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To preserve Indigenous languages, U of T must do better

Academic institutions must expand Indigenous language-learning opportunities in the face of endangerment and extinction

To preserve Indigenous languages,  U of T must do better

Over 188 years have passed since the first residential schools were established in Canada. Residential schools, a part of government- and church-sponsored policy, were built to undermine Indigenous identity in favor of the dominant white settler society. The repercussions of these schools are still felt by Indigenous people to this day. The intergenerational trauma of residential schooling remains a significant factor in the decline of Indigenous languages, as well as the health and well-being of Indigenous communities.

Indigenous language is integral to the preservation of culture and nationhood. As a result of residential schooling, Indigenous communities were left unable to safeguard their own languages and cultural identities. In fact, beyond the plethora of literature surrounding the psychological, physiological, and sociological implications that have taken hold, it is not uncommon to hear that those who have endured such practices still carry the burden — refusing to teach their children due to fear that they might endure a similar experience.

Until 1996, when the last residential school closed its doors in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, residential schools remained at the epicentre of the isolation, punishment, and assimilation into Euro-Canadian culture that the federal government imposed on Indigenous children.

Inside such schools, children — under the guise of educational policy — were removed from their communities and families and dissuaded from using their language and practising their culture. Furthermore, many of the more than 150,000 school children in residential schools were subjected to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.

According to a 2016 Canadian census, there are over 260,050 Indigenous language speakers in Canada — less than one per cent of the entire Canadian population. Further, there are reportedly over 70 distinct living Indigenous languages spoken in Canada according to the same census. Yet, only 15.6 per cent of Indigenous people can conduct a conversation in an Indigenous language, a drop from the 2006 census.

Language is at the root of culture and history. However, for Bonnie J. Maracle, Wolf Clan member of the Mohawk people and Professor of Language Revitalization at U of T, language is much more than that. “Language is our help, our unity, our strength,” she claimed.

For Indigenous people like Maracle, there is a clear unifying connection between language and the spiritual and natural environment around us. “Language is this healing and wellness,” Maracle said. “A whole generation of people had no language and culture, all as a result of residential schools… language has been holding on by a thread [ever since].”

This is not a problem unique to Canada. Indigenous languages and cultures are currently at risk of disappearing in all corners of the world.

This summer, three undergraduate students travelled to the city of Boa Vista, Brazil, as part of U of T’s Research Excursion Projects (REPs). With guidance from Suzi Lima, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the students were able to study several Indigenous languages in the region, including Macuxi, Ye’kwana, and Taurepang, alongside locals in order to further preservation efforts.

On the importance of their work in Brazil, Gregory Antono, a former Linguistics and Spanish double major now entering his graduate studies in U of T’s linguistics program, spoke on the politics around Brazil’s loss of Indigenous languages. According to Antono, official language status, colonization, and desire to adhere to the dominant culture are among the major factors contributing to this decline. Antono went on to say that, “It’s a race against time, for one. A lot of these languages have [very] few speakers left so if we — from different areas of the world — don’t work together, there is a chance we will not be able to do it at all in a few years.”

Documenting the language and history of Indigenous peoples is just one example of the work that we, as academics, institutions, and global citizens can do to help preserve cultures all over the world.

“I think we focus a lot on theoretical problems rather than the field, but we need more programs like the REP to learn about and communicate with these communities,” Antono continued. “As a student I’m torn between pursuing my academic interests but also in creating meaningful work [within] the community itself.” It is in this day and age of critically declining language diversity that impactful work like this is not only beneficial to both parties at hand, but necessary as well.

In June 2019, the Canadian Government passed the Indigenous Languages Act (ILA). Along with making attempts to adhere to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada’s Calls to Action, the Canadian government is to allocate $333.7 million over five years and $115.7 million per year thereafter to support the ILA’s implementation. While there has been a lot of debate regarding the government’s claim of co-development of this legislation in collaboration with Indigenous groups, this increase in expenditure will hopefully allow more language revitalization projects to come to fruition in the coming years.

Academic institutions must do more to preserve Indigenous languages in light of the current instability in this area. According to Professor Andrea Bear Nicholas, Maliseet from Nekwotkok, Tobique First Nation, who works at St. Thomas University, the situation is truly dire. “Unless we as a country give equal rights to Indigenous languages for the right to schooling in our languages, I think we will not be saving our languages,” she said in an interview with Global News Canada. “We have to make the next step, and that would be pre-school programs, that would be immersion programs, and guaranteed to any community that wants to start them. This is critical.”

