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Can we handle the truth? The reality behind the process to reconcile Indigenous relations

In the two years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released their Calls to Action report, universities have been a hot spot for conversation and steps forward in their efforts to “indigenize the academy.”

It’s something that has not skipped over the UNB campus, nor has it escaped the notice of UNB vice-president academic George MacLean.

“It’s not an exaggeration to see something almost on a weekly if not daily basis somewhere in Canada on an [Indigenous] initiative that’s taking place,” MacLean said.

By now, many Canadians have heard buzzwords like truth and reconciliation and indigenization, but not everyone knows what they mean and what they hope to produce. And even if they’ve heard them, there are many Canadians who are still unfamiliar with why these buzzwords are being used in the first place.

To uncover the answers to these questions, it is necessary to look back at the history of Canada, which UNB political science professor David Bedford says is a story of “the destruction of First Nations people.”

“We arrived here, we were greeted in a manner that—had the First Nations arrived in Europe they wouldn’t have been greeted like that…instead an offer to share the land was given and as really bad guests we took it all,” Bedford said.

“We’ve taken it all. And we have brutalized and oppressed and stolen from and raped and murdered since the beginning.”

The history of British and Aboriginal relations in Atlantic Canada

According to the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs website, when European settlers first arrived on Turtle Island, as North America is known to Indigenous peoples, peace and friendship treaties were established in the Maritime region “to end hostilities and encourage cooperation between the British and First Nations.”

These treaties were signed between the British and the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet (Wolastoqiyik) and Passamaquoddy First Nations and are unique in that they are the only treaties in Canada that do not surrender or cede Aboriginal land rights to the British.

Over the centuries, the Wabanaki people, as the various First Nations are collectively known, tried in vain to prevent the dishonouring of the treaties. Government responses were to create reserves for First Nations people in the 19th century, on land that was often too small and infertile to support large populations, since prioritization went to white settlers.

The failure of past governments to honour the peace and friendship treaties has resulted in the loss of traditional grounds for many Wabanaki people. The University of New Brunswick sits on the traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik people—commonly referred to as the Maliseet.  

David Perley is Wolastoqiyik and member of the Tobique First Nation. He became Executive Director of the Mi’kmaq-Maliseet Institute four years ago, and  renamed it to the Mi’kmaq- Wolastoqey Centre to reflect appropriate terminology.

“My ancestors never used Maliseet, it was something that was imposed upon us by colonial authorities. In the 1700s when there was an English official who had Mi’kmaq guides and came upon Wolastoqey territory, they said ‘who are these people here?’ and the Mi’kmaq identified us as Maliseet, which means slow speakers [in Mi’kmaq],” says Perley.

“It didn’t identify us as a nation, it identified our speaking style…That river here [the St. John River] was called Wolastoq, so people who live along the river are called Wolastoqiyik, so that’s the term I’m promoting here at UNB. We have to respect the terminology of my ancestors.”

However, it is not just the loss of traditional territory and creation of reserves that has contributed to the impoverished and marginalized situation of First Nation peoples in the present day.

The ramifications of Canada’s Indian Act

Patsy McKinney, Executive Director of Under One Sky, an Aboriginal headstart and friendship centre, says she got involved with after Aboriginal issues after learning more about the Indian Act, first passed in 1876, and the effect it’s had on Indigenous peoples.

Through the legislation in the Indian Act, women were kicked off reserves and lost their status for marrying non-natives. McKinney grew up with her grandmother off-reserve because of this legislation, and despite amendments to the act that loosened regulations on status claims, has yet to claim her Indian status, citing her unwillingness to have her identity determined by the state.

“I think Canada is the only country in the whole world where one race is determined by another race…We don’t get to decide who’s Aboriginal, the federal government gets to decide,” says McKinney.

According to McKinney, despite the majority of status Indians living on-reserve, approximately 70 per cent of Indigenous populations live off-reserve, many without status and without access to Aboriginal programs and services or cultural knowledge.

The Residential and Indian Day school systems were established in the late 1800s through the Indian Act and assimilated Indigenous children into mainstream society, stripping them of their language and culture while simultaneously inflicting years of physical, mental, sexual and spiritual abuse on the children who attended.

Perley attended Indian Day school on the Tobique First Nation from grades one to six, and said the last ones closed around the 1970s, two decades before the last residential school closure in 1996, although Perley says the purpose of both institutions was the same.

Photo: Maria Araujo

“Everything that they did in terms of the programs, it was all designed to ensure that language was not being promoted…we weren’t allowed to speak our language, we weren’t allowed to practice our traditions, our ceremonies,” said Perley.

“At the time I was thinking it was so unfair, why can’t I learn about my own history, why can’t I continue to be exposed to my own ancestral language?”

Ryan Wallace, UNBSU Indigenous Representative and member of the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation, has felt the effects of this assimilation process in their own community.

“Growing up we didn’t have much [opportunity] because on my First Nation we didn’t have any language-keepers, we still have some Elders with knowledge but the language was not here,” says Wallace, who said in recent years, technology advancements have made it easier to connect with other communities and bring knowledge back to the First Nation.

Despite difficulties in cultural knowledge retention, Wallace said the Madawaska Maliseet reserve has experienced good economic development, saying, “I saw the community grow from basically struggling monetarily to being almost self-sustainable.”

Every First Nation community is different, says Wallace, and not all have had similar economic success—some reserves still struggle to provide basic needs to their communities.  

“Over 100 First Nation communities in this country are on boil order. they don’t even have safe water to drink,” McKinney says. “Now just a couple weeks ago, Fredericton Junction was on boil order—didn’t even last 24 hours, it was fixed.”

“Some of these communities have been on boil order for over ten years. Why?”

