Enough is enough

Queen's needs to look at their silencing of Indigenous voices on campus

Credit: 
Supplied by Michael Onesi, the Alumni Communications Officer.

As an Indigenous law student and former Deputy Commissioner of Indigenous Affairs for the AMS, I would like to speak to the overall silencing of Indigenous voices by governing bodies at Queen’s.

The one where she explains

For those who know me, I usually try to avoid Facebook for anything other than memes. But on Oct. 5, I scrolled through my newsfeed and saw the headline “ASUS petitions for Indigenous land recognition on Queen’s sign.” The photo for the article featured a non-Indigenous student leaning over the Queen’s University sign. After reading, I found out the only person interviewed for the article was that same non-Indigenous student.

I spent all day placing blame. Honestly, considering how much my hands were shaking, I'm surprised the comment I made on the post came out so reserved. Let me tell you why.

Part of my previous role as the Indigenous Affairs Deputy involved working with a group of students (both Indigenous and allies) to discuss various ways to create visibility for the Indigenous community on campus. Last school year, myself along with a few other individuals (Taylor Bluhm, Tara Wilson, Mekena Groulx, Tara McDonald, Cameron Yung, Miguel Martinez and Alexandra Palmeri) met to consider different projects we could bring forward to the administration. 

One of these involved engraving the traditional land acknowledgement, “Queen’s University sits on the traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples,” on the Queen’s University stone at University and Union. This was a consideration last November and it wasn’t forgotten. Rather, it was put on hold as the people involved had outside responsibilities.

Looking back, the blame has been placed. The people responsible for the article were confronted by the Queen’s community and their voices have been heard. The Journal has released a public apology and acknowledged why it was wrong to leave out Indigenous voices.

The Equity Commissioner for ASUS, Laura Anderson, was also confronted and both acknowledged and validated the voices of those who have challenged her. Efforts will be put in place to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.

Don’t get me wrong, not being included in the article isn’t only frustrating as an Indigenous student, it’s completely unacceptable. As a community we're still angry, but the anger doesn’t solely lie with The Journal and the Equity Commissioner. It also lies with the larger governing bodies that continue to silence Indigenous voices on campus.

The one where she holds people accountable

During the election period for AMS in January, I was approached by both running parties. They asked what the Indigenous students at Queen’s needed.

During their entire campaign, JBP preached about their commitment to the Indigenous students at Queen’s. Pages 27-29 of the AMS’ long form platform — which is no longer online — made commitments that mirrored Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations. One of these included the continuation of Indigenizing student spaces. Despite their alleged commitment to our Indigenous community, they turned down the idea of an Indigenous Affairs Commission — something multiple people told them was necessary.

Last year, I sat on eight different committees, all concerned with Indigenous affairs. This just goes to show how much more needs to be done to support the Indigenous community and to educate the non Indigenous community here at Queen’s.

In response to this growing interest, I started a rough plan for an Indigenous Affairs Commission to help support the Indigenous Affairs Deputy. Just a few weeks later, I was informed by a friend that the current AMS executive didn’t see how the Commission would benefit Indigenous students — I mean, how does an Indigenous Affairs Commission benefit Indigenous students?

It’s important to remember that to be an effective ally, one needs to work with Indigenous students and want to work with them — it’s not something to simply check off of an equity checklist. If student government is going to claim to be allies and pride themselves on what they are doing for the Indigenous community, their actions must be genuine and collaborative.

The AMS executive need to be actively engaging in this process by speaking with and learning from Indigenous students. They need to stand behind the decisions made by their Indigenous Affairs Deputy and dedicate resources and time to Indigenous affairs initiatives.

Doing advocacy work as an Indigenous student is already physically and emotionally exhausting, not to mention working with people who say one thing but whose actions reflect another. If the current AMS executive is truly committed, then they need to demonstrate it.

The AMS doesn’t stand alone as the sole disappointment when it comes to supporting Indigenous students and students of colour here at Queen’s. Faculty societies need to do more too. I’ve asked Tara McDonald, a former ASUS Equity Commissioner and Arts and Science Senator to speak to this.

The one where Tara lays it on the table

In recent years, top ASUS officials have made comments like, “colonialism is no longer a problem in Canada.” They've refused to cancel events that have been brought to their attention and deemed colonial by Indigenous students.

An ASUS senator once asked me if I thought “racism really existed in Canada?” In 2016, ASUS Assembly found the proposed ‘Anti-Racist Strategic Plan’ contentious and never picked it up again. This plan laid out recommendations on how to improve systemic racism and colonialism within the society.

Furthermore, after the happenings of the racist costume party of last year, most members of the student senate caucus felt that student senators shouldn’t speak up about it at the next senate meeting.

I can imagine some people will be mad at me for sharing what I have and some will claim I didn’t provide enough context. It’s true that for every decision that was made, ASUS officials have had their reasons (I just can’t say I agree with them). I want to be clear that I’m in no way trying to suggest that ASUS is a racist or anti-Indigenous institution. My goal in highlighting some of my experiences is merely to show that improvement is needed and faculty societies need to do much more. 

To quote the former Social Issues Commissioner, Alex Chung, “Just because you have a platform to speak doesn’t mean you should.” One must directly consult the students who are being impacted by the issues. Go to them. Learn from them. Ask them if you can do anything. Follow their direction. Then speak. Please, don’t think that just because you are an elected representative or hold an ‘Equity’ title that your positionality in the matter is suddenly neutral. Recognize your whiteness and centre Indigenous and POC voices when doing anti-racism advocacy work.

Along with the AMS and other faculty societies, ASUS must re-commit to dismantling racism and colonialism on campus as well as provide concrete steps on how they are going to do so.

I have so many regrets when I reflect upon my year as the Equity Commissioner for ASUS and a senator in my final year — both times I could've done more if I had listened and found the courage to speak up. Be better than all of us who have come before you. It’s October, you’re about halfway through your term. Use the seven months you have left.

The one with constructive advice

Instead of dwelling on the situation that's been acknowledged and apologized for, let’s work on moving forward with a positive relationship.

As an ally, you need to acknowledge that Indigenous voices are silenced because they are just that: Indigenous.

If you want Indigenous representation at your event, then you should be attending and supporting their events as well. Reciprocity, people.  

If you're going to preach allyship and reconciliation, you need to hear from Indigenous peoples about what they need and respond accordingly.

If you’re a white ally, or an ally in a position of power, instead of speaking for Indigenous people or leaving them out of the conversation, you should use your privilege to uplift their voices.

If you're an ally, you should work with Indigenous students and students of colour to make positive changes happen. These groups can’t carry the burden of fighting the system that works against them on their own. You need to uplift their voices, hear what they’re saying, and respect what they need.

Lauren Winkler is a first-year law student and former AMS Deputy Commissioner of Indigenous Affairs. Tara McDonald graduated in May of 2017 and is a former ASUS Equity Commissioner.

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