Across Canada, academic institutions are starting to make spaces for Indigenous peoples to learn and thrive, offering course credits in Indigenous languages and cultural studies, and recruiting fluent speakers as administrators and educators. The Mohawk language has now joined Inuktitut and Anishinaabemowin in U of T’s language course offerings, at two levels of education.

However, two levels of language-learning seem hardly enough given that the norm for other languages offered at U of T, such as French and German, are offered at four, if not five levels. As Canada’s number one university, continually pushing the boundaries of education, should we really have to ask ourselves whether three offered Indigenous languages are enough?

We must provide both Indigenous people — a great number of whom now live outside of reserves — and non-Indigenous students with opportunities to learn via immersive education, beginning in our public school systems. This is necessary if we want to move forward in mutual understanding and resolution.

U of T is also now beginning to pair Indigenous studies education with departments and faculties like the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Law, and Dalla Lana School of Public Health. According to Professor Maracle, it is crucial for professionals to learn about, understand, and attempt to solve the domestic problems faced by Indigenous peoples within our country.

The TRC has called on universities to start developing partnerships with Indigenous communities. “I can see universities coming to [our communities] and not just providing a classroom for students to go [to universities],” Maracle said.

For Maracle, though there is already programming in these communities, the question becomes, “how can we as institutions help to accredit those programmings that are already existing?” Institutions like U of T must strengthen partnerships with Indigenous communities, especially given the barriers that exist for Indigenous students entering academic institutions.

“If there are people in the community that are getting accreditation,” says Maracle, “[then] at the very least they would have gotten some validation or accreditation for the work they are already doing in their own community.” Public institutions historically have not engaged Indigenous students as well as they have their non-Indigenous counterparts. We must make greater efforts towards recruiting Indigenous youths for postsecondary educational opportunities.

For many Indigenous people like Maracle, Canada is now closer than it has ever been. In her view, Canada’s acceptance of the TRC’s Calls to Action, and promise to follow up with further action — the ILA, for example — has set the tone for Canadians. “The acceptance of the TRC entirely changed the objectives of Canada,” she said. “It is now working toward changing the ongoing problems of colonialism by working together.”

“In the Indigenous sense you would really be helping if we could sit down and have a conversation about what we actually need.” Maracle concluded. “We need to communicate with Indigenous people [to see] what they need help with.”

After all, the key to the preservation of any language or culture is ensuring that dialects not only survive, but thrive. We must start to look at reconciliation efforts that do not result in the survival and continuation of Indigenous languages and cultures as little more than continued assimilation.

Conroy Gomes is a fourth-year Neuroscience and Biology student at New College.

Opinion: Mental health services for youth don’t need to be inaccessible

A growing body of research sheds light on solutions to unique obstacles faced by youth

Opinion: Mental health services for youth don’t need to be inaccessible

This past year alone marks the deaths by suicide of three students at the University of Toronto. Their aftermath opened a barrage of criticisms toward the administration for their lax services for at-risk youth. While alarm bells have been rung for increased mental health and substance use services across campus, systemic change has been slow to come.

Indeed, the issue of mental health accessibility for youth — on and off campus, throughout the province, and across the country — remains a pressing policy and health care concern affecting millions of Canadians.

Among the sobering statistics that shroud youth mental health are the following: some 12.6 per cent of people under 18 years of age in Canada experience mental health and substance use disorders, while Statistics Canada cites suicide as the second most common cause of death, after accidents, among youth aged 15 and over. Importantly, Indigenous youth are disproportionately affected by suicide and addiction, and little research thus far has focused on this issue.

Many youth facing mental health challenges avoid treatment

Who are ‘youth,’ anyway? The McCain Centre for Child, Youth & Family Mental Health at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) roughly categorizes those ages 12–25 within this demographic, though CAMH more broadly includes those up to 29 years old in their definition.

Unquestioningly, this demographic is particularly susceptible to various mental health challenges as they pass through the hoops of development: commencing and finishing a university or college degree or vocational program, navigating the ebbs and flows of intimate relationships, and searching for employment.

Despite numerous treatment options available for youth, many still go untreated. Why is this? The reasons are plentiful: youth’s preference for self-managing, societal stigma, lack of assessments and screening, and even system fragmentation. With these barriers in mind, how can Canada’s health care system improve and cater diligently and efficaciously to youth across the country? 

The solutions, too, are plentiful

When I asked Dr. Joanna Henderson, Director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth, and Family Mental Health at CAMH, and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at U of T, if mental health services for youth are adequate, or even optimal, her answer was a hard no.

