Truth & Reconciliation at Queen’s, a year later

Evaluating the TRC Task Force with administration, faculty and students

The Journal explores the effects of the TRC final report.
Illustration by Ashley Rhamey

To commemorate the year following Queen’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) final report, Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe performers will be singing in the Agnes Etherington Atrium on Friday alongside a catered feast. 

The event hopes to celebrate this year’s milestones, including Janice Hill’s appointment as Director of Indigenous Initiatives and new Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre (FDASC) staff. From a student body perspective, the campus saw increased graduate and professional student self-identification and a new joint FDASC-Agnes after school Indigenous student arts program. 

However, over 365 days following the final report, questions still remain over its progress, impact and future.

Sharing a name with the event, the report entitled “Extending the Rafters,” presented 25 recommendations for changes that could be implemented by the University. As part of a nationwide call put forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Queen’s TRC report hopes to work towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

But this isn’t the first time Queen’s has seen a report encouraging increased diversity through a raft of proposals. 

“However, over 365 days following the final report, questions still remain over its progress, impact and future.”

Since 1990, the University has released several reports that have identified diversity as a serious problem. These include the Principal’s Advisory Committee (PAC) Report in 1991, the Henry Report in 2004, the Diversity, Anti-Racism and Equity (DARE) Panel Report in 2009, the Diversity and Equity Task Force (DET) Report in 2011 and the Principal’s Implementation Committee on Racism, Diversity and Inclusion (PICRDI) in 2017.

While these other reports have had a difficult time creating a substantial impact, the TRC Task Force report has already made some progress. But as the Extending the Rafters feast is held in the Agnes, there’s still a lingering concern about how the University will implement all its commitments. 

The Administrative approach and reaction following April 2017

For Queen’s University administration, the TRC kicked off implementing the recommendations with the creation of a new administrative body at the University – the Office of Indigenous Initiatives – which was announced alongside the report’s release in April of 2017. Former Director of FDASC Janice Hill (Kanonhsyonne) will champion the role of ensuring continuous change for the University beyond the report. 

In an interview with The Journal, Hill spoke to the different changes the administration has made following a year of spotlight on the TRC report.

Hill detailed that senior administration at the University undertook cultural safety training this year and participated in a cultural Kairos blanket ceremony – facilitated regularly through the FDASC – to ensure they were “modelling behavior and commitments to the rest of the community.”

Hill also spoke to current developments towards an implementation ‘roundtable’ made up of deans, heads of departments, faculties and service units to serve as an overarching body for implementations moving forward.

“From the roundtable, we’ll have a team that will meet monthly and do the feet-on-the-ground work,” she said. The creation of the ‘roundtable’ is an ongoing development that has yet to be formalized with a formation date.

She also revealed the University had undertaken hiring of an Indigenous curriculum developer to search for new ways to incorporate Indigenous knowledge across the board. 

“Rather than have one mandatory course that everyone has to take, we decided it would be more beneficial to have Indigenous knowledge throughout the curriculum and specific to people’s interests of study,” Hill said. “Mostly because we have so many professional schools here; so engineers are going to learn about Indigenous knowledge in the engineer field for example.” 

The Journal also spoke to Deputy Provost (Academic Operations and Inclusion) Teri Shearer to inquire about how the University will be held accountable for meeting reccomendations in the future.

“It’s critically important that [Hill], in her new role, is located in the Provost Office. That makes her a part of the provost team and gives her daily access to myself and to the provost, and to senior administration.” She added that Senate and the Board of Trustees have requested updates on implementations at each meeting. 

On Oct. 11, Hill revealed the University would be committing to doubling the size of the FDASC.

The FDASC is a significant resource for Indigenous students on campus. Described as a ‘home away from home,’ it provides a safe and inclusive environment for the Queen’s community to engage with Indigenous culture and initiatives on campus.

The centre currently operates out of a Queen’s heritage house located on 146 Barrie St. The expansion would effectively double the space by opening up a newly renovated heritage house located directly beside the current centre at 144 Barrie St. The majority of funding is to be provided by the Division of Student Affairs.

On Oct. 20, The Journal reported that construction on 144 Barrie St. was projected to begin in January. Now, three months later, 146 Barrie St. still remains the sole operating facility of the FDASC.

The hiring of new staff within the FDASC has since been geared towards towards increasing advisory resources for Indigenous students.  