According to McKinney, it is crucial to understand the effects legislation has produced for Indigenous peoples and acknowledging their lack of control in the matter if real reconciliation is to ever occur.

“Why are we so underrepresented in the employment sector, overrepresented in the prison system, highest rates of suicide, why is that? Is there something genetically wrong with us? I know that some people think so, but no. It’s a whole history of colonization and assimilation,” says McKinney.

“The general attitude is that Aboriginal people are in the position they are today by their own demise—if they just get off their lazy asses and go to work, get a job, you know stop depending on the federal government handouts, that would change everything.”

“That’s what needs to change.” says McKinney about this attitude.

Steps towards acknowledging First Nations people began in 1960 when they were first given the right to vote. The first policies around Aboriginal land claims were established in 1973 and in 1982, Aboriginal and treaty rights were recognized by Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution.

In 2008, the Harper government made a formal apology to former students of the federal government’s Indian residential school system and established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada to receive statements from the survivors.

The TRC released their findings in 2015, which included 94 recommendations or calls to action “in order to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation,” according to the final report.

These calls to action have been the guiding principles of universities and other institutions over the past couple of years as they take strides to ensure mutual recognition between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples and seek to create an institution that better reflects its Indigenous student population.

The indigenization process begins at UNB

The indigenization process at UNB has been started just recently with the establishment of a TRC task force, chaired by Perley and nursing professor Shelley Francis. Francis stepped in to replace the late Dean of Education Ann Sherman—a strong ally of Indigenous communities who mandated Indigenous content courses for Education students and established the TRC task force.

“We ask each faculty to identify a champion who will attend these meetings and we’ll have discussions on what we need to do to implement the TRC calls to action, and then they would be responsible to go back to their faculty and ensure that there’s concrete action taken,” says Perley.

Perley’s efforts to decolonize and indigenize education started in the public school system in his work with the department of education, but transitioned to focus on post-secondary education after he began teaching a First Nations education course at UNB in the early 1990s.

“I thought it was important for our First Nations students first of all to be exposed to Mi’kmaq Wolastoqey cultures, traditions, worldviews, contributions…so when they graduate from here they will not only have a strong cultural foundation but also have the knowledge and information they need to be effective leaders when they go back to the First Nation,” says Perley.

Photo: Maria Araujo

Wallace has struggled with not seeing their self reflected in UNB’s course content, saying, “I can be sitting in business law and be like why am I here? These things don’t really apply to me or they apply just to some extent.”

“We want to apply the knowledge and skills we’re getting from classes to apply to real life so having Indigenous content in every field would make it that students would come to class and be engaged and still feel like they’re doing something that they can build on in the future and apply it to their communities,” said Wallace.

The TRC task force has met with university administration in regards to UNB’s 10-point strategic plan around indigenization at UNB, which will be presented to the Board of Governors for approval on Dec. 7.

MacLean, who has been leading the strategic planning process, admitted that UNB was behind many other universities in the indigenization process, which has included more Indigenous content for classes, improved spaces on-campus and increased Indigenous faculty appointments and recruitment of Indigenous students.

“But in some respects there’s an advantage to having not done as much at this point, because we have the opportunity to look at what other universities have done to be able to really make the best steps for UNB,” says MacLean.

The 10-point strategic plan will seek to expose both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to Indigenous culture and history.

“It will involve a number of initiatives ranging from faculty to students to recruiting, to space on campus to advisory councils and individuals in the community that can help us develop the kind of programming and the proper initiatives that work for UNB,” says MacLean.

Perley is hopeful that the plan will attract more Indigenous tenure-track scholars—UNB currently has one Indigenous scholar on a three-year term—and assist in establishing an Indigenous Studies program and Wabanaki Centre on-campus.

The Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre, which is housed in the Department of Education, is already working on creating a stronger cultural presence on campus, with the introduction of monthly sweat lodges led by Elder-in-Residence Imelda Perley and open to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Wallace hopes that the plan will debunk some of the misconceptions and ingrained stereotypes of Indigenous students, including the belief that they all receive free education. According to Wallace, they have to re-apply for funding every year and there is not enough for everyone, meaning some students are prioritized over others.

These misconceptions can cause discrimination against Indigenous students and according to Perley, this contributes to the low retention rates of Indigenous students at UNB.

“I think mostly the discrimination and all the racist comments we’re getting is mostly due to ignorance,” says Wallace, who emphasized the importance of raising awareness around Indigenous issues.

Will it be enough?

Photo: Maria Araujo

However, some worry that the indigenization process will not be conducted in a truly mutual process, one that includes Indigenous voice as an equal and one that is truly nation-to-nation.

“We know what the words [nation-to-nation] mean and the words have a clear and precise meaning, that the two sides are equal, in the same way that NAFTA’s a nation-to-nation agreement, but of course they don’t mean anything like that,” says Bedford.

“I think they mean nation-to-subordinated colonized people and we’re taking the thumb and just releasing it slightly from them.”

McKinney says that inclusion of Indigenous peoples is necessary for real reconciliation, and that this inclusion needs to extend beyond tokenism, that words need to translate into action.  

For Perley, having Indigenous representation on the Senate and Board of Governors would be a step forward in terms of having more voice on campus, and he expressed excitement at the plans to hire an Indigenous administrator who will implement the finalized strategic plan.

“It can’t be about somebody riding in on their white steed and fixing us. Aboriginal people don’t need fixing, we’re not broken,” said McKinney.

“It’s the systems that are broken…that’s what needs to get fixed.”

Photos by Maria Araujo.

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1 Comment

  1. Riley Smith Reply

    Informative and well written. I hope to see many more or Ms. MacDonald’s articles in the future.
    UNB Water is a club on the Fredericton campus driving to create safe drinking water systems for off the grid reservations. Might be a good follow up this this!

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