Osborne’s community, the defence used peremptory challenges — the right to reject a prospective juror without providing any reason — to keep all prospective Indigenous jurors off the jury. An all-white jury subsequently convicted only one of four accused men of her murder.

In light of this history of legal injustice, part of Indigenous resistance efforts is the reclamation of the law as a space for Indigenous youth. The University of Toronto Indigenous Law Students’ Association (ILSA) is one such organization; it “provides a social network for Aboriginal law students and is committed to furthering awareness of Aboriginal legal issues.” On March 1, the ILSA held a panel discussion about the Colten Boushie verdict.

Kent Roach, Professor of Law at the University of Toronto, discussed the various aspects of the trial that contributed to the acquittal of Stanley. First was the issue of Indigenous underrepresentation on juries. According to s. 629 of the Criminal Code of Canada, the jury panel can only be challenged on the basis of “partiality, fraud or wilful misconduct.” This does not account for proportional representation on a jury roll or the actual jury. In Stanley’s trial, the jury was entirely white with no Indigenous representation. Roach advocates for the ability of the accused or prosecutor to challenge jury panels if they fail to be representative based on a fair sample of the community at hand.

A recent Toronto Star-Ryerson School of Journalism investigation confirmed this representation problem. It reveals how, based on an analysis of 52 criminal trials in Toronto and Brampton, 71 per cent of all jurors were white, even though people of colour constitute the majority of the cities’ demographics. Evidently, juries across Canada do not reflect the diversity of the community in which trials are situated. Roach advocates for outreach and support for Indigenous and Black communities to ensure they have easier access to serving on juries.

The second panelist, Mi’kmaq lawyer Shannon McDunnough, further spoke of the importance of the jury pool of prospective jurors — especially because they are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and middle-aged. Many lower-income, and minoritized people cannot afford to miss precarious work for jury duty, as opposed to those who have well-paid contracts. Indigenous peoples often are excluded because of barriers related to transportation, child care, and elder care. The final jury pool thus ends up with a socioeconomic and racial skew. This comes at the cost of alternative worldviews that, in the case of Indigenous peoples involved in trials, can other help other jurors understand what it means to be and live as an Indigenous person. McDunnough stated that jurors are doing a public service, and as such, should be accomodated financially so lower-income and minoritized communities can serve on juries.

In conjunction with more representative juries, Roach advocated for the abolition of peremptory challenges Stanley’s lawyer used them to exclude visibly Indigenous peoples from the jury. Furthermore, he spoke of the need to expand challenges for cause. Prospective jurors were not questioned as to whether the racial dynamics of the case would affect their ability to impartially decide the case. Prospective jurors should be vetted for subconscious racism and challenged for cause if they are deemed partial, especially when the victim in question is Indigenous.

A jury is ideally representative of the wider community and must deliberate and come to a unanimous decision. Yet if a jury is misrepresentative and impartial to racially loaded cases, the biases in the decision-making process favour accused killers like Stanley at the cost of Indigenous victims, and they disadvantage Indigenous individuals when they are the accused. This only serves to further alienate Indigenous communities that are already disabused of the criminal justice system, which has continually failed them.

The ILSA, in solidarity with other Canadian law schools raising awareness about the Boushie and Fontaine cases, backed up its panel with a teach-in on March 14. Law students and faculty alike walked out of class and sat together at the Jackman Law Building atrium for discussion. The purpose was to educate people on how institutions   such as the police, jury selection, and child welfare systems collude through and with the legal system to create results such as the acquittals. Speakers mentioned the need for more Indigenous perspectives and legal traditions in the study of law and the need to keep conversation alive about the Boushie and Fontaine cases outside the classroom.

One step in the direction of legal pluralism and equity is taking place at the University of Victoria, which recently announced that it will offer the world’s first Indigenous law degree. Students in the program, expected to initiate in September of 2018, will earn two professional degrees in Canadian common law and Indigenous legal orders. This initiative is a response to the TRC’s 50th call to action, which calls for the development of Indigenous law institutes. According to Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law John Burrows, “Indigenous law looks to nature and to the land to provide principles of law and order and ways of creating peace between peoples; whereas the common law looks to old cases in libraries to decide how to act in the future.”

The law and the criminal justice system has historically been a colonial operation that favours settlers at the expense of Indigenous peoples. For some, it is a site in which serious reform is required to build equity; for others, legal pluralism and Indigenous traditions are the way forward. The work of ILSA suggests that, in light of the Boushie and Fontaine cases, Indigenous youth are at the forefront of reclaiming and re-imagining the space of law to create a justice system that serves Indigenous peoples.

DARREN CHENG/THE VARSITY

“Stolen children on stolen land”

The death and life of Fontaine also illustrates how the criminal injustice system interlocks with a wider network of colonial infrastructure to facilitate the exploitation and degradation of Indigenous lives.