Filling a four-month vacancy, Vernon Altiman (Mishiikenh) joined the team on Nov. 13 as the centre’s newest Elder in Residence. Soon after, the Faculty of Education followed suit and hired Deborah St. Amant (Bezhig Waabshke Ma’iingan Gewetiigaabo), as a ‘Cyber Elder,’ who provides cultural advising and support for students within the Masters of Education in Aboriginal and World Indigenous Educational Studies.

Following Hill’s appointment to the Office of Indigenous Affairs at the University, a vacancy was left for a new Director of the FDASC. Kandice Baptiste, former manager of the Indigenous Student Centre at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, fulfilled the role in February.

“We were part of the process from the beginning so it wasn’t a reaction, we helped to write it. We had student voices on the committee,” McCourt told The Journal. “I think it provides a framework for the institution and guidelines for how we want to do this work. It also speaks to the fact that the University sees it as being important and that we need to address issues like retention and Indigenous languages.”

While the capacity of the centre has grown with respect to program offerings and events over her time at Four Directions, McCourt said demand for increased space and resources — as vocalized by Indigenous and non-Indigenous students on campus has grown as well. 

To keep the University accountable for the future – aside from consistent reports reflecting on progress – Baptiste told The Journal, “the burden is probably placed on Indigenous folks to continue to advocating for these things.”

“I do think that it has to be broader than Indigenous folks doing this work. For the most part, that’s the way those things go all the time. Ideally you’d create a team that will look at the recommendations and calls to action and see how they’re being implemented,” she said. “I guess it’s up to who is sitting at the table and the willingness there.”

Truth, Reconciliation, Teaching and Art 

Robert Lovelace, a continuing adjunct and former Ardoch Algonquin First Nations chief, decided he wasn’t going to be cynical as Canada 150 passed last year.

“Since 1990, the University has released several reports which have identified diversity as a serious problem.”

He offered a free eight-week version of his course ‘Introduction to Aboriginal Studies’ in small towns like Perth. Often, Lovelace attracted a wait list for people to attend the public offering.

“The public wants to know,” he said, concerning the attention the subject matter of the courses garnered.

There’s certainly a matching interest on campus: Queen’s has seen an increased selection of Indigenous studies and language courses. 

While the TRC Task Force’s emphasis on increased space, curriculum and representation are positives for Lovelace, he said they’re not the same as end results.

“While the TRC Task Force’s emphasis on increased space, curriculum and representation are positives for Lovelace, he said they’re not the same as end results.”

“Objectives are one thing and fulfilling them is another,” he said, describing institutional action as largely “cosmetic.”

Substantive change would instead come from core funding, he said, not as an “add-on.” He argued that the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) made “it a core responsibility for institutions to make space and include Aboriginal people and Aboriginal ideas, ways of being and knowing.”

For Lovelace, achieving this means core funding and refusing to “silo” Indigenous studies curriculum, which he claims would fundamentally change the policy studies and engineering departments.

Meanwhile, English and creative writing professor Armand Ruffo referred to a period that spanned two decades when discussing the current climate on campus.

“My big fear, if you want to call it that, is this period of growth in terms of Indigenous presence on campus will come to an end, [and] stagnate again,” he said.

“I saw it. I saw it toward the end of the 90s [and] into 2000. It stagnated. Now it’s picking up again. I hope it’s not just another crest we’re on before we dive into another trough for 10 years, losing faculty.”

Despite this concern, he said universities are trying to do something positive. 

“If any good comes of it, it will come from non-governmental entities like universities, like town counsels, at a smaller level,” he said.

This local connection extends to Ruffo — Queen’s National Scholar in Indigenous Literature —  who was hired in 2014.

While teaching creative writing courses in addition to Indigenous literature, he said one of the positives of his position has been that it proves  an “Indigenous professor doesn’t have to teach Indigenous studies or Indigenous literature.”

Many students will go their whole university career without encountering Indigenous faculty, Ruffo added.

“I’d like to see Indigenous scholars in all kinds of fields,” he said. To create the largest impact, he suggests that these positions be long term and given tenure track. 

Mohawk language professor Nathan Brinklow says he hasn’t been around academia long enough to see a downside.

While he said commitments to the language department are typically made in five-year increments, he’s only been around for the “upswing.”

“It’s really encouraging at the start of a career. It’s a bit of worry but I want to think things are different,” Brinklow said.

He cited support from Arts and Sciences administration, the Provost’s Office and his department as strong signs that efforts are being kept on the agenda and not getting lost.

These efforts include his work on providing a publicly accessible online Mohawk course. Likewise, there has been discussion around a Mohawk language certificate, in addition to expanding the Indigenous language certificate.