Henderson has worked with many teams and professionals to increase mental health and substance use services for youth. She explained that good services involve “creating spaces for young people who can walk in without an appointment or referral, and access high quality mental health and substance use services as an entry point.”

Long wait times, however, are a ubiquitously understood concern across the health care continuum, leaving young people with few, and often inadequate, options to choose from. The trope of “service delayed, service denied” captures this concern. 

“When young people have to wait for service, several things happen,” Henderson said. “One, the symptoms they were originally presenting for become exacerbated, so they get worse. Two, the impact on their functioning can have significant long-term consequences. And three, the overall [health] outcomes are poorer.”

“From a system perspective, that means our delays have increased the cost of providing care to young people.”

In Canada alone, the economic burden of mental illness is high, with an estimated 51 billion dollars spent per year. This includes “health care costs, lost productivity, and a reduction of various quality-of-life health indicators.”

To be clear, this also means that young people requiring mental health and substance use support resort to emergency rooms where they may be hastily ushered in and out, without receiving thorough long-term care. 

So what do youth-friendly mental health and substance use services look like? Among the many salient features, they are inclusive, safe, confidential, bright, and comfortable. Equally as critical, however, is that they involve consulting with youth for their input. 

“How is it that the whole commercial for-profit industry figures out how to sell their product or their service?” Henderson asked. “You engage with and learn from consumers. We fail to do that in mental health and in health largely.” 

Solutions to increase accessibility of mental health services for youth

The research on this is clear. A cardinal rule for youth-friendly services involves youth actively engaging with the system — from policy development to the implementation of strategies and programs. 

We know that youth-friendly services can benefit immeasurably by having youth co-design these spaces, but we also know that to do so, current systems that feature the old-fashioned clinical model of care, whereby one presents a set of symptoms and is discreetly greeted, treated, and discharged, ought to be neatly folded and set aside for more modern and progressive models. 

An optimal system, therefore, requires a flexible model of care. For starters, it’s making programs visible to youth so that they know where they can go when they need help, and one they can choose to enter and leave as they wish, without the rigidity of a treatment timeline and discharge date.

This includes drop-in visits and telephone conversations, where hours of operation are accessible, such as during weekends and evenings when youth would not need to worry about missing school or work. Artistic and innovative approaches to treatment, emphasizing non-verbal methods of communication such as music and drama therapy, could also be more accessible to youth. 

Additionally, youth-friendly mental health and substance use services ought to be accessible in communities where public transit exists. Costs, too, must be fair and inexpensive, as Hawke and colleagues note in their recently published paper on this topic: “Youth who cannot afford services will not likely access them.” 

Inclusivity mandates changing outreach platforms and engaging with technology to relate to and connect with youth. Social media platforms are pertinent sites of connection, as are websites that are colourful, up-to-date, and practical.

Steering clear from “disease language,” Henderson remarks, can shift the conversation away from pathologizing and lead youth to feel genuinely heard and understood.

Given also the wide range of development during this period of one’s life, youth services ought to be comprehensive and individualistic. There is no one-size-fits-all model, and clumping youth together under a monolithic category fails to address the transient and not-so-transient challenges children and adults experience.   

The solutions to providing youth-friendly services are exhaustive, albeit refreshingly so. It’s good to know that we matter, but it’s perhaps more important to know that the system, warts and all, is gradually shifting to welcome youth input.

This can be achieved by hiring caregivers whom young people can bond and relate to, and expanding our very conceptions of mental health and the unique pins and needles experienced by every young person.


If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

“Wrong side of history”: U of T criticized for involvement in Hawaiian telescope project

U of T faculty, students in solidarity with Native Hawaiian protests to protect sacred site

“Wrong side of history”: U of T criticized for involvement in Hawaiian telescope project

Protests in Hawaii against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the Mauna Kea — a sacred mountain that Native Hawaiians, known as Kānaka Maoli, regard as their origin site — have made their way to U of T. The university is a member of the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), an organization that has funded the astronomy project.

U of T faculty and students criticized U of T’s involvement in the project, in solidarity with peaceful Kānaka Maoli protesters who have been occupying the site since construction began on July 15.

Astronomy’s rising star?

The TMT is a project over 10 years in the making, with the promise of enabling astronomers to look far into the past of stellar and galactic evolution. With an area nine times bigger than any existing visible-light telescope, the TMT is designed to identify images with unprecedented resolution, surpassing even the Hubble telescope.

