Opinion: Increase Indigenous awareness training in U of T’s faculty of law

Critiques of stereotyping reveal from gaps in Indigenous awareness training

Opinion: Increase Indigenous awareness training in U of T’s faculty of law

Last month, first-year U of T law students criticized a final assignment for using “racial stereotypes” of Indigenous peoples.

The assignment featured a hypothetical situation where Indigenous children were taken out of the care of parents with substance use disorder and placed in foster care with a non-Indigenous family. After two years, the father, who had overcome alcohol use disorder, requested to see the children. The students were asked to write a memo on the situation, and take into consideration a 2017 Ontario law that prioritizes the maintenance of familial and cultural ties for Indigenous children.

Edward Iacobucci, Dean of the U of T law school, responded with an apology a week later. “I apologize whole-heartedly for the offence this assignment has understandably caused, especially to our First Nations and Métis students” wrote Iacobucci. “The faculty will consider means that we can adopt going forward to seek to ensure that something like this does not happen again.”

Looking closer at the assignment and the criticisms that it evoked, the initial problem wasn’t that the assignment was inherently stereotypical but that it was presented with a general lack of Indigenous awareness. Moving forward from this incident, U of T must incorporate more Indigenous awareness training for faculty and students.

There have been varying responses to this incident, from initial student complaints to the dean’s apology. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, shared her view, saying that there was nothing wrong with the assignment at its “face value,” because it was based on the fact that more than half of the children in foster care are Indigenous.

However, others argue that there should have been more engagement with experts in Indigenous law beforehand in order to avoid engaging with “troubling stereotypes,” as Iacobucci called them.

Indigenous voices are important in these situations, however, respecting Indigenous responses to this incident doesn’t necessarily ensure that something like this won’t happen again. Instead, there must be a concentrated effort toward increasing the base of Indigenous knowledge and awareness in the curriculum. By doing so, U of T would demonstrate a dedicated effort not only in reforming its own curriculum, but also in training a future generation of students whose actions will continue to remedy the gaps in our legal systems.

In an interview with, Iehnhotonkwas Bonnie Jane Maracle, a learning strategist at U of T’s First Nations House, expressed that she agreed with Blackstock’s initial impression, seeing this assignment as something necessary to educate students on the historical and ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

“This is [a] fact… that’s the language of our lives, and if you’re going to be in law, you definitely have to be conditioned to what you’re going to be dealing with,” Maracle said.

However, as other students voiced in interviews with Law Times, the assignment came with a general lack of context, and should have considered the other harsher realities of the “whole story,” like “residential schools, the sixties scoop, [and] discrimination enabled by the Indian Act.”

Ironically, as Maracle also pointed out, the whole response to the article created an issue in itself, as the avoidance of issues related to Indig- enous peoples creates stereotypes.

In order to properly address reconciliation, we must train students, educators, and legal workers on the unique historical conditions which have shaped and reinforced the continued neglect of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The need for integration of Indigenous content in our curriculum is made evident in a 2015 report, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) implored the Federation of Law Societies of Canada to provide “appropriate cultural competency training,” highlighting the “history and legacy of residential schools,” “treaties and Indigenous rights, Indigenous law and Indigenous-Crown relations,” and “training in conflict resolution and anti-racism,” as areas of concern.

In British Columbia, all lawyers will be required to take a six-hour course covering these areas starting in 2021. All other Canadian provinces should make a similar effort in order to provide competency and awareness training to law students, and other faculties of study. U of T must join this effort, and increase its own Indigenous awareness training.

Maracle noted that the response to the assignment exemplified the continued stereotyping of Indigenous peoples as the result of a direct lack of implementation of the TRC recommendations.

Ironically, as Maracle also pointed out, the whole response to the article created an issue in itself, as the avoidance of issues related to Indigenous peoples creates stereotypes.

“All they could see,” Maracle said, “was the stereotypical aspect of it, not the fact that this was a learning experience. A lot of people are now aware and treading very lightly on what they see… It prevents people from actually looking closer. And especially lawyers, but you have a job to do, to look beyond that and at the facts.”

