Four Indigenous scholars gauge progress in respecting culture, scholarship

Indigenous research and scholarship is about infusing higher education institutions with eons of wisdom that was dismissed and discarded through colonization. Brainstorm guest contributor Paul Fraumeni discusses the profusion of Indigenous wisdom at York University with four prominent thought leaders.

Feb. 10, 2020. On the seventh floor of York University’s Kaneff Tower, people are taking their seats. It’s lunchtime and the host of the upcoming workshop, Professor Deborah McGregor, has arranged for shawarmas and veggies.

Two posters, taped to the wall, read: “Wet’suwet’en Supporter Toolkit,” with a website address, and “TODAY Emergency Action 3 - 7pm Eglinton Park.”

Deborah McGregor

McGregor, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Justice, has asked four youth and students to reflect upon the most prominent Indigenous environmental justice occurring in Canada today in a panel titled “The Wet’suwet’en and the Canadian State.”

By the time McGregor rises to introduce the panel, the audience has swelled to more than 50 people.

McGregor is jointly appointed at Osgoode Hall Law School and the Faculty of Environmental Studies, but she believes that being outside these offices, with groups like this, is precisely where she needs to be. She seeks to help grassroots people voice their feelings and deliver their knowledge about Indigenous law and beliefs, especially as those laws and beliefs relate to non-Indigenous laws.

McGregor, who is Anishinaabe, sustains a dizzying schedule of speaking engagements. Over the past four years, she has given more than 160 presentations.

She and her team at the Indigenous Environmental Justice Project (IEJ) devote a huge amount of energy to creating opportunities for Indigenous people to speak and be heard.

“The knowledge is being generated from the Indigenous community. We’re trying to mobilize. They have something to say. They don’t have the same opportunities I have as an academic. So, we create tools (such as the IEJ website) and events to give them an opportunity to have that voice. My job…is to bring their voices forward for other people to try to understand and consider, and say, ‘Oh well, I’ve never thought about that before.’”

McGregor is part of a growing scholarly community at York focused on infusing the University with eons of Indigenous wisdom that were dismissed and discarded through colonization.

An important step in building this pan-university Indigenous programming came with York’s Indigenous Framework in 2017. “This makes an important contribution to our shared commitment to reconciliation and to fostering stronger connections and support for the Indigenous community at York and beyond,” said York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton, at the time of the launch.

The Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies has an Indigenous Studies program and the Faculty of Education now offers a BEd, Waaban Indigenous Teacher Education, with a focus on Indigenous worldviews. Faculty of Education Associate Professor Susan Dion was instrumental in developing the program. She is also heading a PhD cohort in Indigenous education.

Ruth Koleszar-Green

York’s Indigenous Framework also included the appointment of Professor Ruth Koleszar-Green as special advisor to the president on Indigenous initiatives.

Koleszar-Green, from the Mohawk Nation and a member of the Turtle Clan, is pleased with the progress York is making in the Indigenization of the University. “I’ve been here for six years. When I stepped into the role of co-Chair of the York Indigenous Council in 2015, we had six or seven Indigenous scholars. Now we’ve almost tripled that number.”

She believes fervently in the value of education and the research being conducted at York University. “The research being done by my Indigenous colleagues and non-Indigenous allies has been phenomenal. The research projects I’ve been privy to are about Indigenous communities advancing themselves, about Indigenous knowledge being central, they’re about how Indigenous artists are leading. […] We may not be able to change everything immediately, but we’re impacting the next generation.”

Koleszar-Green, in the School of Social Work, believes the most important quality of Indigenous research at York is that “it’s Indigenous-led. This work is not studies being done on Indigenous people, it’s Indigenous people having sovereignty and having conversations about who we are.”

Following on the Indigenous Framework, the Office of the Vice-President, Research & Innovation (VPRI), incorporated “Indigenous Futurities” as one of five priority research opportunities in its Strategic Research Plan (2018-2023).