In Manitoba, where Fontaine grew up, in the province’s Child and Family Services there are 11,000 children who have been removed from their families and are currently in the child welfare system. Of those children, 10,000 are Indigenous — a staggering 91 per cent. The First Nations Child & Family Caring Society estimates “ there are three times the number of First Nation children in foster care than there were at the height of the residential schools system.” When the present-day child welfare system is tearing families apart even more rapaciously than under residential schools, it amounts to an escalation of colonial warfare against Indigeneity. While we, as settlers, may have the impression that Canada ended its genocidal practices in the last century, numbers show that the destruction of Indigenous communities is ramping up, not winding down.

At Toronto’s “Justice for Tina Fontaine” rally on March 3, speakers called out the system for what it is: a child welfare industrial complex. One mother whose son was put into the care of the state at a psychiatric hospital decried the many actors who profit from Indigenous children being taken from their homes: “Native women did not have children to be meal tickets for lawyers, psychiatrists, judges, child welfare employees, directors, executive directors, and managers.”

Others benefit from the industry as well: the hotels paid to house foster children; private foster care agencies contracted by the government; non-Indigenous foster parents who earn allowances; and not least, sexual predators and human traffickers.

Another speaker at ILSA’s event, an Inuvialuit woman named Crystal Lee, lamented that Fontaine’s death was a deliberate outcome: “Canada failed Tina long before she was murdered.”

One of the most common reasons given for apprehending Indigenous children is caregiver poverty and substandard housing. These conditions are, unsurprisingly, the product of the Canadian government, which has repeatedly been found liable of discriminating against Indigenous children by starving them of equal funding compared to non-Indigenous children. A sinister formula thus emerges: make reserves unfit for living, seize the children, profit from the children, continue decimating Indigenous presence, repeat. This is the colonial pipeline that whisked Fontaine from her family and ultimately discharged her body into the Red River. This is why the TRC zeroed in on child welfare as its first call to action. How can Canada possibly pursue reconciliation when there will be no intact future generations with whom to reconcile?  

Resistance efforts

Although they are in the crosshairs of these colonial systems, Indigenous youth are surging to the front lines to push back. The rally for Fontaine at Nathan Phillips Square was organized by Madyson Arscott, a grade 10 Ojibwe student only a year older than Fontaine was when she died.

Later on the afternoon of the protest, other young activists established the Soaring Eagle’s Camp on the front lawn of the Old City Hall courthouse. Inspired by sister camps in Winnipeg and Calgary, the occupation commemorates Boushie and Fontaine and highlights the “continuation of Canada’s colonial violence towards Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island,” according to their pamphlet. The site of the month-old camp is intentional, explained Gein Wong, who has been present since day one: “There’s a lot of Native folks, or Indigenous folks, who are charged in the city with whatever charges. They actually go into here and have to go to court in this building. And so, for that reason, it’s important to have a presence here because this is where the justice system is, where it is actively operating.”

The Soaring Eagle’s Camp draws on the legacy of other direct actions in the city. Last July, the alarming suicide rate among Indigenous youth, particularly in Pikangikum First Nation, led to the formation of the Ground Zero camp in front of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) Toronto office last summer. This camp was in fact a re-occupation of INAC; the camp’s first incarnation took place in April 2016 following the Attawapiskat suicide crisis. The second Ground Zero camp lasted 157 days to create public awareness about the loss of Indigenous youth and demand the federal government to increase funding for First Nations communities. The camp ended only due to the harsh late December weather.

Yet the members of Soaring Eagle’s Camp share the view that their camp is distinct from previous actions. According to Wong, “What’s notable this time around is that it’s all young, new generations that’s actually stepping up and organizing, with the guidance and the support of the folks who have done it before, and the elders. That is powerful to … have new generations step in.

This ethic of youth solidarity rippled through conversations with other members of the camp, who emphasized the importance of young Indigenous people showing up for other Indigenous youth. When Arscott addressed the crowd at the Fontaine rally, she concluded her speech with a request: “I want each and every one of you to say something with me for the Indigenous youth in the crowd. Ready? You are worth the effort. You are worth the effort. You are worth the effort.”

DARREN CHENG/THE VARSITY

Reconciling reconciliation

For reconciliation with Indigenous peoples to occur, the meaning of reconciliation itself must be reconciled by settler Canadians. Is reconciliation just performative rhetoric, or is it substantive action that requires us to recreate our workplaces, classrooms, and institutions in the image of Indigenous worldviews, knowledges, and governance structures? What are settlers willing to give up so that justice socioeconomically, legally, and politically for centuries of colonialism may be served?  