This assignment was an opportunity for law students to fully immerse themselves in a case that affects numerous Indigenous families each year in Canada. Rather than focusing on the reality that is the disproportionate amount of Indigenous children in the foster care system, reactions have centred on criticizing this assignment as stereotypical and offensive. This hypersensitive reaction distracts from the reality of this systemic inequality. While it is important to reflect upon the way we talk about Indigenous issues, we must not forget that these issues persist regardless of the way we phrase them.

Instead of being quick to label things as stereotypical — and consequently silence debate and discussion altogether — we must focus on reforming our institutions and curriculums so that there is an increased quality and quantity of Indigenous awareness training within our faculty and society.

Toryanse Blanchard is a second-year English, Environmental Biology, and Book and Media Studies student at New College.

U of T Professor George Elliott Clarke withdraws from Regina lecture amid controversy over relationship with convicted killer

Criticism directed at willingness to read poetry written by the perpetrator of an Indigenous woman’s fatal beating

U of T Professor George Elliott Clarke withdraws from Regina lecture amid controversy over relationship with convicted killer

Content warning: article contains mentions of sexual violence.

George Elliott Clarke, Professor of English at the University of Toronto, was at the centre of controversy last week, after public outcry saw him withdrawing from a lecture at the University of Regina (U of R). The backlash revolved around Clarke’s relationship with, and openness to, citing Stephen Brown’s poetry in the now cancelled lecture, which was titled “‘Truth and Reconciliation’ versus ‘the Murdered and Missing’: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets.”

Brown, who changed his name from Steven Kummerfield, was convicted for the 1995 murder of Pamela George, an Indigenous woman from Regina. Clarke has edited poems and books for Brown, and the two have a long-standing relationship.

“A terrible murder, a vicious crime”

Brown and Alex Ternowetsky beat George to death and abandoned her in a ditch just outside Regina. They were both initially charged with first degree murder, but that conviction was reduced to manslaughter. Although Brown was sentenced to serve six-and-a-half years in prison, he was released on parole in 2000, having been behind bars for only three years.

George’s murder trial in 1997 sparked outrage from groups representing women and the Indigenous community. They believe that Brown and Ternowetsky received unjustly lenient sentences because of their racial privilege and affluent background. This speaks to a larger systemic issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, which includes the targetting of economically vulnerable Indigenous sex workers like George. The judge had instructed the jury to consider George’s occupation as a sex worker in determining whether or not she had consented to sex.

Clarke says he learned about Brown’s past in September 2019 and characterized George’s fatal beating as “a terrible murder, a vicious crime” in an interview with The Varsity. This prompted him to wonder how a person goes from being a murderer to, in his opinion, “a talented poet.”

When Clarke was asked to give the 2020 Woodrow Lloyd Lecture at U of R, he claims that he considered using Brown’s work to analyze these kinds of situations, as well as “in terms of the absence or presence of commentary regarding violence, in particular against Indigenous women and girls.”

“It was never my intent… to celebrate his poetry, condone his crime, exonerate him of his crime. Not at all,” said Clarke.

A community still mourning

When critics learned of that Clarke might read some of Brown’s work, they were quick to call on U of R to cancel the lecture.

Heather Bear, Vice-Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said in a statement to CBC News that she is “disgusted, disheartened and hurt that university officials would consider promoting — even indirectly — this [killer’s] work or even to allow the potential of it to be read aloud publicly within the community that still mourns her death.”

Members of the U of R community were also concerned about the lecture, with one faculty member highlighting that the event may not be carried out in the spirit of reconciliation.

Krista Shore, daughter of Barabara Ann Shore, an Indigenous woman who was murdered in Regina one year after George, also spoke out against Clarke’s lecture. The ambiguity of whether Brown’s poetry would be read was a source of stress for families like hers with direct ties to violence against Indigenous women.