The profound sensitivity of the TMT boasts the potential for observational data to answer questions about “first-light” objects, exoplanets, and black holes in the centre of galaxies.

This potential for furthering astronomy and astrophysics is what makes the TMT astronomy’s rising star.

Why is the TMT being protested?

In July 2009, the Board of Governors for the TMT chose the Mauna Kea as its location. Mauna Kea has long been an astronomical hotspot, serving as the location for 13 observatories. The TMT would be the 14th, standing as the biggest telescope on the mountain.

Mauna Kea is a sacred ancestral mountain, a place imbued with both natural and cultural resources. It is the location of many religious rituals conducted by the Kānaka Maoli, as well as a burial ground of sacred ancestors. Additionally, its ecological value is profound, housing esoteric ecosystems and providing water to the residents of Hawaii.

For these reasons, native kia’i (guardians) and kūpuna (elders) have resisted industrialization on Mauna Kea ever since the first telescope was built in 1968.

Subsequently, the TMT has attracted significant protests, serving as the Leviathan of telescopes. Dr. Uahikea Maile, Assistant Professor of Indigenous Politics at U of T, describes the TMT as a “unique beast” because of its size and location.

The project requires eight acres on the northern plateau of the mauna, which is currently untouched. Maile asserts that the corporation backing the TMT tempts the State of Hawaii into “valuing techno-scientific advances and alleged economic benefits over Native Hawaiian rights and the environment.”

Hence, ever since 2014, kia’i have attempted to halt the construction of the TMT by forming blockades at the base of the summit.

A brief space-time log of events

On July 10, Hawaiian Governor David Ige announced that construction of the TMT would begin on July 15, 2019. Five days later, hundreds of peaceful protestors stood together to form a blockade that would prevent construction crews from ascending Mauna Kea to begin constructing the TMT.

Located at an elevation of 6,000 feet, the blockade is logistically supported by the Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu, a place of refuge providing resources and infrastructure to sustain all those involved in the blockade, wrote Maile. All people at the pu‘uhonua have access to free housing, food, health care, child care, and transportation.

Maile, who is of Kānaka Maoli descent, spent two and a half weeks at the protests. He recounted that the kia’i were “constantly prepared for the risk of police force and violence.” On the second day of protests, Governor Ige deployed the National Guard, militarizing the once peaceful site of protest.

On July 17, police arrived at the scene carrying riot batons, tear gas, guns, and a Long Range Acoustic Device, according to Maile. The elder kūpuna, many of whom were in their 70s or 80s, formed the central blockade, while they requested the kia’i to stand at the sides of the road.

Thirty-eight people were arrested at the scene, most of whom were kūpuna, but after hours of negotiations “a deal was struck and all police left.”

Numerous sources maintain that U of T’s statement on the Thirty Meter Telescope (artist’s depiction pictured) are not reflective of the views of all faculty members and students.
Courtesy of TMT Observatory Corporation

University of Toronto responds

U of T, a member of ACURA, is involved in the TMT. ACURA has served an advisory role in the estimated $1.5 to $2 billion project. Its members and other Canadian astronomers are planned to receive access to 15 per cent of the telescope’s viewing time.

It is important to note that U of T is not directly invested in the TMT. Nonetheless, Professor Vivek Goel, a board member of ACURA and Vice-President, Research and Innovation, and Strategic Initiatives at U of T, published an official statement explaining that he has been “watching closely the recent events at the construction site.”

He continued by writing that U of T “does not condone the use of police force in furthering its research objectives,” and noted that the university’s commitment to truth and reconciliation impels it to consult with Indigenous communities.

Lack of consensus amongst faculty members

U of T’s official statement has received backlash from numerous sources who maintain that it is not reflective of the views of all faculty members and students.

For instance, Dr. Eve Tuck, an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Justice Education, has written three letters to U of T President Meric Gertler, criticizing the statement for not going far enough in taking action against the TMT.

In an email to The Varsity, Tuck wrote that while the university has no direct funding in the TMT, there are still ways to divest. “There is more than money that can and should be withdrawn in this situation, including support, endorsement, affiliation, reputational backing, approval, and advocacy for the project.”

She believes that it is imperative for U of T to prevent the TMT’s construction, and if it does not do so, it “is on the wrong side of history.”

Moreover, protesters of the TMT have found an unexpected ally in some astronomers who, perhaps counterintuitively, oppose the project. For instance, Dr. Hilding Neilson, an Assistant Professor at U of T’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, wrote that “the statement from the university doesn’t say a whole lot.”

