When Melanie Gray began at Queen’s, feeling like she belonged was the exception.
She felt isolated and disconnected from the broader Queen’s community when she first arrived, she said. Many non-Aboriginal students seemed focused on their own lives and didn’t foster the same sense of connection.
The Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre became the sole source of support for Gray as she reconnected with her Aboriginal heritage. Gray says the Centre’s cultural programming gave her a sense of identity she hadn’t felt in her classes.
“I would have long been gone if it wasn’t for them. They were there for me when my mom had cancer, they were there for me with my anxiety,” Gray, ArtSci ’16, said. “They were there for me for support when a teacher called me out for being on disability services to the entire class.”
She said she never felt the same sense of support as she did at the Centre.
“Coming to Queen’s, this colonial institute, I found my culture,” she said. “[Four Directions] has been my total support system and the rest of Queen’s hasn’t been.”
That singular support, however, hasn’t always been in place. The Centre’s real progress — when it gained funding and greatly increased its programming — has taken place over the last six years.
Twenty years ago, the Centre opened its first space on Bader Lane (it moved to Barrie St. in 2000). A provincial grant provided funding for the Centre, but it lacked the resources and full-time staff it now possesses.
Ashley Maracle, ArtSci ’09, objected to the lack of staff and programming with two other students at her 2009 convocation by wearing traditional Mohawk regalia to the ceremony.
“I don’t necessarily know if people knew why we were doing it,” Maracle told The Journal in 2014. “Aboriginal issues at the time weren’t really discussed on campus.”
Until 2009, a lack of funding was the norm. The following year, the province provided more than $1 million in a grant to Queen’s for Aboriginal student education. Queen’s receives just under $700,000 from the province, but not all of it goes to the Centre.
Instead, it’s divided among Four Directions, the Aboriginal Teachers Education Program, Aboriginal Access to Engineering, the School of Policy Studies and the Faculty of Arts and Science. The Four Directions portion is just around $300,000, although the University supplements the grant to increase the Centre budget to around $600,000.
The centre began addressing its perceived shortcomings. It hired more full-time staff, implemented cultural programming and began to play a more active role on campus.
Centre staff introduced programming ranging from a drum circle to moccasin-making workshops to the construction of a tipi in Four Directions’ backyard.
The University also introduced a variety of Indigenous course content: Mohawk and Inuktitut are now taught, Ojibwe writer and Aboriginal literature Professor Armand Ruffo was hired in 2014 and all Bachelor of Education candidates will complete a 12-week course on Aboriginal education starting next summer.
Outgoing Provost Alan Harrison has also unveiled a task force to address Indigenous issues on campus, although Four Directions Director Janice Hill is concerned about the future of the task force when Harrison is replaced.
Hill said Principal Woolf has said that the new provost, Benoit-Antoine Bacon will likely continue to support Aboriginal resources and that even if he doesn’t, Woolf will still be dedicated to Aboriginal issues.
Four Directions is currently at capacity, according to Queen’s Student Affairs, and the administration had planned to expand the space in the future for a more comfortable environment.
“And if necessary, I can remind [Woolf] of that,” Hill said.
The University also launched a new minor in Indigenous Studies, which Hill hopes to expand to a major.
Four Directions Aboriginal Advisor Vanessa McCourt attended Queen’s from 1998 to 2002. With that experience in mind, she says certain Aboriginal student experiences don’t change.
“I think some things have changed, but some things still have stayed the same,” McCourt said.
She said there was always a smaller circle of people that were more involved with the Centre and Queen’s Native Student Association (QNSA). Likewise, she was often ambivalent about identifying as Aboriginal and opening herself up to a “list of questions” from students and faculty about social concerns of Aboriginal people: “What’s your percentage? Did you get your tuition paid for?”
McCourt said her sister, who attended Queen’s a year after her, had more difficulties with racism — especially when myths and prejudices came up in her Aboriginal studies class.
“She often got [these] kind of remarks about tuition and just misinformation,” McCourt said, adding that she’s heard Aboriginal students experience similar situations today.
Nonetheless, Queen’s has improved its Aboriginal student admission rate in recent years. According to the 2015 enrollment report, acceptances have increased by 133 per cent among self-identified Aboriginal students.
(Photo by Kendra Pierroz)
Lisa Doxtator, a recruiter and community liaison at Four Directions, encourages Aboriginal students to apply under the Aboriginal Admission policy.
The Aboriginal Admissions policy is an alternate method of applying for Queen’s. In addition to meeting general admission requirements for the program, the competitive minimum university admission average is lowered to 75 per cent.
“We had a lot more students apply under the policy,” Doxtator said. But she says some students are ambivalent.
“Some students say to me, if I apply under this policy are you going to publish my name anywhere? Is anyone going to find out I got into Queen’s under the Aboriginal Admissions policy?”
In her experience as a recruiter, some applicants feel it lends greater weight to their heritage than their personal merits. But she said she stands by the policy.
“One thing it addresses is the barriers and brings it up to a level playing field for Aboriginal students,” she said.
“But I also tell them, once you get your foot in the door, you’re treated the exact same as every other student. They don’t have to work less hard. There’s no special treatment.”
Melanie Gray, who applied through the policy, says she had no qualms. She came to Queen’s to stay close to her home in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, a reserve west of Kingston.
While Gray acknowledges the improvements made on campus, she still thinks there’s a level of tokenism involved with some efforts.
She points to the Common Ground’s Aboriginal-themed fire lounge decorations as an example — she says the decorations are superficial and that it’s not a truly Indigenous space. The decorations were recently removed to make room for the GHETTO retail art exhibit.
QNSA President and Vice-President Leah Combs and Lauren Winkler expressed similar feelings.
Combs, ArtSci ’16, said students’ words often don’t reflect their actions.
“Student’s say they care, but then just not show up [to events].”
Winkler, ArtSci ’17, agreed. While she appreciates that they’re included, she said that while QNSA is often invited to other clubs’ events to add an Aboriginal voice, those clubs rarely attend QNSA events.
Four Directions director Janice Hill says any visibility is important, if only to raise awareness. But she added that it’s limited.
She hopes to get a sculpture or work of art to be placed prominently on campus so that passersby are aware they are on Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe lands.
“[Visibility doesn’t go enough. You walk through this campus and you would never know Queen’s sits on traditional Indigenous territory. You would never know Indigenous presence is here because it’s not visible.”
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