“Why play mind games with people? We’re trying to heal here in Treaty 4 territory… and I don’t think it’s necessary that we bring a killer’s name into light,” she said.

A day before withdrawing from the lecture, Clarke issued an apology to George’s family and stated definitively that he would not read any of Brown’s work.

University response

In the face of public scrutiny, U of R’s Faculty of Arts refused to rescind its invitation to Clarke. In its statement, it claimed that doing so would be an example of censorship, which “goes against everything a university should stand for.”

However, after Clarke’s withdrawal, the university acknowledged that the planned event “brought back painful memories for many in relation to the 1995 killing of Pamela George.”

U of R plans to conduct consultations with Indigenous leaders and community members “to hear people’s concerns and perhaps begin a healing process.”

U of T declined The Varsity’s request for comment.

Claims of cancel culture

At the time, Clarke did not know if he would use Brown’s work in his lecture because he hadn’t finished researching the contents of the talk. However, he maintains that it is his right to “quote whatever [he thinks] is cogent for the sake of [his] argument.” In an interview with The Varsity, Clarke expressed that he felt that his fundamental charter rights of freedom of expression were under attack due to a “campaign of harassment and intimidation.”

He felt that some individuals at U of R had jumped to conclusions about the points he would make and so worked to ensure it would be “impossible for [him] to give this lecture.”

“They are the enemies of free speech, they are the enemies of free thought, they are the enemies of free expression. And the only reason why I cancelled the lecture was because I was being cast as being opposed to anybody receiving due justice for horrendous crimes against Indigenous people.”

However, he later elaborated that another reason for his withdrawal was out of consideration for “Ms. George, her family, survivors, [and] the wider Indigenous community who did not understand and never were told about the campaign of harassment that I had to endure for two months.”

He went on to say that as someone who is partly Indigenous himself, he has never condoned racist violence — and that his lecture would have been supportive of Indigenous empowerment.

Clarke stands by his appreciation of Brown’s work.

“Knowing about his criminal past makes that more difficult now, but I can’t change my mind about what I like about his work. And I don’t think that’s an impossible statement to make, while still saying that I find violence against Indigenous people to be a crime against humanity.”

Where to find sexual violence and harassment support at U of T:

A list of safety resources is available at safety.utoronto.ca

The tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre’s website is www.svpscentre.utoronto.ca

Individuals can visit the Centre’s website for more information, contact details, and hours of operation. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266.


U of T downtown Toronto campus: Gerstein Library, suite B139

U of T Mississauga: Davis Building, room 3094G

U of T Scarborough: Environmental Science and Chemistry Building, EV141

Those who have experienced sexual violence can also call Campus Police to make a report at 416-978-2222 (St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (U of T Mississauga)

After-hours support is also available at:

Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre (416-323-6040)

Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre (416-495-2400)

Trillium Hospital Sexual Assault Care Centre (905-848-7100)

Faculty of Law dean apologizes for assignment that featured Indigenous stereotypes

Dean maintains that this is not indicative of U of T shying away from difficult issues

Faculty of Law dean apologizes for assignment that featured Indigenous stereotypes

The Dean of the U of T Faculty of Law, Edward Iacobucci, emailed an apology to all first-year law students in December after an assignment garnered backlash from law students for using racial stereotypes of Indigenous people. A Globe and Mail article drew attention to the story, questioning whether this was discouraging students’ real-world preparation skills.

The assignment asked students to write a legal memo about the effects that the new Child, Youth and Family Services Act would have on a hypothetical case, which involved Indigenous children in foster care, whose parents were experiencing alcohol and substance use disorders.

A recurring racial stereotype of Indigenous peoples is that they are genetically predisposed to alcohol and substance use disorders. However, there is no scientific evidence for this claim. For Indigenous communities, alcohol and substance use disorders are linked to historical social conditions, such as the trauma inflicted by colonial policies like residential schools.

The case summary states that the father had recovered and wanted to continue a relationship with his children against the wishes of the foster parents, a non-Indigenous couple who wished to end all contact between the children and their father and pursue adoption.