He specifically questioned the statement’s assumption that astronomy has a “moral right” to the mountain because it is a scientific field, which supposedly seeks to benefit the accumulation of knowledge for all of humanity.

Power to graduate students

An open letter authored by astrophysics graduate students at the TMT’s partner institutions reinforced this opposition from U of T astronomy professors. The letter, published online, called on the astronomy community to “denounce the criminalization of the protectors on Maunakea” and to remove the military and police presence from the summit.

Two signatories, Melissa de los Reyes and Sal Wanying Fu, wrote to The Varsity that it is “imperative for the astronomy community to denounce [the arrests of kūpuna] and take a stand against the further use of violence in the name of science.”

Reyes is a second-year graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, while Fu is an incoming graduate student at UC Berkeley. Both are National Science Foundation graduate fellows.

The open letter was published despite the risk that it could potentially impact the signatories’ research careers. The signatories include graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and professors.

Signatories from U of T include professors Hilding Neilson and Renee Hlozek, Postdoctoral Fellow John Zanazzi, Sessional Instructor Dr. Kristin Cavoukian, PhD students Fergus Horrobin, Fang Xi Lin, Marine Lokken, Adiv Paradise, and Emily Tyhurst, and undergraduate students Yigit Ozcelik, Andrew Hardy, and Rica Cruz.

Jess Taylor, the Chair of CUPE 3902 and a writing instructor in the Engineering Communication Program at U of T, was also a signatory.

The signatories Reyes and Fu hope that the discussion prompted by the letter causes academic astronomers to “reckon with the ways in which social systems are inextricably linked with the way we do science.”

Neilson commended the bravery of its signatories, writing that “for students to come out and do this, potentially not only against their own research, but against their supervisors’ and departments’ requires standing up to power.”

Activism by undergraduate students

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and the Indigenous Studies Students’ Union (ISSU) also published a joint statement on August 29 condemning the construction of the TMT at Mauna Kea.

The UTSU represents full-time undergraduate students at the St. George campus, while the ISSU’s membership includes students who are enrolled in the Indigenous Studies program or are taking at least one Indigenous Studies course.

The unions called upon U of T to “cease construction” of the telescope and to relocate it to an “area where its construction would not infringe upon the sacred land of Indigenous peoples or damage land that is environmentally protected.”

Eclipsing Indigenous knowledge

It is important to recognize that the Kānaka Maoli protests are not against science. Rather, they are against a Western ideology of economic development that — in the name of science and objectivity ­­— has historically propagated mechanisms of colonization, slavery, and incarceration. Following centuries of colonial and postcolonial development, the scientific industry today undermines and maligns Indigenous knowledge systems — associating it with primitivity.

Meanwhile, Neilson draws attention to the value of Indigenous knowledge, stating that “a lot of the tensions between Hawaiians and TMT come from the fact that a lot of us are ignorant of Hawaiian knowledge, and what it means for Mauna Kea to be sacred.”

Ultimately it is not a question about science versus culture, but about whether development under the guise of science reinforces a certain hierarchy of culture. It is evident that there is a need for a scientific Big Bang, one where Indigenous cultures is no longer at the bottom of this hierarchy.

Editor’s Note (September 9, 3:26 pm): The article has been updated to reflect that ACURA has funded the TMT, according to a 2013 ACURA report, but does not own a 15 per cent stake. Canadian contributions collectively have a 15 per cent share in the TMT project.

Office of Indigenous Initiatives releases first progress report

Report tracks progress of reconciliation, university announces new initiatives

Office of Indigenous Initiatives releases first progress report

The University of Toronto’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives (OII) has released its first progress report on the university’s advancements toward reconciliation, focusing on areas including institutional support for the Indigenous community, Indigenous curricula, and the hiring of Indigenous faculty and staff.

The report is meant to follow the advancement of the recommendations made by U of T’s Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee in their final report back in January 2017. It contained 34 calls to action for U of T in six major areas, including in Indigenous spaces and institutional leadership.

According to the OII’s director, Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo, the university has made progress since the Truth and Reconciliation report was released, but he also acknowledged that there is still a long way to go. “Because this is a long-term process and commitment, we always knew things weren’t going to happen overnight. But we’re definitely moving in the right direction,” he told U of T News.

Hamilton-Diabo was previously the Director of Aboriginal Student Services at First Nations House, and was appointed as the first Director of Indigenous Initiatives by Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr and Vice-President, Human Resources & Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat shortly after the release of the Steering Committee’s report. The establishment of the OII followed shortly after, with a mandate to guide the U of T community in its efforts toward reconciliation, as well as advise on and oversee Indigenous initiatives across the university.

