Proudly indigenous

Queen’s is expanding its indigenous studies curriculum while growing its support for Aboriginal students

Current Four Directions director and Tyendinaga Turtle Clan Mother, Janice Hill, founded a private high school, Ohahase Education Centre, and the Kanhiote Library (above) on the Tyendinaga Reserve near Belleville, Ont.
Current Four Directions director and Tyendinaga Turtle Clan Mother, Janice Hill, founded a private high school, Ohahase Education Centre, and the Kanhiote Library (above) on the Tyendinaga Reserve near Belleville, Ont.

Ashley Maracle didn’t wear a cap and gown to her convocation. Instead, she wore her traditional Mohawk regalia.

Dissatisfied with the lack of support and programming offered by Queen’s Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre prior to 2009, Maracle and two other students wore graduation ensembles reflecting their indigenous heritages.

“I don’t necessarily know if people knew why we were doing it,” Maracle, ArtSci ’09, said. “Aboriginal issues at the time weren’t really discussed on campus.”

While Maracle and others acknowledged their First Nations roots at convocation, the limited resources and lack of staff at Four Directions, located on Barrie St., compromised Maracle’s undergrad experience outside of the classroom.

“I really didn’t like the fact that it wasn’t a well-supported program at the time,” Maracle said.

Previously, Four Directions lacked the full-time staff, leadership and cultural programming it now offers.

Now, almost four years later, Queen’s is integrating indigenous culture in its limestone lecture halls and beyond.

The University’s languages department is currently offering both Inuit and Mohawk courses for a second year and a Toronto-based Aboriginal playwright and poet joined the drama department in 2003 as a Queen’s National Scholar.

Four Directions, previously located on Bader Lane, now offers cultural programming including traditional drum-making, beading and moccasin-making. Functioning as a safe space for indigenous students, it provides educational opportunities for those with personal or academic interest in indigenous cultures.

Maracle, a graduate from the University of Victoria’s Masters in Indigenous Governance program, was the full-time Aboriginal Community Liaison at Four Directions for three years.

“[The University of Victoria] was much more native-friendly than Queen’s at the time,” she said.

However, when Maracle returned to Queen’s to complete the community project requirement for her Master’s in November 2010, she found a newly transformed Four Directions, with four new full-time staff members.

“What I love about the team now is that [they are] actually pushing Aboriginal [issues] on campus they’re very dedicated to,” Maracle said.

“At the time nobody was able to do that because there was no one working here really.”

Maracle said a lack of staff had previously created a negative dynamic, but the new Four Directions staff made themselves visible at Queen’s by attending Frosh Week events and ensuring an active indigenous presence on campus.

“It really gained back the trust of students who had stopped coming here,” she said. “They realized that the staff was actually really great and interested in working for their benefit.”

Its current Aboriginal Advisor, Vanessa McCourt, said the Centre’s safe space for indigenous and non-indigenous students was a cornerstone of her Queen’s undergrad. As a student, McCourt frequented Four Directions and was the president of the Queen’s Native Students Association (QNSA).

While McCourt diversified her undergrad experience with intramural volleyball and Queen’s Dance Club classes, joining QSNA was a nice respite, where cultural acceptance and understanding went hand in hand.

“Outside of that circle, you have to answer questions,” McCourt said. “People … don’t understand the history of why some Aboriginal people get their tuition covered.”

Under Canadian law, post-secondary students with Registered Indian status receive funding for tuition, books, travel and living expenses while enrolled at a Canadian university. Queen’s in particular offers both merit-based and need-based Aboriginal admission awards.

McCourt, who grew up on the Tyendinaga Mohawk reserve just east of Belleville, said she wouldn’t discuss her Aboriginal identity outside of Four Directions unless it came up.

“People tend to then bring up stereotypes, try to ask you questions that they think they know, but don’t really know, so it just gets frustrating,” McCourt said.

McCourt takes a casual, collaborative approach when counseling students now, and isn’t the only Four Directions staff member with a passion for fostering a sense of community.

Tyendinaga Turtle clan mother Janice Hill became the director of Four Directions in 2010. Having founded a private high school, Ohahase Education Centre, and the Kanhiote Library on the reserve, she’s a passionate advocate for Aboriginal education.

Tyendinaga, situated between Belleville and Deseronto, is the home of the Mohawks of Quinte. While the band’s membership exceeds 8,000, Hill explained that 2,400 people live in Tyendinaga, making it the third-largest band in Ontario. A handful of them commute to Queen’s with Hill daily to study at Queen’s.