Along with his apology, Iacobucci has provided an alternative assignment and promised to consult with the law school’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee in the hopes of avoiding similar situations in the future.

In the Globe and Mail article, Cindy Blackstock, a McGill University professor of social work and member of the Gitksan First Nation, questioned whether students would have the capacity to take on these cases after graduation if they hadn’t already faced them in school.

Blackstock noted that the “reality is that First Nations kids are overrepresented among children in child welfare.” She further contextualized the issue as linked to “poverty, poor housing and substance misuse linked to multigenerational trauma arising from colonialism writ large and residential schools in particular.”

“Striving to be respectful in a discussion is not at all equivalent to striving to avoid discussion,” Iacobucci wrote to The Varsity. “There is no legal issue in the ‘real world’ that we would be unwilling to teach our students.”

Iacobucci further emphasized that these discussions need to occur in the proper contexts.

The President of U of T’s Students’ Law Society, Morgan Watkins, also maintained that the law school is not shying away from any tough issues. “The school hosts discussions on some very difficult cases that have involved Indigenous people… that have been in the media,” Watkins said, citing talks which concerned the cases of Colten Boushie and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

However, the assignment purely concerned instructing students on writing legal memos; the class did not delve into the history of Indigenous people in Canada or child welfare law. For this reason, Watkins believes that the assignment “really flattens and glosses over any of the context.”

Watkins explained that it’s important to ensure that students have the right “repertoire of knowledge” before giving an assignment such as this one. Watkins does not claim to speak for Indigenous students, or the student body in general, but was present for discussions surrounding the assignment.

Leslie Anne St. Amour, an Algonquin law student from U of T’s class of 2020, wrote to Law Times that there are alternative ways to introduce Indigenous law to students.

St. Amour elaborated that, “The law school has a Manager of Indigenous Initiatives who could have been consulted in the writing of the assignment in order to prevent the display of stereotypes with no context that students received.”

The Breakdown: Victoria College renames “Ryerson Stream” to “Education Stream”

Changes made following criticisms over Ryerson’s involvement in the residential school system

The Breakdown: Victoria College renames “Ryerson Stream” to “Education Stream”

The Vic One Education Stream was, until 2019, named after Egerton Ryerson. It was changed last summer after Victoria College students protested the name due to Ryerson’s involvement in the creation of the residential school system.

Ryerson, a prominent nineteenth-century Methodist minister, had been honoured by Victoria College for his role in establishing the college and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, as well as a free and compulsory public education system in Canada.

Ryerson also created blueprints for the residential school system, which forcefully relocated an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children between 1880 and 1996, with the purpose of assimilating them into Euro-Canadian culture.

Students were isolated from their culture and community, and many experienced physical and sexual abuse. As a result, intergenerational trauma continues to negatively and severely impact Indigenous communities. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that this policy amounted to “cultural genocide.”

This legacy is what inspired last year’s Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) to call on Victoria University’s Board of Regents to rename the Ryerson Stream. Its report on the matter stated that, “The man [Ryerson] was has no place being celebrated in this age of truth and reconciliation.”

The decision to rename passed with little fanfare by the board before the beginning of the academic year.

Why rename?

Ira Wells, Victoria College’s Academic Programs Director, wrote to The Varsity about renaming, noting that staff at Victoria had been “considering the appropriateness of the name of the Vic One Ryerson stream for some time,” and that they welcomed VUSAC’s report. He expressed that the renaming was “one part of a larger conversation that will continue for some time” between Indigenous communities and Victoria University.

Vibhuti Kacholia, Vice-President External of VUSAC, echoed this sentiment, saying that the union is looking into “other initiatives that we can put into play that are [going to] make Victoria University a better space for Indigenous people.”

Kacholia ultimately thinks renaming is important because “language is very powerful in the way that we not only have our institutions here but… students who are coming into our campus and their impressions of it and their feeling of comfort and home… are tied to the language that we use here.”

Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo, Special Advisor to the President of Victoria University on Indigenous issues and a member of the Kahnawà:ke community, said that these discussions serve to “[get] people thinking about the [issues around reconciliation].”

“This is not about blame anymore… There’s no one here alive who [is] part of [that history], but… they’re part of this institution. They’re part of the structure. And so it’s to say, ‘okay, we’re here today as this group. How do we recognize what’s happened, and then how do we move to… open up the spaces?’”

Hamilton-Diabo called the relationship between Ryerson and Indigenous peoples “complicated.”

Ryerson’s recommendations of segregated, religious, and industry-based boarding schools for Indigenous populations did, in large part, shape the residential school system. However, he also spent some time with the Ojibwa people at Credit River as a minister, where he befriended Kahkewaquonaby, a chief of the Credit River Mississaugas otherwise known as Peter Jones. Jones also supported a schooling system similar to the one that Ryerson advocated for, though one that was on “native… controlled terms,” according to Hamilton-Diabo.

He argued that at times, historical figures are thought of as “heroes and villains,” which reduces the complexity of historical relations. Renamings, he thinks, should not be done automatically, but should be undertaken through consultation with and for the benefit of Indigenous communities.

Ryerson’s support for the residential school system was not the only reason for the switch. Wells wrote that his name had been problematic during recruitment events, like the Ontario Universities Fair, since prospective students would mistakenly assume that the stream was affiliated with Ryerson University.

Why “Education Stream”?

According to Wells, the name “Education Stream” was chosen because it “most closely captures the academic purpose of the stream.”

This choice is contrary to the original name suggestion provided by VUSAC’s report.

VUSAC hoped to name the stream after Cindy Blackstock, a notable Indigenous and children’s rights activist who earned her doctorate at U of T, and has been described by The Globe and Mail as “Canada’s ‘relentless moral voice’ for First Nations equality.” Excluding the Education Stream, five of seven Vic One streams are named after white men, with no racialized or Indigenous members.

Though the name was potentially a placeholder at the beginning of the year, pending further discussions with the board, Alexa Ballis, President of VUSAC, wrote to The Varsity that the college has no intention of changing the stream name from “Education.”

Kacholia noted that VUSAC was not made aware of the decision to rename the stream, and continued by saying that “[the board] would have loved to be consulted in that process.”

Criticisms surrounding the renaming

Recent scrutiny over statues, institutions, and plaques honouring contentious historical figures garnered some pushback. Critics say that renamings constitute “historical revisionism,” which oversimplifies the complicated morality of Canada’s historical figures.

Kacholia said that VUSAC has “definitely [seen] a critique [that the renaming is] somewhat erasing history and embracing the legacy that Ryerson has here,” but remarked that “Ryerson is not forgotten in… the Vic One stream.”

Ballis hopes to add a description of Ryerson’s legacy on the Vic One website, and ensure that there are discussions in the Education Stream’s classroom surrounding its previous namesake.

An explanation about the stream name is not present on Victoria College’s website as of time of publication, and VUSAC does not yet know if these discussions have been implemented for this year’s cohort.

Moving forward

Kacholia stressed that VUSAC sees the renaming as a starting point for reconciliation. According to her, the union hopes to return to the report and avoid putting “the settler narrative onto whatever we think is best for the university because as settlers, we don’t really know what that is.”

A main priority going forward will be on consultations with Indigenous groups and the general student population through a consultation form. The consultation form has seen 187 responses, according to Ballis, who also provided The Varsity with some sample responses, which have been supportive of VUSAC’s report.

Kacholia said that she’d like to bring an updated report to the Board of Regents by the end of the year.

Reflecting on reconciliation efforts at U of T, Hamilton-Diabo said that he has seen improvements in relations with Indigenous communities. He added that, “It’s just become a wider discussion… [people] are now paying attention to it and wanting to engage in figuring [out] how to do this.”

“Reconciliation’s not a feel-good project. It’s not meant to make people feel good,” Hamilton-Diabo said. “It’s actually about understanding the stories and how Indigenous people… have come to a particular place collectively.”