Among the innovations detailed in the progress report is the office of the Vice-President & Provost’s establishment of a university fund designated for the hiring of 20 new Indigenous faculty members and 20 new Indigenous staff members.

The university’s advancement division has also secured funding for institutions like the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, as well as new scholarships meant to provide financial assistance to Indigenous students, such as the Bennett Scholars program.

New Indigenous faculty members have been hired at all three of U of T’s campuses since the 2016–2017 school year.

The university’s different faculties have continued to develop Indigenous-related curriculum content. Of note, the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work recently launched a specialized Master in Social Work, Indigenous Trauma and Resiliency, and the university incorporated Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in 97 courses.

On the Indigenous student experience, the report states that recruiting and supporting Indigenous students is a priority for U of T. It highlighted events such as the Indigenous Studies Students’ Union (ISSU)’s annual Pow Wow, and the SOAR Indigenous Youth Gathering program, which the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education hosts over March break.

The report also notes the importance of promoting the creation and visibility of Indigenous spaces at U of T, which has been bolstered by the redesign of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute, as well as increased signage at the office of Indigenous Law Students’ Association at the Faculty of Law.

The progress report concludes with notes on challenges to reconciliation and next steps. Among the challenges noted by the OII is a lack of confidence in how to proceed, attributed to the general neglect of Canadian education on Indigenous history and culture, as well as limited time, resources, and persistently low levels of Indigenous faculty representation. According to the report, Indigenous consultation and participation, as well as the development of relationships, will be key in the progress of reconciliation at U of T.

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union hosts UTSC’s first Indigenous conference and traditional Pow Wow

“I’m really proud,” said UTSC Indigenous Elder Wendy Phillips

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union hosts UTSC’s first Indigenous conference and traditional Pow Wow

The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) made history this year by hosting UTSC’s first-ever traditional Pow Wow and Indigenous conference, Indig-U-Know. Stretching from March 9–10, the event brought students, staff, and faculty together to learn more about the Indigenous community through stories, knowledge, and wisdom. The conference also featured panels, keynote lectures, and workshops.

A Pow Wow is an Indigenous celebration of culture through activities such as dancing, singing, eating, and buying and selling crafts. Non-Indigenous people are also welcome to attend.

UTSC’s Pow Wow took place on March 10 in the newly-built Highland Hall Event Centre, where Indigenous adults and children gathered in their regalia, ranging from colourful and patterned attire, to those decorated with fur and feathers, or adorned with beads.

Booths lined the walls of the centre, selling crafts, trinkets, and garments. Spotted around the venue were also various pieces of luggage packed with regalia, as some of the participants had come from as far as Alberta.

In the middle of the room was the drum circle, where musicians sang and played a big drum to accompany dancers.

The first dance before the Grand Entry was the Grass Dance. According to the event’s Master of Ceremonies Bob Goulais, the Grass Dance “resembles the beautiful, flowing grass that grows on the Great Plains” and blesses the grounds to make them ready for the other dancers.

At 1:00 pm, the audience rose for the Grand Entry, when celebrants, dancers, and dignitaries paraded and officially began the Pow Wow.

Some members of the SCSU helped carry flags during the parade, including President Nicole Brayiannis, Vice-President Campus Life Ankit Bahl, and Vice-President Academics & University Affairs Ayaan Abdulle.

UTSC’s Indigenous Elder, Wendy Phillips, spoke at the podium. She acknowledged the SCSU and thanked them for their work with the Pow Wow, adding that she hoped this event could be another way to reconciliation.

“I would just like to say how proud I am of [the SCSU],” said Phillips. “It was [SCSU’s] vision of supporting Indigenous communities… and this was one of the events that the SCSU wished to do for our community. I’m really proud.”

Wisdom Tettey, Vice-President and Principal of UTSC, also addressed participants. “On behalf of our university, I would like to extend a warm welcome to all of you,” said Tettey. “[This event hopes] to foster true reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples in our social structures.”

Following that, the Welcome Song was played by Young Spirit, a drum group made up of both Canadian and American members. Earlier this year, Young Spirit performed a Cree round dance song on the Grammy Awards red carpet in Los Angeles.

SCSU representatives, Dean of Student Affairs Desmond Pouyat, and Tettey also joined the Welcome Song dance performance.

According to Head Dancer Chop Waindubence, “This isn’t a ceremony, this is celebrating life.”