Norman Vorano, an art history professor and Indigenous Art curator at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre said reconciliation should have “a life and viability far beyond the typical span of a five-year strategy.” He added it shouldn’t put the onus of reconciliation on Indigenous faculty and students or those who may work with them.

He hopes his work with the Agnes can further these broader efforts. To him, this includes new exhibitions, fostering greater research, training for increased Indigenous representations and further engagement with Indigenous groups in campus and beyond, particularly in the Arctic.

Sunny Kerr, the Agnes’ Curator of Contemporary Arts, highlighted Vorano’s work as a positive of the gallery’s efforts. He explained the Kent Monkman exhibit, titled Shame and Prejudice was a strong example of the gallery’s work this year. 

The exhibit saw an uptick of academic engagement — from class visits and integration into the curriculum — from fine art, art history, law, gender studies, geography, English and nursing majors. The gallery has also offered ‘Storying Resilence,’ an after school program that invites Indigenous youth to the Agnes to receive workshops from Indigenous artists.

“I wanted to point to one pitfall: the temptation of a tokenistic or superficial gesture,” Kerr said.

TRC misses the mark with the average student 

While the University continues to attempt to engage with the TRC report, some students have expressed feelings of separation from the document.

“It seemed far-away, like it was something done up in the sky. It just felt that it wasn't done for everyday students,” Darian Doblej, ArtSci ’18, told The Journal. “That’s not to say the work coming out of the recommendations isn’t good work.”

A member of the newly formed University Council on Anti-Racism and Equity (UCARE), Doblej said he wasn’t engaged with the report until it became integral to his position on the council.

For Doblej, a key shortcoming of the report was its failure to understand the barriers faced by Indigenous students at the University.

“It seemed far-away, it felt was something done up in the sky. It just felt [that] it wasn’t done for every-day students.”

"But I do see the benefit of a position of [Janice Hill] coming in to get the ball rolling but structural changes don't change how a student perceives the University, sees themselves in the University or engages with it.”

As a student who lives “on-reserve,” Doblej identified that some of the major challenges for Indigenous students include finances and being unable to engage with the Queen’s experience.

"Queen's does have that middle-to-high socioeconomic status and when you come from poverty, you don't fit into that. When you come from reserve, only a few people have been to University or postsecondary in general,” he said.

In an attempt to provide some supports for students, University Chancellor Jim Leech launched a needs-based bursary for Indigenous students in October of 2017. Leech put forward $15,000 of his own funds to make the bursary accessible.

The issue, however, can’t be combated easily. Nursing student and Queen’s Native Students Association (QNSA) member Taylor Bluhm told The Journal that financial issues – whether students come from a reserve or not – tend to be part of the Indigenous student experience.

Speaking to the resources offered through the Queen’s needs-based Admission Bursary, Bluhm said, "I don't think it's enough money and I don't know why they don't have enough money to help students in need – especially looking at how much tuition is."

For Bluhm, the TRC final report has done little to affect how she feels about her place and safety at Queen’s. To her, the expansion of the FDASC “should’ve been expanded a while ago” and she spoke with uncertainty to when the expanded house would be opened.

“It feels the same as last year and we didn’t even have the TRC final report,” she told The Journal. “I think students should have felt it – because it’s for the students.”

Outside of the work of the administration, both Bluhm and Doblej reflected that Indigenous students on campus and within the community have the FDASC to thank for making them feel included and safe on campus.

Bluhm hopes to see the University engage and promote FDASC events as it’s a significant and “important part of the Queen’s experience for Indigenous students.”

Doblej shared the sentiment, adding that "what made it worth it to stay at Queen’s was Four Directions and the communities of support and friendship I've made through it, which I think really helped define my experience."

Going forward

As the University begins the slow and sometimes uncertain process of implementing the TRC Task Force’s final report, it’s weighed down with history. When the Extending the Rafters Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe performers sing this Friday, it’ll be the result of years of pushing that have faltered continually as the University was pitching toward the task force and final report.

The year has seen marked progress — Janice Hill’s appointment a leading example — but for some students it came slowly and greatly overdue, with plenty of work left hanging afterward. Similarly, curriculum and expansion saw marked improvements, while many Queen’s students still spend their undergrad without meeting Indigenous faculty. 

Encouraging steps and challenges ahead, the year that followed the Queen’s TRC Task Force holds the same promise, despite the lingering history of all that came before it. 


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