Indigenous-led U of T lab releases app for reporting toxic pollutants in ‘Chemical Valley’

App could help community members of Aamjiwnaag First Nation

Indigenous-led U of T lab releases app for reporting toxic pollutants in ‘Chemical Valley’

A maze of petrochemical plants is squeezed into a 100-block space in the southern outskirts of Sarnia, Ontario. Marked by a distinct smell of rotting eggs, gasoline, and melting asphalt, this area, dubbed the ‘Chemical Valley,’ houses more than 60 refineries that produce plastics, gasoline, synthetic rubber, and other products.

The industrial area — which constitutes 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry — was built around the reserve on which Aamjiwnaang First Nation members reside. Today, around 850 people live on the reserve, which was created after their traditional territory was ceded to European settlers over many decades. According to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization, the air surrounding the reservation has been the most polluted in the country.

As long as the land remains enclosed by Chemical Valley, there are no means by which the Indigenous communities living on that land can find reprieve from the constant toxicity that surrounds them.

University of Toronto lab offers a potential solution

The Technoscience Research Team (TRU), has taken a meaningful step toward a solution. Researchers at this Indigenous-led lab at U of T launched a Pollution Reporter app, which allows members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation to report the pollutants in and around their land, and how they are affected by them.

The TRU is a cross-faculty research unit located at the Faculty of Information and jointly supported by the Faculty of Arts & Science, following its establishment at the Women and Gender Studies Institute. It draws together social justice approaches to science, and technology studies from across the university.

“Traditionally, Indigenous communities are seen as objects of research, but our lab is dedicated to flipping the tables on that,” said Dr. Michele Murphy, the TRU’s director and a professor at the Women and Gender Studies Institute, in an interview with The Varsity.

“We are a group of Indigenous researchers studying how colonialism works when it comes to oil refineries, environmental regulation, and so on. That’s our work,” she explained.

TRU’s research focuses on the Imperial Oil Refinery in Chemical Valley, which is the largest and oldest polluter in the area. Other refineries in the area also produce high quantities of pollutants, with up to 50–60 times the amount of harmful pollutants such as sulfur dioxide or benzene, compared to similar refineries across the valley’s river in the United States.

How the app works

The TRU’s Pollution Reporter App offers an accessible way for community members and the public to make reports about pollution. These reports can alert the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks of pollution incidents, spills, leaks, and flares.

According to Vanessa Gray, one of the developers of the app, the current system in place to report the impact of a spill or pollutant is by calling the Spills Action Centre, which is located in Toronto. Callers would be asked about what they were doing during the incident, the direction of the wind during the incident, and other questions that are often difficult to answer.

Gray mentioned that the app allows users to fill those categories out themselves, along with other categories, such as where they might be feeling the effects of those chemicals by looking at different icons. Chemicals from Imperial Oil Refinery are also searchable, which enables community members to get answers much quicker.

App also provides health information regarding pollutants

The app also enables users to search for information about the area, according to the related symptoms, health hazards, or chemicals present. Users can access pollution emissions data with research about known health hazards.

The app works by linking publicly-available data on refinery emissions from the federal government’s National Pollutant Release Inventory to known health hazards, based on peer-reviewed medical literature.

A main advantage of the app is that it translates chemical jargon for community members to understand, which could help raise awareness about the failing health of their land, waters, and community.

Rsearchers at the TRU hope that the Pollution Reporter App can amplify the ability of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s voice to be heard.

Disclosure: Aanya Bahl is the Mental Wellness Commissioner on the University College Literary and Athletic Society.

CREATing a new approach to mental health services in the Arctic

Project CREATeS tackles mental health concerns facing Indigenous youth

CREATing a new approach to mental health services in the Arctic

Content warning: Discussions of suicide

A recent initiative named Project CREATeS, which stands for “Circumpolar Resilience Engagement and Action Through Story,” has been launched to involve Northern Indigenous youth in suicide prevention efforts. This helps mental health specialists juggle the difficult balancing act of implementing comprehensive solutions while also being cognizant of differing needs from different communities.

