Conscience in a crisis

If reconciliation matters, U of T should break its silence on the Wet’suwet’en protests

Conscience in a crisis

This month, resistance to the construction of the TransCanada-operated Coastal GasLink Pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory in BC was followed by government response — a Royal Canadian Mounted Police raid. The story has blazed across news and social media, presenting Canadians with a crisis of conscience. 

As is so often the case, our most vulnerable communities have the responsibility foisted upon them to take on the very powerful by themselves in the fight for truth and justice. Indeed, Indigenous activists and allies across the country have boldly taken advantage of the increased media attention to organize fundraisers and protest actions in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en clans. 

However, judging by the government’s insistence on the status quo, as expressed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and BC Premier John Horgan in the face of such rebukes, these actions are evidently not enough to shift policy on the scale necessary to meet the pressing challenges of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and climate change. 

It falls on those leaders — whether they are institutions, individuals, or student associations — who have dedicated themselves to upholding the pursuit of societal growth and development to exercise their social responsibility at such critical moments. 

As U of T students, we inhabit an academic institution that is avowedly motivated toward the knowledge and actions that are understood by our community to be right. We therefore share a responsibility to stand up in the face of what we know to be in direct conflict with those ideals. 

The U of T administration, with all of its influence and resources, should assume its role as the leader of its community and come out in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and the resounding nationwide protests, several of which have taken place in Toronto. 

It has conspicuously not done so, compelling the Indigenous Studies Students’ Union (ISSU) to publish a statement earlier this month encouraging the administration to break its silence on this issue. 

“I think that it is deeply disheartening to see those who are first to perform land acknowledgements being the last to acknowledge the gross abuse of power that is being perpetrated by the Canadian government,” said Joshua Bowman, an ISSU coordinator and Social Sciences Director at the University of Toronto Students’ Union. 

One of the educational responsibilities of academia is to help inform public opinion on government policies that contribute inordinately to social injury. 

The laws concerning Indigenous hereditary land claims in Canada are complex. It is surely one of the roles of an academic institution with a groundbreaking Centre for Indigenous Studies to enlighten the public on what is not only a moral and ethical transgression, but a legal one as well. Convening a panel that includes all relevant voices would be helpful in illuminating the issue to U of T students and faculty.

U of T’s administration has publicly stated its commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and should not remain silent on this particular issue. This is especially true seeing as how the actions of the TransCanada Corporation conflict so egregiously not only with the rights of the Wet’suwet’en clans, but also with the well-being of the planet, which the university has on numerous occasions pledged to defend.

Expressing solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en clans should not be an ethical or political quandary for the U of T administration. It is entirely consistent with its stated purpose as an institute of advanced education and research. 

“The university can break its silence quite simply; by coming out with a statement in full support of this. But I’m more interested in what they would do after they break their silence,” said Ziigwen Mixemong, another ISSU coordinator. 

“They need to divest and end any ties to anti-Indigenous movements, and they need to enter into treaty with Indigenous nations here to ensure the land they are occupying is being taken care of in the way it was meant to be.”

The administration and U of T’s many and varied student organizations have not shied away in the past from releasing statements of solidarity regarding controversial issues and current global events. They should certainly not do so in the face of such blatant abuse of force by a government against innocent and peaceful human beings. 

U of T should instead fully assume its responsibility to its Indigenous students by acting in a meaningful way toward its claims of reconciliation. As an institution of knowledge and purportedly high ethical standards, it should use its position to contribute a credible voice to the public debate.

Students and faculty can support the Wet’suwet’en First Nation by attending solidarity action events such as those posted on the Soaring Eagle Camp’s Facebook account. They can also make a monetary donation on the GoFundMe page created by Jennifer Wickham, a member of the Gidimt’en clan, which will go toward fundraising for legal fees and additional supplies for the checkpoint.

Anna Osterberg is a first-year Master of Teaching student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

UTSC talking circles established to address reconciliation with Indigenous peoples

Ten weekly circles to be led by UTSC’s Indigenous Elder Wendy Phillips, Circles of Reconciliation’s Susan Dowan

UTSC talking circles established to address reconciliation with Indigenous peoples

In the first of many upcoming talking circles, UTSC’s Indigenous Elder Wendy Phillips gathered with members of the UTSC community on January 11 to introduce the goals of this initiative and how it hopes to address the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The purpose of the talking circles is to build awareness in the UTSC community about Indigenous history and struggles, as well as to share thoughts and feelings about the TRC’s report.