Kennes Lin, a Youth Leader for Canadian Roots Exchange (CRE) an organization dedicated to developing relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth, and a student at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, shared her perception of reconciliation, prior to the verdicts, as a non-Indigenous person. “As a first-generation immigrant settler, I viewed ‘reconciliation’ as a responsibility to learn about the truth and unbiased history of the land I am living on, and to be self-aware of how my role as an immigrant meant I have been implicated as a settler colonizer in the project of colonization. I viewed ‘reconciliation’ as a need for me to understand my positioning first, and then to reach out and bridge the gaps in relationships with Indigenous folks.”

Following the verdicts, Lin said she is more critical of what ‘bridging the gap’ means. “With the verdicts as blatant evidence of overt and covert racism, ‘Truth before reconciliation’ to me now means being more targeted in addressing racism. While reconstructing is needed, I don’t view it as in my place to be doing it it needs to be from First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities themselves. What I can do is to target institutional racism, as a way create space for decolonizing reconstruction work to happen.”

As for the role of non-Indigenous youth, Lin notes, “what you can do always depends on what you know yourself to have the capacity to do if rallies are for you, go to them. If writing policy is more you, that works too. There’s a lot of work to do in all areas of deconstructing and reconstructing.”

Max FineDay, member of Sweetgrass First Nation and Co-Executive Director of CRE, defines reconciliation as the process of restoring the original relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. As with any process, there are failures; the two verdicts, while deeply disappointing, are not entirely surprising for FineDay. “Time and time again, the justice system shows that it fails, just like education, like health. The systems upon which Canada was founded do not serve Indigenous peoples.”

FineDay also speaks of the high suicide rate among Indigenous youth compared to non-Indigenous youth. “Canada is not the great country of justice and human rights and equality that we like to think we are. We are coming to a crossroads. Indigenous youth are the fastest growing demographic in the country. We have Indigenous youth now who are in 20 years going to be professionals in the workforce. Or if we don’t go down the path of reconciliation we’ll build more prisons, there will be more suicide, we’ll lose more people to violence. Youth are critical because we have an opportunity to stop the cyclical violence that has been happening for centuries.”

FineDay added that Canadians in Toronto or Ontario should not be smug and view anti-Indigenous racism as exclusive to prairie provinces like Saskatchewan and Manitoba; rather, it exists and must be addressed everywhere. In Toronto, more than four in five Indigenous families live in poverty.

“When I went back to my community and knowledge keepers [following the verdicts], they told me, Âhkamêyimo which means ‘persevere.’ This work is hard but it’s valuable. It’s incumbent upon all of us, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to work for those who have come before us, who have worked towards reconciliation long before it was trendy, to ensure that Indigenous peoples can see justice,” he reflected.

In the context of Tkaranto the Mohawk origin of ‘Toronto’ the restoration of the original settler-Indigenous relations is governed by two treaties: the Two Row Wampum and the Dish With One Spoon. The Two Row Wampum is an agreement reached in 1613 between the Haudenosaunee and Dutch settlers to co-exist in peace, friendship, and respect: the two rows of purple wampum beads symbolise two vessels, a birchbark canoe, and a European ship travelling down the same river in parallel, never interfering in the other’s path. The Dish with One Spoon is a covenant among the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee to share and protect the territories around the Great Lakes and St Lawrence, as represented by the ‘dish.’ According to this treaty, we take from the land only what we need, we leave enough for everyone else, and care for the land and one another without resorting to violence.

If Canada is to reconcile with Indigenous peoples, Canada must first resolve what reconciliation means for itself. The Boushie and Fontaine verdicts this year indicate that Canada’s current reconciliation process does not work for Indigenous peoples. Canada can either continue a performative reconciliation that inflicts systemic colonial violence onto Indigenous youth or commit to a process of justice and restoration as imagined by Indigenous youth. Unless the latter occurs, colonization will continue to be the defining relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples.

Resisting Education event reflects on diverse barriers in postsecondary institutions

Panel discusses tuition fees, Indigeneity, racism, part-time students

Resisting Education event reflects on diverse barriers in postsecondary institutions

Resisting Education: Stories of Defiance and Perseverance — an event held by the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS) — took place in UTSG’s Claude T. Bissell Building on November 30 to discuss issues faced by students in postsecondary institutions across Ontario.

The event featured a panel of guests that included Nour Alideeb, former University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) President and current Chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS-O); Francis Pineda, President of the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR); Michelle Mabira, 2016–2017 President of U of T’s African Students’ Association; and Phyllis McKenna, Vice-President Equity and Campaigns of CESAR. Moderating the event was Mala Kashyap, President of APUS.

A range of issues concerning postsecondary students were raised by the panelists. Alideeb started the discussion by saying that access to postsecondary education is a “right, not privilege.” Citing the funding structure for public postsecondary institutions, particularly U of T, Alideeb said the university has become a “publicly assisted institution” instead of “publicly funded,” with some of the highest tuition costs in Canada as well as steep costs for international students.