Rates of death by suicide in the Inuit communities of Nunatsiavut, Nunavik, Nunavut, and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region — particularly among youth —  are between five and 25 times that of Canada’s non-Indigenous population.

The scope of the epidemic certainly calls for widespread action, but launching a new large-scale suicide prevention initiative runs the risk of worsening the problem.

For generations, health care efforts in Indigenous communities have tried to fit the wide diversity of the population into one-size-fits-all solutions. In the Arctic Circle, these methods were imported directly from southern Canada, and did not utilize existing community supports and cultural practices.

A new initiative for Indigenous youth

Dr. Allison Crawford, a professor at U of T’s Department of Psychiatry and The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and the Scientific Project CREATeS Lead, spoke with The Varsity about the initiative.

During a recent meeting at the Arctic Council, an international organization made up of countries and Indigenous nations that occupy territory in the Arctic Circle, Crawford’s team brought together Indigenous youth for a series of writing and storytelling workshops in order to connect them with peers who faced similar experiences.

At the end of these workshops, participants from all six permanent member countries of the Arctic Council, chosen by their respective communities, turned their own stories about their Indigenous identities and experiences with mental health into short films. These films will be shown to the council to advise future mental health initiatives.

Many participants have expressed that the opportunity to tell their stories, in and of itself, has been very useful to their own mental health. In addition, the workshops have brought them together into an invaluable international community.

“Not all Indigenous people feel like a part of their community. And when you don’t have your community, you still have the modern society, but you still aren’t a part of it, because you’re an Indigenous person,” said Juhán Nikolaus Wuolab Wollberg of the Saami Youth Council, in a documentary about the project.

Now, Wollberg is connected to dozens of peers who share that exact experience.

But, for all the project’s successful outcomes, Crawford said that her team’s efforts cannot end there. “[Just] watching stories can be very voyeuristic… Stories are not an endgame in and of themselves. That’s my biggest learning [from the project].”

Instead, participants have been brought back to present the project’s results to the Arctic Council, who funded the project — not only to help the Council develop solutions that build on those results, but to train the new generation of youth to become advocates for their own mental health.

Crawford is looking into running programs that facilitate digital storytelling along the lines of Project CREATeS as mental health initiatives in themselves. In addition, she’s hoping to send the films the participants created back to their respective communities in order to start up community discussions about mental health and suicide prevention.

An important achievement that this project could entail is sparking intergenerational conversations about mental health. It’s also important to remember that the suicide crisis is not happening in a void, as Crawford noted.

“I think [the suicide crisis] has a lot to do with the process of colonization, of being coerced into settlement, of loss of livelihood, loss of culture, [and] some other historical traumas like residential schools, loss of language,” she said. “All of those things, I think, created the conditions that led to those rates, and so what that means is that the solutions need to take that into account.”

“Taking medication for depression is not going to undo all that stress.”

A number of the youth, through their stories, talked about how empowering it is for them to reconnect with their communities’ traditions.

If this project helps a community open up discussions about how to preserve generations of traditional knowledge and resources, it might help a new generation of Northern Indigenous youth find the support and connections they need.

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.

A closer look at U of T’s policy on the repatriation of Indigenous human remains

Reviewing the history, policy of returning Indigenous belongings

A closer look at U of T’s policy on the repatriation of Indigenous human remains

According to a 2017 Aboriginal Peoples Television Network investigation, U of T is in possession of bone fragments belonging to 550 Indigenous people. These remains are being held in museums across the world in addition to here at U of T. Recently, the Liberal Party platform promised to work with Indigenous peoples in order to create a framework for returning stolen artifacts and ancestral remains to their communities — calling into question how U of T may operate on repatriation moving forward.

U of T itself occupies land historically belonging to the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River, territory subject to the Dish With One Spoon treaty, which was a treaty between the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee to share the land.