Phillips has partnered with the Circles of Reconciliation’s Susan Dowan to hold these talking circles. Circles of Reconciliation is an organization that aims to “establish trusting, meaningful relationships between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous peoples.”

The TRC report was a landmark 2015 document that revealed the truth about Canada’s residential school system, and included accounts of Indigenous children who were physically and sexually abused in government boarding schools. According to the report, the TRC “identified a fractured relationship between [the] nations.”

The TRC published 94 Calls to Action that asked the government to work to repair the damages from residential schools, and to reconcile institutional relationships with members of Canada’s Indigenous communities. A number of these Calls to Action touched on changes to postsecondary education.

“This process of reconciliation… takes a lot of work,” said Phillips. “What we hope to achieve with these circles is to provide the opportunity for advocacy and education.”

Phillips began the program with a smudging ceremony, which involved Phillips lighting sage and passing the smoke around to the participants. This traditional ritual cleanses the mind and body, Phillips said.

“A talking circle… is very common with the Indigenous nations,” said Phillips. “We have different talking items that you can use.”

Phillips held out a carved wooden stick with colours of red, black, and yellow.

“This is a talking stick, this was my mother’s actually,” said Phillips. “The concept is everybody is given the opportunity to share their thoughts, feelings, and opinions of what’s being asked of them. So, after you’re done, you say thank you and pass [the talking stick] onto the next person.”

Dowan said that the talking circles will meet for 10 weeks, and that there are various themes each week. The themes can range anywhere from residential schools, to reconciliation, to Indigenous people.

The talking circles will give UTSC students the opportunity for dialogue that “was not really there.”

The topic for the talking circle next week will tackle the question of what exactly reconciliation is.

“It is a lot of learning, there are a lot of stories and experiences,” said Phillips. “Sometimes it will get emotional.”

Hundreds protest RCMP raids on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory

Raids come as RCMP enforce injunction to allow pipeline company access to land

Hundreds protest RCMP raids on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory

Hundreds of people protested in Nathan Phillips Square on January 8 as part of a national movement against Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) raids on traditional unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia.

Background on the Wet’suwet’en land issue

Protests across the country came the day after the RCMP enforced a court-ordered injunction to allow pipeline company Coastal GasLink access to Wet’suwet’en territory.

Coastal GasLink has not been able to access the land because of two blockades that have been set up by clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation to control access to their land.

The first is a gated checkpoint by the Unist’ot’en clan, which has been in place since 2009.

More recently, the neighbouring Gidimt’en clan set up their own checkpoint, which was the one raided by the RCMP on January 7.

Though the Wet’suwet’en Nation has been resisting the pipeline for a decade, the issue is coming to a head now because Coastal GasLink applied for an injunction that was granted by the BC Supreme Court in December.

The injunction ordered for the camps to be dismantled to allow the company access to build its pipeline.

On January 9, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs came to an agreement with the RCMP to allow them to keep their gated checkpoint, but will allow Coastal GasLink through to begin work.

Part of the agreement also states that the RCMP will not raid the camp or enter the Unist’ot’en healing lodge without an invitation.

Toronto protest draws hundreds

The protest was mainly hosted by the Soaring Eagles Camp, a group that was created in response to the deaths of Indigenous youths Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie.

Master of ceremonies and Wet’suwet’en Water Protector Eve Saint led the rally by calling on supporters to mobilize.

“We have a fight ahead of us and we have power together,” said Saint.

The protest began in Nathan Phillips Square and moved through the Financial District before ending at 100 University Avenue, which contains the offices of Computershare Trust Company, TransCanada’s transfer agent.

U of T alum Jesse Wente, an Indigenous writer, broadcaster, and advocate, told the crowd that “reconciliation does not come at the end of a gun.”

“War… I challenge Canadians, is that the relationship you want with Indigenous people?”

Speaker Vanessa Gray, from Aamjiwnaang First Nation, spoke to The Varsity after the rally, saying that people need to “question their pride in being Canadian.”

“Canada is just as racist as it ever has been and we need people with privilege to act now.”

U of T itself invests in the fossil fuel industry, a fact that has prompted much backlash from student groups in the past few years.

When asked about U of T’s involvement in the industry, Saint told The Varsity, “I would say that you are investing in Canada’s genocide of Indigenous peoples. There is death in these pipelines… It is stained with blood, Indigenous blood, because all the industry are on Indigenous land and territory and they poison people.”

“If you want to fight climate change and stop this madness, back Indigenous people and be aware and stand together.”

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.