Unpacking decolonization on campus

'It's going to be a long-term journey'

Faculty discuss decolonization efforts and Queen's and within academia.

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Before European settlers arrived in the New World, the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe nations maintained peace and cooperation using treaties and the rhetoric of the dish with one spoon—take only what you need, leave something in the dish for other people, and keep the dish clean.

For thousands of years, what we now know as Kingston has been home to the Haudenosaunee (also known as Iroquois) and the Anishinaabe peoples. The Haudenosaunee group is made up of five nations including Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. The Anishinaabe group consists of Ojibwe and Mississauga peoples.

When colonizers arrived in Canada, there were agreements not honored by Europeans who brought values of private property and expansion.

Between deadly epidemics decimating about 70 per cent of Indigenous peoples in North America, violence, and cultural genocide through residential schools, settlers have taken more than they needed and dirtied the dish.

For years, Indigenous peoples have fought to restore their sovereignty through efforts towards decolonization. Recently, institutions like universities have attempted to support these efforts.

“Decolonization tends to be a buzzword we throw around a lot,” Lindsay (Kawennenhá:wi) Brant, Educational Developer in Indigenous Pedagogies and Ways of Knowing, said in an interview with The Journal.

Academic institutions use language like “inclusion,” “diversity,” and “equity” to address social justice initiatives on campus like those involving decolonization. However, these terms can often abdicate responsibility rather than drive meaningful change.

“We've done a lot of work at Queen's around defining [decolonization] it, envisioning, and striving towards it, but what it really comes down to is the action piece,” Brant said.

The Journal sat down with Queen’s faculty to understand the meaning of decolonization and how the Queen’s community can begin to dismantle colonial narratives within this academic institution.

Acknowledging Indigenous Ways of Knowing

While institutions and research increasingly discuss Indigenous peoples, they often neglect the complex and dynamic nature of these peoples and their history.

“There's a diverse experience of colonization of Indigenous peoples on what is now known as Canada,” Karen Lawford (Namegosibiing, Lac Seul First Nation, Treaty 3), assistant professor in the Department of Gender Studies, said in an interview with The Journal.

“There’s not one single Indigenous Way of Knowing,” she said. “Nation groups of people may have their own sets of knowledges and belief systems that are contextual and based on what has been their experience as people for tens of thousands of years.”

Although research tends to group Indigenous peoples into a monolith, it’s essential to acknowledge the immense amount of diversity that exists between nations, groups, and individuals.

“Sometimes we just put everybody together, and that’s convenient for the sake of data and population analysis, but I don’t think it’s correct,” Lawford said.

While the scientific method aims to be objective, Indigenous Ways of Knowing may emphasize a more holistic, relational, and subjective experience.

“Indigenous views are so permissive. They allow you to dream more than you ever thought you could,” Lawford said. “Dreaming is not seen within the Western academy as an actual legitimate knowledge source.”

While Western academia rejects spiritual and metaphysical knowledge, Lawford said these aspects can help people achieve their goals and dreams.

“Between the idea of goals and dreaming is actually a component of Indigenous thought and it could be called visioning,” she said. “These dreams and goals are shaped by what we know we can do.”

Where Western thought is based on objective, cold, hard facts, Indigenous Ways of Knowing take a gentler approach.

“With Indigenous thought process, there is a kindness and perhaps an expectation of kindness to dream more than you’ve ever dreamed before,” Lawford said. “Our answers are inside of us and what can bring us to the path to shape us in a kind, gentle, and loving way to the person we want to be.”

Western knowledge and Indigenous Ways of Knowing are sometimes framed in a dichotomy. Lawford said there are many more similarities than expected.

“Observing the world around you is something that is basic to the sciences,” she said. “That is exactly the same as Indigenous worldviews, perspectives, and Ways of Knowing, and somehow they’ve become these opposites—but they’re just different ways.”

Curiosity, a virtue in Western knowledge systems, is similar to the Indigenous idea of dreaming.

“Maybe curiosity is a more palatable word than dreaming,” Lawford said. “People need to talk to each other a little bit more […] Asking questions is a great way to start.”

Decolonization throughout history

“You can’t reverse history,” Adnan Husain, professor of History and Director of the School of Religion, said in an interview with The Journal.

“You’ve already been changed by the outcomes and legacies of history, [the] question is ‘what can you do about it?’”

Husain specializes in medieval and Middle Eastern world history. By comparing the histories of different civilizations and cultures, he can gain insight into how colonialism unfolds over centuries.

In Canada, settler colonialism caused the decimation of between 90 and 99 per cent of Indigenous populations.

“In places like Canada, there was an eradication of Indigenous people through genocide,” Husain said.

“That makes it much more difficult to reverse that process historically than a case where for, 40 or 50 years, people were under foreign occupation that was military, political, and administrative but didn’t involve large numbers of settlers who participated in colonialism and expropriated the land and dispossessed Indigenous peoples.”

