Mid-morning on September 22, Marlene Brant Castellano answered a phone call from The Journal and began the difficult process of discussing Indigenous affairs in the education sphere, a topic that has often been kept from the public spotlight.
“There are many Indigenous students on campus who have been reluctant to identify themselves because they feel they might be the object of negative stereotyping,” she said.
The issue on campus has lead the Queen’s University Truth and Reconciliation Commission to announce on Sept. 20 five open consultation sessions to take place in the coming months. The sessions will provide a forum for community discussion and feedback on the Aboriginal communities at Queen’s.
Castellano, the co-chair of the Elder and Aboriginal Council of Queen’s, was named as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2005 and has been campaigning for a dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples since her career began in 1973.
“What we’ve been working on over the past five years is just raising the level of participation and recognition and responsiveness across the University,” she said.
This most recent project will be co-chaired by colleague and Queen’s professor, Mark Green. She explained that, recently, they had observed “great advances” in the recognition and response of Aboriginal students by the University.
“In the past five years, Queen’s has really incorporated in its strategic planning the fact that they want to do more on Indigenous education,” she explained.
Joining Castellano and Green on the newly commissioned task force is student representative Lauren Winkler, who will be stepping in to the presidential position of the Queen’s Native Student’s Association.
When speaking with The Journal, Winkler was in agreement with Castellano on the critical issues surrounding Indigenous affairs on-campus, and a need for these kinds of open discussions.
“What I’m hoping, mainly, is that the task force can make some changes to really enhance our presentation at Queen’s. I’m hoping that students will feel a lot safer, and feel like [they’re in] a place where they can openly self-identify as an Aboriginal student,” she said.
Winkler has seen the front lines of hurtful stereotypes and assumptions pointed at self-identified Indigenous students, which she says number at around 350 at Queen’s.
“I know that the staff at Four Directions [Aboriginal Centre] believe that number is a lot higher,” she admitted regretfully. Harmful stereotyping even, at times, extends to the academic sphere.
“I hear it in my classes, there’s still a lot of stereotypes that are still being perpetuated, even in our generation,” she said. She recited back a list of hurtful descriptions fluidly, seemingly memorized after so many repetitions.
“I hear these things all the time,” she responded. “Usually I self-identify in my classes, but that makes me feel unsafe.”
While the reality of Indigenous relations has historically been fraught with strife, Winkler has seen Queen’s evolve through her four years, and believes that our generation is on the right track.
“Our age is the age of positive change,” she said. With so many clubs working on social issues and social advocacy at Queen’s, Winkler is optimistic about the outcome of the consultations.
“I feel like if people just understood, and took the time to learn a bit more, then we have the power to strengthen that relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” she said.
Looking forward to the next few weeks, Winkler hopes primarily that more Indigenous students will come out and have their voices heard.
“I think if we have a strong student voice, administration will be more likely to listen. And I think they will listen,” she insisted.
The first open discussion will take place on September 26 from 2:30 – 3:30 p.m. in the McLaughlin room of the JDUC. Individuals or groups who wish to participate in one or more of these sessions are asked to email email@example.com.
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