Knowing one’s history and understanding one’s place in the world can serve as a powerful catalyst for healing, especially when this knowledge is shared with the intention of fostering mutual respect and support, says Armand Garnet Ruffo, a member of the Ojibwe nation and National Scholar in Indigenous Languages and Literatures at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Queen’s is situated on the traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples and has made a commitment to reconciliation by being inclusive, working with Indigenous communities and integrating Indigenous studies, says the award-winning writer and poet.
There is a tremendous upsurge of interest in Indigenous subject matter, and Mr. Ruffo says this is evident in the fifth edition of the Oxford Anthology of Indigenous Literature in Canada that he is currently editing. “We see that Indigenous writing has really taken off since earlier editions.”
This interest is also reflected in the enrolment in Queen’s Plan in Indigenous Studies, an interdisciplinary degree with course offerings in Indigenous history, culture, experience, language and ways of knowing, says Donato Santeramo, who heads the university’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. Some courses are so much in demand that not all students can always be accommodated.
“The objective is to provide students with knowledge of the history and culture of Indigenous people – and ensure that these histories are told – and also give non-Indigenous students the skills to work with humility, with Indigenous knowledge systems and methodologies,” says Dr. Santeramo. “The idea is that we have a lot to learn from the Indigenous way of looking at things.
“Giving our students a new lens for interacting with the world can allow us to move forward together – as a university and as society as a whole,” he adds.
Dylan Robinson, a scholar of Stó:lō descent who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts, highlights the example of listening. “I teach about the ways we listen to and perceive the world in general – and the differences between Indigenous forms of perception and western ways of looking, listening and sensing.”
While these forms of perception aren’t something that necessarily can – or even should – be adopted by everyone, Dr. Robinson says we need to be aware of them. “It’s important to know how our every-day ways of looking and listening are influenced by national values, and by where we come from,” he explains. “And understanding differences in perception is a fundamental part of developing our capacity for critical thinking.”
From this understanding comes an appreciation that “conventional structures of academia are not always conducive for Indigenous ways of learning,” says Dr. Robinson. “The way knowledge is conveyed in Indigenous communities, for example through oral history, often doesn’t fit with standardized educational models.”
Queen’s is working to address such barriers, first and foremost by responding to all calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), he says. “As an Indigenous faculty member, I agree with the approach to not just single out one or two things, but really take a comprehensive view of the work that needs to be done across the whole institution.”
Vanessa McCourt, aboriginal advisor at the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, who is Kaienkehaka (Mohawk) from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, shares this view. “For reconciliation, all of us need to come together and figure out this new partnership and how it’s going to work,” she says. “Queen’s TRC task force spoke to the Queen’s and Kingston communities about what this can look like, not only for the university, but also the larger community.”
The efforts of bringing reconciliation to the forefront – and into curriculum design – are already yielding tangible results, according to Ms. McCourt. “Every year, we welcome a greater number of students who self-identify as Indigenous,” she says. “And there has been a huge leap in interest in Indigenous culture and history from the Queen’s community.”
Greater awareness can lead to acceptance, Ms. McCourt believes. “For our Indigenous students to feel safe and supported on campus, that requires efforts from everyone,” she says. “And by increasing understanding and appreciation of Indigenous issues, we create a more inclusive atmosphere.”
Among Queen’s growing number of successful Indigenous-focused programs are the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, the Sustainable Engineering in Remote Areas Program and Aboriginal Law.
And to accommodate different ways of learning, the university supports non-traditional approaches, such as community-based and artistic-practice-based dissertations in the Cultural Studies Graduate Program, says Dr. Robinson. “It’s important for us to support Indigenous students in prioritizing traditional knowledge and working in formats that make sense from their specific cultural perspectives.”
Dr. Robinson also acknowledges the work that Queen’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures has been doing to support Indigenous language courses: Mohawk, Inuktitut and Anishinaabemowin. “Languages are incredibly important because of the precarity of language learning and retention in many of our communities,” he explains.
Dr. Santeramo adds, “We see offering Indigenous languages as a step toward inclusivity and a contribution to revitalizing endangered languages,” he explains. “Language is the core, the soul of a culture. Without the language, culture and heritage are at risk.”
Indigenous faculty and partners have been key drivers for developing Indigenous programming, says Dr. Santeramo, who hopes these efforts will contribute to making Indigenous students and the larger community feel acknowledged and welcome at Queen’s.