Since there’s no undoing history, decolonization is a matter of restoring sovereignty and rights to Indigenous peoples.

“[Decolonization involves] not necessarily reversing but altering the way in which these inequalities have worked their way systematically and perpetuate themselves,” Husain said.

“That’s what has to be dismantled, and then you have the opportunity for new cultural forms to flourish that might make and bring together the best of all the participants in our common culture.”

To address these inequalities, we have to understand the nature of the systems and institutions that were built to oppress Indigenous peoples.

“Combat these gross inequalities, these systems of control and racism that perpetuate those inequalities,” Husain said. “Overall, it’s about the power imbalance.”

This power imbalance, according to Husain, is a result of keeping some groups of people privileged at the cost of others.

“[In Canada], colonialism is fundamentally about privileging some with sovereignty over others—particularly Indigenous people,” he said. “That’s what has to be overcome.”

“If you overcome the legacies of those imbalances of power, then you have a chance to really construct something together that’s fruitful and humane.”

“For the last couple decades, [decolonization] has been more of a priority,” Husain said. “But there’s still so much work to do because you’re starting with this imbalance and this disproportionate Eurocentric approach to knowledge [about] non-Western cultures, histories, religions, societies, languages, are all so marginalized and underrepresented.”

Decolonization doesn’t stop at incorporating marginalized perspectives into academia. It also requires a shift in attitudes and worldviews.

“It’s very important to think about it at the mental, intellectual, ideological, and cultural level, because we deal with those kinds of subjects in education, academic pursuits, and research.”

To begin decolonizing academic institutions, Husain said we should adopt an attitude that values Indigenous Ways of Knowing in conjunction with Western ideologies like the scientific method.

“One way to do that is combating the Eurocentrism of the way in which we produce and classify knowledge and more toward acknowledging and recognizing that there are other approaches other than Western approaches.”

Resisting and combating colonization will always be a long journey full of ups and downs.

“It’s not a linear process,” he said. “It’s not like, just because time passes, things get better. Sometimes there are reversals, or things could go in a different direction.”

As such, decolonization is something we must consistently work at and constantly re-assess.

“We’re always going to be trying to improve the conditions for everyone,” he said. “We’ll just have to keep struggling and rethinking things.”

Incorporating Indigenous perspectives on campus

Recently, the Smith School of Business has introduced a new course teaching Indigenous perspectives and ways of being.

“My role on campus is really to do workshops and development of faculty and grad students around Indigenizing and decolonizing the curriculum,” Brant said.

“I developed and co-teach a course called Relationships and Reconciliation in Business and Beyond […] My course in Smith is to have an opportunity for Commerce students to engage with Indigenous Ways of Knowing, feeling, being, believing, and thinking about the world.”

The course, developed by Brant and Kate Rowbotham, adjunct assistant professor at Smith, was awarded the Ideas Worth Teaching Award in 2021.

“This course enables decolonizing of minds, bodies, hearts, and spirits to happen at the student level, but also that impact it has within our course can ripple out,” Brant said.

Brant’s role as an educational developer also has a far-reaching impact within the broader Queen’s community.

“I change one faculty’s perspective and then that is a new perspective they bring into their course, then that ripple effect is massive.”

A key takeaway her students have had is rethinking the relationships and stakeholders involved in doing business.

“They’ve said, ‘This has totally shifted the way I think about business,’” she said. “I don’t think so much about stakeholders as only being those who have the money or have the power, but also those that we’re engaging with.’”

Recently, age-old Indigenous Ways of Knowing have become popularized by mainstream environmentalists. The tenets of the dish with one spoon apply to human interactions with the environment—humans should only take what they need, leave resources for others, and keep the earth clean.

“Other than humans, [people need to consider] the environment as a stakeholder,” Brant explained.

Recently, Queen’s made plans to incorporate decolonization into the institution, and Brant said many of these initiatives are starting to gain traction.

“In the last few years at Queen’s where there’s a commitment institutionally, there’s a vision for the resourcing of this work of decolonizing and Indigenizing but we’re seeing it being mobilized in some powerful ways now,” Brant said.

“That’s why I get so passionate about my role because we’re seeing those shifts, even though they’re slow and the institution moves quick on some things and slow on others.”

Allocating more resources to Indigenous curriculums at the university could help accelerate the process.

“Right now, I am the only Indigenous curriculum-focused person serving the full campus,” she said. “I would love to see more support in the units for those that are building courses about Indigenous topics.”

While progress can be slow, Brant recognizes decolonization is a long-term journey and commitment.

“There’s always criticism that we’re not doing enough, but I think even with the messiness and the muckiness of the journey of decolonization, I overall feel very strongly that Queen’s is well-positioned to keep journey through even if it gets messy,” she said.

“There’s no real destination anyway […] It’s going to be a long-term journey. It’s a constant thing we have to work at.”

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