“Is our degree that great just because we slap on ‘U of T’?” asked Alideeb. She also pointed out solutions from her work at the CFS-O, in particular her lobbying for the Ontario Student Grant, as a starting point for reducing student fees and eliminating provincial interest on student loans.

McKenna focused on Indigeneity and the issues Indigenous students face when it comes to access to education. As an Indigenous woman, McKenna criticized the low graduation rates for Indigenous students in postsecondary institutions, as well as limitations on funding for bursaries and grants due to inadequate government funding.

Mabira relayed a perception of apathy on the part of the university administration toward marginalized students. Describing the process of reporting racism to university administrators as a “lottery,” Mabira attributed deep-rooted racism within the university to a “culture of persecuting people who can challenge the way the system is built and run.” She alluded to recent reports of anti-Black racism on campus as the product of a culture of racism and ignorance.

A part-time student at Ryerson University, Pineda discussed the importance of improving access to postsecondary education, as well as keeping in mind the struggles that part-time students face at these institutions. Accessing bursaries and grants is difficult for part-time students, especially those who may incur debt over an extended period during school, said Pineda. He described in detail his own experiences as a part-time student dealing with debt and the long period of time it took for him to earn his degree.

In response to a question about solutions to the particular issues raised by the panel, McKenna conveyed a hope for diversifying approaches to education and changes to “the idea that Western worldviews are not the epitome of education.”

Alideeb, speaking from her experience with the UTMSU, said that discussion and trust are the basis for change. “If we don’t have the mechanisms to talk to each other about the things that we have problems with, we cannot find solutions to them and move forward.”

When asked about the practicality of solving issues that were raised by her fellow panelists, Alideeb responded with optimism about future conversations, specifically mentioning her past success with the ‘Fight the Fees’ campaign and the Ontario Student Grant. She emphasized the importance of the University of Toronto Students’ Union collaborating with student groups to work on tackling issues. “We need to be working with people to understand the issues — that way we can tackle them.”

“150 for Whom?” tackles anti-racism on Canada’s sesquicentennial

Panel features CFS Chairperson Coty Zachariah, former UTSU Executive Director Sandra Hudson

“150 for Whom?” tackles anti-racism on Canada’s sesquicentennial

Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary, while widely celebrated, has also raised critical discussion regarding what it means to celebrate the past 150 years as seen through the lens of colonialism.

On November 11, the Centre for Integrative Anti-Racism Studies hosted a workshop and symposium event titled “150 for Whom, Canada? Colonialism and Indigeneity across Lands” at U of T’s Ontario Institute of Studies in Education.

The event included a panel discussion featuring Sandra Hudson, former University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Executive Director and co-founder of Black Lives Matter – Toronto; Coty Zachariah, current National Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS); George Elliott Clarke, former Poet Laureate of Toronto; Eve Haque, associate professor at York University; and Jennifer Mills, a postdoctoral researcher at York. The event was moderated by Alissa Trotz, an Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies.

The discussion focused in large part on the ways that the panelists perceived Canada to have failed racialized and Indigenous communities, and how, as Hudson opined, Canadians should not be celebrating 150 years of conquest, violence, and settler colonialism.

“When I think about Canada 150, I’m thinking of 150 years of what?” she asked. “As a Black person, I don’t see myself reflected in anything about Canada 150 at all.”

The panelists also discussed the basis of Canada’s foundation, asking why Canadians are celebrating the past 150 years when the country’s history stretches far beyond that.

Zachariah, who is Afro-Indigenous, argued that the sesquicentennial celebrates the erasure of the history of Indigenous peoples who have been here much longer than European settlers. “When I think about 150 and 10,000, there’s just no comparison,” he said.

Clarke stated that it was also important to remember the original reason for Confederation, saying that “Canada is, in my opinion, the result of the British empire’s need to establish a bulwark against American manifest destiny, nothing more and nothing less than that.”

There was also discussion about the role of language in Canada’s history with Indigenous peoples.

Haque, who teaches in York’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, spoke about the “importance of language” and how colonialism has destroyed parts of Indigenous culture.

“It is also through the imposition of colonial languages and the violent expunging of Indigenous languages and other languages that are here that colonialism is trying to break Indigenous relationship with land,” she said.

Zachariah echoed Haque’s point, saying, “They stole your language and your culture and they charge you $10,000 a year to get it back,” referring to the tuition some students might have to pay in order to learn Indigenous languages.

When asked by The Varsity how he plans to use his position as CFS National Chairperson to educate students on these issues, Zachariah said that it would be “by having this conversation, by being open to talking to places like The Varsity about what it means and what it could mean, and how we can form better relationships moving forward.” He said his role as chairperson can be to help foster those conversations.

He also said that he was “very open to working with any school,” including U of T, despite the UTSU’s current anti-CFS stance.

Hudson declined to comment.