The theme of Aboriginal Peoples Week at Memorial this year was Building Reconciliation, with great emphasis placed on the role of education.
I am a first generation “townie,” so Memorial is a very familiar place to me — according to Google I grew up 260 metres from campus. It’s where I hung out when I pipped off in high school, and it’s the home of my undergrad and graduate studies.
However, as a Newfoundland Mi’kmaw woman, it is a space that has made me unfamiliar.
As such, I can only speak as a mixed urban Newfoundland Mi’kmaw woman who has followed a specific academic path.
Growing up with the university practically on your front lawn means there is no experience of transition or the associated barriers and difficulties.
I don’t “look Indian,” I have never been denied housing and I’ve known for years that the public transit system will never make sense.
“[Being] ensconced in the great Newfoundland-settler narrative meant my Mi’kmaw ancestry was a sort of context-less ghost.”
I cannot comment on how Memorial performs in terms of ethics, partnership and engagement when working with Indigenous groups. The matter of Indigenous and the academy is complex, with many dimensions. My story is just one side of a multifaceted issue.
“Newfoundland culture” has never felt like my experience of Newfoundland. Growing up in St. John’s, ensconced in the great Newfoundland-settler narrative, meant my Mi’kmaw ancestry was a sort of context-less ghost. Erasure through assimilation had been successful.
A disconnect of experience and knowing was my motivation to pursue an Aboriginal studies minor when I made it to Memorial.
Going through the public school system, the only thing I learned about the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq was the mercenary myth.
Naively, I thought I might learn a bit about our culture and history at Memorial. My great educational experience was found in our pervasive absence and the issue of what I could not learn, meaning, this negative space made visible how the institution functioned to remove Mi’kmaq Peoples from the well-crafted Newfoundland narrative it supports.
The minor program, which is now a certificate, was a farce. I could write pages about that negative experience. Never mind the complete lack of Indigenous instructors, theory, or methodology — I was unable to take courses with content specific to Newfoundland and Labrador Mi’kmaq, Innu, or Inuit.
The courses I did take were static, outdated and colonial. They did not reflect the contemporary reality of Indigenous Peoples across Canada. For four years I planned to take a Mi’kmaq language course, but it was never offered despite being listed as an active course.
Change has come
In the time between my degrees, Memorial has definitely made a few steps forward.
Aboriginal Peoples Week has seen its second year. Land acknowledgements are finally happening, although not ubiquitously.
The Native Liaison Office (NLO) has morphed into the Aboriginal Resource Office (ARO). As an undergrad, I knew the NLO was there, but I didn’t have any liaising needs so we never crossed paths.
I may have blinked and missed it, but the NLO was not active and community building the way the ARO is.
“There are no strong visual signifiers indicating that Memorial is an institution operating on ancestral homelands.”
The ARO has increased the visibility of the Indigenous student presence. However, consideration of this visibility exposes an issue: if our physical bodies are not present, then we cease to be present.
There are no strong visual signifiers indicating that Memorial is an institution operating on the ancestral homeland of the Beothuk, Mi’kmaq, Innu, and Inuit.
Reconciliation starts here
A simple but effective step was executed during Aboriginal Peoples Week this past spring.
The ARO made stickers that said, “First Nations, Metis and Inuit Peoples FNMI RECONCILIATION STARTS HERE.” We are now equipped with a basic tool to help identify spaces of reconciliation and allyship.
Allies are important. Indigenous Peoples cannot be the sole facilitators of reconciliation. By placing one of these stickers on a door, faculty members can readily identify themselves, and we can start building networks.
There has been talk of a plan for something much bigger, specifically a dedicated space in a new building. However, a project of that magnitude requires a lot of dollars and we all know that these are lean times.
In the interim, Memorial must provide the ARO with the space and resources to create something permanent and visible.
An excellent location is the blank wall in the rose garden between the School of Music, Science building and the Henrietta Harvey building that used to have a large-scale mural on it.
Small but meaningful steps
Overall, most of these things are small steps, but they are more than mere tokens.
There is a hall on the fourth floor of the Science building that I regularly walk through on my way to class that has a large map of language families on it.
For the Island of Newfoundland, it just says “Beothuk.” I love old and outdated maps, but this one drives a point home. The map and the building the map is in date to the early 1960s, whereas the last fluent speaker of Newfoundland Mi’kmaq died in 1979 in Conne River, N.L.
Language makes up a number of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action.
Presently, I am going through the the Qalipu Band appeal process and recently received a breakdown of my assessment. While it wasn’t the point I needed, the Aboriginal studies minor was worth zero points. Taking the Mi’kmaq language course would have made it count.
“[Memorial] is an active participant in the creation and maintenance of the dominant settler-colonial story.”
The presence and impact Memorial University has on this province is ineffable. This institution has educated so many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, including the majority of public school teachers.
It has shaped how the province is studied and preserved. It is an active participant in the creation and maintenance of the dominant settler-colonial story.
Memorial has been an implicit participant in the colonization of this land’s respective Indigenous groups. In time, Memorial must correct this and become a driving force to effect change in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Challenging the collective narrative
There is a lot of work to be done, and the process will demand resources.
Building reconciliation through education won’t happen overnight, or even in 10 years. Change must be enacted on every level; Indigenous exclusion from the academy is pervasive and systematic.
This process will challenge people, and it will inevitably face pushback because this will challenge not only a university, but an entire province and its collective narrative.
It is time for drastic change.