As stated in the plan, “This acknowledges the power of research that embraces future potential and past reality as integral to sound contemporary work. In the coming years, Indigenous leadership in York’s research will creative a unique space to support contributions to Indigenous knowledges within and beyond the academy.”

In addition, VPRI has developed (in consultation with Koleszar-Green) and delivered a series of five workshops by staff for staff to help participants understand colonization and decolonization, and create opportunities to reflect on how their professional roles and practices might serve as barriers to Indigenous research and Indigenous researchers.

Portrait of Sheila Cote-Meek, York University's inaugural VP Equity

Shelia Cote-Meek

Another thought leader is Professor Sheila Cote-Meek, who joined York in 2019 as the University’s first vice-president, equity, people and culture. She is Anishnaabe from the Teme-Augama Anishnabai.

Cote-Meek is pleased with what she sees as progress in non-Indigenous Canadians understanding the culture, history and current challenges of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. “Yes, we’ve moved to a better understanding. I wish I could say that includes everyone, but it doesn’t. In the university system, there’s a better understanding of the needs of Indigenous learners and scholars. But there are still a lot of preconceived ideas and stereotypes. We have to deconstruct those stereotypes.”

Cote-Meet’s book Colonized Classrooms: Racism, Trauma and Resistance in Post-Secondary Education was a seminal publication. “The book was published in 2014, but it’s still relevant in 2020. We’re making headway, but there’s still a lot of work to do to dismantle systemic barriers that exist.”

Professor Michael Greyeyes, in the School of Arts, Media Performance & Design, believes theatre can help to break those stereotypes. He is Plains Cree from the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan.

A graduate of the National Ballet School and Kent State University’s School of Theatre and Dance, Greyeyes has built a successful career in dance, film, television and theatre.

Michael Greyeyes. Credit: Jeremy Mimnaugh

But it was education, he says, that made a huge difference to his career. “By the time I reached my mid-career, I’d been performing, choreographing and directing. But I always felt a call to higher learning. So, in my 30s, I went back to get my master’s. I knew my work as a director and artist would be informed by research. What surprised me is that the research fed so directly into the elevation of my artistic work.”

He feels there’s a solid connection between his identity as an Indigenous person and his role as a scholar. “I have a privilege as a professor and a responsibility as an Indigenous voice. My focus as a researcher is how Indigenous ontologies reflect back on Canadian and international audiences, and how our work, our history, our physical bodies are absent from larger discourses.”

To that end, Greyeyes has been “an activist for expanding the theatrical canon to include Indigenous perspectives and voices.”

He notes that when he was graduate program director for the Masters of Fine Arts program, he lobbied for an entire season to be dedicated to Indigenous research. During that time, the York theatre department hired Yvette Nolan as the program’s first outside Indigenous director. Nolan wrote an adaptation of the classical Greek play by Aristophanes, The Birds.

“It’s important to know that Indigenous scholars, by our networks and our research focus, always invite the larger academic apparatus to include our voices in setting curricula and setting the table for subsequent discourse,” Greyeyes says.

He is also founder and artistic director of Toronto’s Signal Theatre, which has presented two Indigenous-language operas.

Does he think Canada is at a turning point in respecting Indigenous culture?

“We’re waiting for the turning point. I think a lot more people are woke and listening … But all you have to do is turn on the news and look at the raids on the west coast camps and think, ‘This is business as usual.’ Will there be outrage? There’s outrage in my community. Will that be shared?”

For more on McGregor, visit her faculty profile page or the IEJ Project website. To learn more about Cote-Meek, see the YFile story about her appointment. To know more about Koleszar-Green, visit her faculty profile page. For more on Greyeyes, visit his faculty profile page.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch; watch our new animated video, which profiles current research strengths and areas of opportunity, such as Artificial Intelligence and Indigenous futurities; and see the snapshot infographic, a glimpse of the year’s successes.

Paul Fraumeni is an award-winning freelance writer who has specialized in covering university research for more than 20 years. To learn more, visit his website. He is non-Indigenous.