Bahl and Abdulle also spoke on behalf of the SCSU. “Indig-U-Know represents the student union’s commitment to continue to honour the first people’s land,” said Bahl. “We hope to be able to continue this tradition as we continue to fight for access to education.”

Indig-U-Know was carried out by the SCSU with assistance from Phillips, Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff, faculty, students, and student disability groups.

Hundreds attend third annual Pow Wow at UTSG

Indigenous Studies Students’ Union celebration included food, dance, vendors

Hundreds attend third annual Pow Wow at UTSG

The Indigenous Studies Students’ Union (ISSU) held its third annual Pow Wow at the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport on March 16. It was a stunning celebration of Indigenous cultures. The event was brought back in 2017 after a 20-year hiatus and featured food, vendors, and traditional dances that attendees were encouraged to join. 

The event started with a Grand Entry, in which participants carried flags representing the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, as well as the flags of Canada, the United States, and U of T. This was followed by a march for military veterans, which any attending veterans were encouraged to participate in. 

In an interview with The Varsity, fourth-year Indigenous Studies and Equity Studies student Chantell Jackson emphasized the importance of these celebratory events. “Every year it needs to be done because it just brings knowledge of Indigenous culture and community to a place like U of T, where you don’t often see a lot of diversity,” Jackson said. “It definitely draws on the positive parts of Indigenous culture and community, and I think that’s what not only U of T students but the community as a whole need to learn.” 

Master of Ceremonies Bob Goulais stopped on two separate occasions to acknowledge the tragedy that occured in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, when 50 people were killed in shootings at two separate mosques in an apparent act of white supremacist terrorism. Goulais said that the Indigenous community stands in solidarity with the Muslim community during this time of mourning. 

Participating in Pow Wows is not something that Indigenous people were always able to do because of Canada’s settler-colonial system. In 1876, the Indian Act restricted participation in traditional Indigenous ceremonies and prevented Indigenous people from wearing traditional regalia. 

In 1921, Indian Affairs Minister Duncan Campbell Scott banned dancing on reserves, and Pow Wows only gained resurgence in North America starting in the 1960s with Indigenous rights movements. 

“It’s really important that we’re doing this, and covering all this music and dance,” Head Male Dancer and U of T professor Amos Key Jr. told The Varsity. “A lot of it just went underground; we didn’t do it publicly. That’s why I think it’s really important for us.”

“It’s healthy to move. It’s healthy for your heart and for your love of the heart; it’s all good,” Key told The Varsity. “I can’t imagine our people 100 years ago when we were dancing every night. That’s why they outlawed it, because the colonizers didn’t realize how important it was for health.” 

The recent Indian Day School settlement was brought up toward the end of the event to recognize Indigenous victories. In this settlement from the federal government, survivors of federally-run schools, many of which were established in northern Canada, received up to $200,000 as reparation for the abuse and neglect they experienced. 

Many of the attendees stressed the importance of these types of events in bringing awareness to Indigenous issues and bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. 

“I think these events are important because it shows that U of T cares about Indigenous students, and it shows Indigenous peoples that they can be a student here,” Head Female Dancer Myopin Cheechoo said in an interview with The Varsity. 

ISSU Membership Support Coordinator Ziigwen Mixemong spoke to The Varsity about the value that Indigenous celebrations have to her and the community as a whole. 

“To me, it’s just a place that I can really unapologetically [be] Indigenous at an institution such as U of T. A hundred years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to even walk on this campus, let alone be in full regalia and be at a Pow Wow… Being able to even just dance in it, even just organize it, is a tremendous honour that I have,” Mixemong said.

“I often think that people who come from mainstream society, who are settlers, often feel this tremendous amount of guilt over what has happened, and I always say that it’s not about the guilt. It’s about the fact that we have inherited this history, and what do we do with it now?”

What the Soar Youth Indigenous program adds to KPE

Annual program gives Indigenous youth a U of T experience

What the Soar Youth Indigenous program adds to KPE

To help increase enrolment and engagement with postsecondary education among Indigenous communities, the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education initiated the Soar Indigenous Youth Gathering program. Soar, which was launched in 2009, is a week-long program held during March break that exposes a group of Indigenous youth to university life.

The program requires that applicants be Indigenous youth aged 14–17, residents of Ontario, and committed to participating in the full week of events. Participants stay at the Chelsea Hotel and may receive up to $400 for travel expenses. Information regarding Soar is communicated through postcards sent out to Indigenous communities, while coordinators visit local Indigenous events and communities in addition to sending emails to the Toronto District School Board.

