Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Consider This Opinion Piece: On Being Called to Action

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At the campus event “Reconciliation in Post-Secondary” panel on Oct 14, Charlene Bearhead reminded listeners that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools has not only put forward ‘recommendations’—a term more appropriate for a wine pairing, she quipped—but rather a series of emphatic calls to action. With only standing room available in the lecture hall, Dr. Eber Hampton reminded us to act with open minds, open hearts, open wills, and open spirits—and also to write letters to those in power reminding them of the tasks that the TRC has placed before them.

But what does this action look like at the University of Alberta? Dr. Cindy Blackstock pointed out in her blog entry that “[t]o meaningfully engage in reconciliation, universities must look beyond recruitment of Aboriginal faculty and students and the development of Aboriginal programs towards acknowledgment of the historic and contemporary colonial bones of the university itself.” We’re not talking, then, about mere inclusion of Indigenous peoples and ideas on the university’s unchanged terms. We’re talking about major shifts in university spaces, programs, and attitudes. Blackstock pointed out in her electrifying talk that if the University were to build spaces that are welcoming to Indigenous peoples, it would not have to worry about recruitment and retention of Indigenous students, staff, and faculty; they will come, and they will stay.

This work cannot be more pressing. While there are many individuals, some departments, and a few faculties who have been engaged in the work of transforming the University for decades, there is still a long way to go before Indigenous peoples and knowledges are at home in this institution. I have spoken in the past couple of weeks with two Indigenous undergraduate students who have recently contemplated leaving the U of A after comments from professors made them feel unwelcome in their respective classrooms. Thankfully, they are both still here, but hearing these stories from students should give us pause. We need to ask ourselves how many hundreds (if not thousands) of others have not made it through—if they made it to the University at all. As instructors, we have a responsibility to be very careful with our words--to consider critically the kinds of learning spaces that we are creating, and for whom.

So how do we shift this place, and not only in surface ways? The territory acknowledgement that Blackstock mentioned in her talk—for instance, in the form of a large sign proclaiming that the University of Alberta is located in Treaty 6 and Métis territory (and Blackfoot territory, too, depending on whom you ask)—is one fairly straightforward action to undertake. I was grateful to hear the U of A’s new president, David Turpin, acknowledge the Indigenous peoples of these lands at a recent event. While the Council on Aboriginal Initiatives endorsed a territory acknowledgement in 2012, it has yet to become common practice on this campus.

Sometimes, people worry that acknowledging territory is an inadequate and even a misleading gesture—and it would be, if nothing else were to change. As Aboriginal Student Council President Billy-Ray Belcourt said in class recently, “what does it mean for the University of Alberta to, rather ritually and symbolically, acknowledge its continued occupation of the unceded territory of the Papaschase Cree, while, at the same time, hinting at a less colonized tomorrow?" Imagine if someone moved into your house, but then broke the rental agreement and forced you and your children to live in a closet in the basement. Would their putting up a sign outside saying that this was, indeed, your house, really be meaningful while this oppressive situation persisted?

Indeed, a practice of acknowledging territory is insufficient while treaty rights to education, to health care, and to land are not respected; while Indigenous women, girls, Two Spirit, and trans people continue to face staggering systemic violence; while the impacts of the Indian Residential School system continue to manifest; while Indigenous peoples are vastly overrepresented in the foster care and correctional systems; while the University celebrates its origins but forgets the Papaschase Cree nation and Métis families whose land it has acquired; and while many of its classrooms feel unsafe, unwelcoming, and uninspiring for Indigenous students.

But I believe in the power of small actions. The 2011 Aboriginal Strategy document argues that in order to fulfill Henry Marshall Tory’s oft-quoted aim of “uplifting…the whole people,” “we must create campus communities where Alberta’s Aboriginal histories resonate in every corner, where barriers Aboriginal students face in pursuing their education are eliminated, and where Aboriginal thought and knowledge inform the finest scholarly works” (1). How does the University of Alberta community to take part in bringing this about? How can we persuade all units on campus to adopt the relevant Calls to Action—and to report regularly and publicly on their progress? I believe that if the U of A is reminded at every opportunity whose land this is, then its ethical obligation to transform becomes impossible to defer.

To learn more about the public lecture Reconciliation in Post-Secondary: Implementing the TRC Recommendations, please see the community news recap or watch the livestream video here. You're also invited to read the Consider This opinion piece "Reconciliation in Universities" by Dr. Cindy Blackstock.

Dr. Keavy Martin, Associate Professor, English and Film Studies (Faculty of Arts); Adjunct Professor, Native Studies

Dr. Martin is a member of both the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Native studies. Her research interests revolve around Indigenous literatures and literary theory, with a focus on Inuit literature and performance; Indigenous research methodologies; Indigenous languages; Indigenous literary nationalism and literary history; Aboriginal rights, treaties, and land claims; and the concept and practice of reconciliation. Some of her current students are conducting research on Indigenous narratives of sexuality; Cree-language literature; Indigenous-settler relationship and hospitality; and Indigenous detective fiction. She is especially pleased to work with students who are interested in the Indigenous research principles of relationship and reciprocity.


  1. To what end is the TRC committed? Why is "acknowledgment of the historic and contemporary colonial bones of the university itself." important? Or even for the University to "acknowledge its continued occupation of the unceded territory of the Papaschase Cree"? How will these "acknowledgements" improve liberty, equality and egality in North America?

    Migration of Paleo-Indians from Eurasia into North America is but one leg of Homo sapiens' migrant history since our common forebears left Africa. What is special about the migration of Eurasian Homo sapiens across the Bering Strait, or, for that matter, the second migration of European Homo sapiens to the Americas?

  2. That's new for me. Using evolutionary theory to justify colonial so clever. Darwin would be so proud!

  3. Dear Ms. Mistahaya,
    With respect and certainly without prejudice, I don't understand how my legitimate questions have been converted to categorical statements suggesting that "evolutionary theory" is being used "to justify colonial violence". In the interests of collegiality, academic scholarship and unbiased inquiry (not to mention freedom of expression) please help me understand your argument.


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