The excavation of human remains was unregulated in Ontario until 1975. In the decades prior, numerous site excavations, including those of human burial grounds, resulted in U of T’s Department of Anthropology becoming the repository of Indigenous, as well as European settler, skeletal remains.

In 1999, the Department of Anthropology released its policy on repatriation, which underscored the need to treat human remains with respect, vowed cooperation with the involved parties in their repatriation efforts, and outlined the process by which human remains and artifacts can be returned.

This process includes a review by “a committee consisting of a minimum of two representatives from the Department of Anthropology and a representative of First Nations communities” in order to ensure the request is genuine and there are no competing claims. The committee’s report is then forwarded to the chair of the department for approval.

In November 2018, Rainy Rivers First Nation repatriated over 40 of their ancestors’ remains and 5,000 artifacts that had been taken and stored at the Royal Ontario Museum.

According to Chief Robin McGinnis, the repatriation process was lengthy because Rainy Rivers First Nations wanted to catalogue all items prior to their return. However, McGinnis told The Varsity that when the “funeral ceremonies [took place] and they get put in their final resting place… where they belonged… there’s a big sense of relief now.”

Kayleigh Speirs is the administration manager at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre and worked alongside Rainy Rivers First Nations during the repatriation process. Both Speirs and McGinnis agree that Indigenous peoples should lead repatriation decision-making and that more effort needs to be made by institutions to inform communities when they are in possession of their ancestral remains and artefacts. Speirs said this burden should not be left on the communities.

In 2013, over 1,700 Huron-Wendat Nation ancestral remains were reburied after a lawyer for the nation at the time, David Donnelly, happened upon the information that they had been stored in the basement of Sidney Smith Hall.

The Department of Anthropology then began collaborating with the Huron-Wendat Nation to analyze the ancestral remains in order to gather information about the lives of the deceased prior to their reburial.

U of T’s repatriation policy reserves the right for the department “to conduct a thorough inventory and scholarly documentation… for the purposes of scientific inquiry and heritage preservation” before the release of any objects or remains.

As far as performing research on Indigenous remains, Donnelly believes that it is only acceptable when consent is received from the descendants, as was the case with the Huron-Wendat repatriation. Otherwise, the university is working with stolen property, Donnelly said.

With regard to a national framework on repatriation promised by the Liberal government, Donnelly believes funding for Indigenous groups to access lawyers and experts is imperative. Donnelly explained “for any First Nation to engage with an academic institution or a government around a problem not of their making, if you don’t provide them funding so they can hire experts, you’re really robbing them a second time.”

In response to questions as to whether the university would review its policy in light of the Liberal Party’s promises for a national repatriation framework, a spokesperson for the university wrote in an email to The Varsity that “The University feels strongly about the responsibility to ensure repatriation is conducted in a sensitive manner in close collaboration with Indigenous groups.” The spokesperson explained that “the University periodically reviews its policies and guidelines.”

They also noted that “formal requests for repatriation may come from family members or their descendants, or from recognized Indigenous groups.”

UTSG: Roundtable: Land and Indigenous Leadership

Join us in welcoming Filiberto Penados, Salina Suri and Amber James to our roundtable discussion on Land and Indigenous Leadership.

Attendance is free and refreshments will be served. Ramp and elevator access along North side of the building.

The Fall Forum on Indigenous-Settler Relations brings together:
• Local Indigenous knowledge-bearers
• University of Toronto students who have completed Queen Elizabeth Scholarship internships
on Indigenous-Settler Relations in Australia, New Zealand or Belize or are in the midst of
other research on Indigenous issues
• Interested members of the community to discuss issues related to the development of right
relations between Indigenous and settler communities.

Our Guest: Dr. Filiberto Penados, from the village of San Jose Succotz, Cayo, Belize, is an internationally recognized
Indigenous Studies and education scholar and community activist. Holding a Ph.D. in education studies from
the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, he is the founder of the Tumul K’in Centre of Learning, a Belizean
non-profit agency that promotes the development of intercultural education and the integration of Indigenous
knowledge into the curriculum.