October 1, 2016

Open letter asks University for new Indigenous language course

Faculty, students and staff request that Queen’s honour its Indigenous roots

The open letter can be read and signed at the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo

A group of Queen’s staff, faculty and students are circulating a letter on campus to request that Queen’s introduce a new Indigenous language course to honour the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe lands that Queen’s sits on.

The open letter, addressed to Principal Daniel Woolf, Provost Alan Harrison and Chair of the Board of Trustees Barbara Palk, proposes that Queen’s introduce a new language credit in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway) while requesting that the University continue to offer courses in Kanyen’keha (Mohawk) and Inuktitut.

The letter was co-authored by various staff and faculty at Queen’s, including Janice Hill, director of Four Directions; Donato Santeramo, head of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, Adjunct Professor Jennifer Hardwick and professors Dylan Robinson, Norman Vorano, Queen’s National Scholar, Sam McKegney, Graduate Chair of English Department, Lindsay Morcom and Heather Castleden.

The letter states that “reconciliation, like any healthy relationship, is ongoing, and one that requires attention and nurturing.”

Castleden, a professor in Public Health Sciences and Geography, said a group of 40 faculty, students and staff interested in Indigenous affairs, including those who authored the letter, first met in September.

The group had been brought together by Robinson, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts at Queen’s. The group was united by their similar academic trajectories and shared interest in Indigenous Studies, Castleden said.

The discussion followed the July release of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which made several nationwide recommendations for reconciling years of systematic oppression of Aboriginals.

“Their calls to action included, absolutely, a focus on language, and that’s so important with reconciliation steps,” Castleden said.

“We thought at first, well, we could write a whole list of things that Queen’s could be doing. Or, we could just start with this one small but very meaningful and very worthwhile initiative.”

Castleden, who was once a sign language interpreter, says there are certainly challenges in developing new language courses. One of the most significant barriers to course development is finding language speakers who are also trained in teaching, she added.

However, she said the courses would be a “clear and concrete step towards a reconciled relationship” with those who once settled Kingston — known then as Katarokwi.

Prior to the 1600s, the area was alternately inhabited by the Huron-Wendat peoples and the Haudenosaunee people of the Five Nations/Iroquois confederacy.

In a stretch of land from what is now Quebec, across the Great Lakes, to Saskatchewan and Minnesota, the Anishinaabek people — specifically the Mississauga and Algonquin — lived.

When British colonies settled along the shore of Lake Ontario in 1758, the Mississauga signed the Crawford Purchase, which ceded Kingston and the surrounding areas to the British Crown.

However, trade continued between the Iroquois (Six Nations) Confederacy, known by the Cayuga word Haudenosaunee, and the Anishinaabe people into the early 1800s.

Today, the only government-recognized territory in the Kingston region is the Tyendinaga Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, who maintain a First Peoples reserve community.

For Hardwick, a PhD candidate involved in the letter’s creation, the opportunity for students to participate in local Indigenous reconciliation would be particularly meaningful.

“Learning an Indigenous language, even at a beginner’s level, can be transformative,” she said. She was enrolled in a Kanyen’keha course as a graduate student.

“It had a profound effect on my thinking, as both a scholar and a person.”

Because the group of signatories are still collecting signatures and building support, the letter has yet to be submitted to the administration. The full letter can be read at the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre or by contacting the original signatories.

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