“Each year, we introduce high school students to Indigenous role models — faculty and students — so they can see themselves in a few years coming to higher education,” Susan Lee, who manages co-curricular diversity and equity programs within the faculty, said to U of T News in 2017.

The program is meant to increase awareness of postsecondary education opportunities among Indigenous youth, as well as engage them in leadership opportunities. “It’s just opening up the doors for them to say, ‘here’s an opportunity for you,’” Lee added.

Soar offers an exciting opportunity for Indigenous students to gain an idea of what university life has to offer, and to bring together Indigenous youth with similar desires. By playing games, touring campus, attending workshops, and learning about the school’s many different programs, Indigenous students in the Soar program are made to feel welcome at U of T.

Programs such as Soar provide Indigenous students with a fun and exciting March break while also showing them that U of T is excited to have them. 

The individual must commit to reconciliation

On the importance of cultural competency and the Indigenous value of connectedness

The individual must commit to reconciliation

What reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples might look like on campus, and how it might be achieved, is no settled question. Last fall, for example, a Varsity editorial demanded that U of T move past words and conversation and “implement tangible changes” to make good on the university’s commitment to reconciliation.

Earlier this year, the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council proposed to change the names of a residence building and Vic One stream named after Egerton Ryerson, who helped design the residential school system. Debate ensued about whether such a proposal was a first step toward meaningful reconciliation, a merely symbolic gesture, or an erasure of a dark history that we ought not to forget.

Whatever the case, it would be naïve to think that true reconciliation is just a matter of time. It is also insincere to put the onus of reconciliation onto governments even student governments — as others have suggested.
Amid all this debate, my view as a first-generation Canadian is that our attitude toward reconciliation should be inspired by the adage “be the change that you want to see in the world.” As individuals, we can and must be proactive and take the initiative to listen, learn, and understand the issues still confounding Canadian identity and society.

The sustained and pervasive societal ignorance toward Indigenous cultures and history remains one of the biggest challenges facing Canada’s attempt at reconciliation. It is what inspired John Croutch from U of T’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives to begin delivering day-long cultural competency training workshops to the university community.

In an interview with U of T News, Croutch noted that the purpose of the initiative is for each one of us to learn the truth about settler-Canada’s relationship to its Indigenous populations. In doing so, it hopes to reshape attitudes and institutions that continue to marginalize them. Opening ourselves to a diversity of perspectives, as any Torontonian knows, only enriches us as a society.

Croutch was alarmed by people’s limited understanding of Indigenous communities. In another interview with U of T’s Office of Indigenous Medical Education, he shared his experience with medical and health care professionals to show how this ignorance extends to even the so-called educated and skilled workers of society.

For this reason, it is important that the university support, encourage, and promote such cultural competency trainings. They are freely available to all members of the U of T community and can accommodate student groups. Through such training, individuals can take a proactive approach to learning about, listening to, and understanding Indigenous communities.

I can relate to this approach because of a personal experience that helped me appreciate just how delicate the issue of reconciliation is. Last summer, I had the privilege to attend a Master Naturalist course offered by Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. I learned about plants, insects, geology, ecology, and the natural history of Northern Ontario.

At the end of the course, representatives of the Fort Williams First Nation shared their perspectives and knowledge about these issues. Interested in learning from other cultures, I asked them to share something from their culture, which, if everyone were to learn, would help to make the world a better place.

They gave me an answer that I had never heard before: the importance of connections. They explained that Indigenous cultures are deeply connected and rooted to this land. For example, when you see a mining operation, it should not only be understood as a consumption of natural resources that may serve our materialistic needs, but as a severance of Indigenous peoples’ cultural connection with the land.

Upon completion of the course, our instructor, Bob Bowles, gave us a parting gift: a reusable straw to replace the single-use plastic straws that pollute the environment. I realize now that understanding the environment through the lens of connections is crucial. We all depend on each other and the land. Our survival, as people affected by environmental changes, is connected to the survival of Indigenous peoples and cultures.

For reconciliation on the individual level, whether as new or long-time Canadians, we should honour and recognize the thousands of years that this land has supported human life and cultural flourishing. Indigenous cultures are not just another piece of the greater mosaic of Canadian society and identity. Rather, they are more importantly the glue that connects all the other pieces to this land underneath our feet and from which we subsist. Canada will only truly flourish when we recognize this connection.

Oscar Starschild is a second-year Mathematics, Philosophy, and Computer Science student at Woodsworth College.