Hill brings the same positive attitude to Queen’s, and the change at Four Directions under her lead was noticeable. According to her, there are currently two or three students who chose Queen’s specifically because of the resources offered at Four Directions.

Previously the Co-Director of the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program at Queen’s Faculty of Education from 1997-98, Hill said she’s known these students all their lives.

“I’ve known them since they were little girls … I know who their families are, their cousins and their aunties,” she said.

The indigenous community at Queen’s extends beyond those from Tyendinaga, however, and Four Directions now hosts early move-in day for new Aboriginal students as well as welcoming activities including group bowling, paintball and movie outings.

Hill speculated there are more indigenous students on campus than Four Directions currently works with, as she only knows those who reach out to her at the Centre.

“Self-identification is one of our biggest hurdles because we can’t identify all of our students,” she said. “I always guesstimate if I identify 150 [Aboriginal] students there’s probably 400 [Aboriginal] students here.”

Graduate and upper-year students tend to reach out more than first-years. Hill said Four Directions has sought to change this with early engagement strategies targeting high school students for the past four years. For example, the Aboriginal Youth Leadership Program began this month, welcoming high school students to Queen’s campus each Thursday to acquaint them with campus life.

Hill said there was Aboriginal interest in starting government-funded centres like Four Directions at all postsecondary institutions in the early 1990s, due to the struggles many indigenous students have faced in their pursuit of university education.

“That’s for a lot of reasons: ties to home, closeness to family, being very sheltered sometimes in their lives and then not having the same academic foundation as other students who are coming here,” Hill said.

Despite these challenges, indigenous education is expanding at Queen’s.

This coming academic year, Queen’s will welcome Ojibwe poet, filmmaker and critic Armand Garnet Ruffo, as the English department begins cultivating indigenous literary studies.

“I teach Aboriginal literature from an insider’s perspective, understanding the culture and bringing that to my work,” Ruffo said.

Ruffo, who works as an associate professor at Carleton University, said the Aboriginal literary community in Canada is relatively small. He explained that Aboriginal writers have long been marginalized, as non-Aboriginal authors previously wrote the majority of Aboriginal literature.

The fact that Queen’s has both a growing indigenous studies program as well as an active Aboriginal centre, he said, prompted his move to Kingston.

Indigenous education has recently emerged at the undergraduate level Queen’s, however.

Five years ago, Iehnhotonkwas Bonnie Jane Maracle, BEd ’02 and MEd ’02, said she couldn’t have fathomed Mohawk and Inuit language instruction as an accredited university course.

Yet, Maracle, a member of Tyendinaga’s community, has taught the newly offered Mohawk language courses at Queen’s since the fall of 2012.

“Normally there’s a waiting list to get into our program,” she said.

While there are few indigenous students enrolled in her Mohawk language course, many non-indigenous students registered in the indigenous studies stream are enrolled in the class, which integrates aspects of Mohawk culture with language instruction.

“That’s really unique for our program,” Maracle said. “The amount of information the student gets out of it — not only strictly language, but how language works within the culture.”

She explained that her students voluntarily attend events and workshops, such as traditional moccasins and cornhusk doll creation.

This dialogue continues in other faculties as well.

Since 2008, English professor Sam McKegney has been teaching indigenous literature, though when he was first hired it was taught under the “Canadian literature” banner.

“I was absolutely committed to making sure that course got onto the books and ultimately that it became a standalone entity,” he said.

McKegney explained that the expansion of indigenous studies has been well received by his colleagues. Since 2011, indigenous literature has been offered as a fourth-year seminar.

“My sense is that students are very interested in the colonial circumstances of the lands they themselves have inhabited,” he said.

McKegney said there was a profound lack of indigenous texts when he was completing his undergraduate degree in the mid 1990s.

“That’s really where the fire was lit within me to look into more of these matters to engage with indigenous people and cultures and communities in a more sustained way,” he said.

While McKegney encourages his students to attend indigenous events, he also holds office hours at Four Directions, forcing students to treat course material as more than just theoretical.

Several of his students have gone on to graduate school intent on studying indigenous literature, while some have pursued teaching in indigenous communities.

McKegney said that he thinks Queen’s has a different climate today towards indigenous issues than when he first arrived.

“I certainly feel that my work is validated now [more] than it was in 2008, but there’s certainly still a lot to do,” he said.

“That’s what makes the years ahead so exciting.”

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.