Illustration | Ylin Zhu

A discussion with Traditional Teacher Lee Maracle and various voices of Indigenous Education Week 2017 on the “calls to action” in the UofT Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee’s final report 

A stretch of window hugs the hallway in the First Nations House. Along the window’s ledge, from left to right, a row of green plants stand shoulder to shoulder. Their leaves reach beyond the window-frame, spilling into the open light of the hall. For one moment, here, these plants compel the passerby to pause. Where does growth begin?  

The “House” is actually a single floor in a building shared with two other centres and the Campus Mail Service. No signage outside calls attention to the FNH’s presence within. UofT maps refer to the three-story space as the North Borden Building—a name that, rather than reflecting any of the organizations inside the walls, refers to a long-forgotten dairy company that once occupied the property.

Lee Maracle, a Traditional Teacher at FNH and a member of the Stó:lō Nation, spoke to The Strand in her office—just down the hall from the plants on that windowsill. Maracle is an advisor to UofT’s Steering Committee for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which comprises over fifteen Indigenous scholars, students, and specialists. This January saw the official release of the TRC Steering Committee’s final report to President Meric Gertler, marked with a special ceremony at Hart House.

The report, which was commissioned by Gertler in response to a nation-wide report on reconciliation by the TRC of Canada in 2015, investigated five Terms of Reference at UofT regarding reconciliation: the recruitment and support of Indigenous students, staff, and faculty at all three campuses; the engagement and involvement of Indigenous alumni; the inclusion of Indigenous curriculum content throughout University programs; the enhancement of Indigenous-focused courses and programs; and the inclusion of Indigenous themes in the University’s programming. From the findings of these investigations, the TRC formulated 34 “Calls to Action” for reconciliation efforts at UofT.

“Nothing about us, without us,” Maracle said of the central message behind these “Calls to Action.” She explained, “I don’t think people should start doing projects and then invite us in once it’s all organized, knowing they’ve decided all that they’re going to do. I don’t think that’s a good way to go. I think that’s a colonial way to go—and a lot of people are doing just that. That’s what residential school was—it was someone else deciding what was good for us. And that turned out not so well.”

The report states that as a national and global leader in education, UofT must address and accept the entirety of the past. From its opening paragraphs, it makes it clear that the truth, and only the truth, will lay the necessary foundation for reconciliation; “The University of Toronto must acknowledge frankly that it has historically been an instrument of oppression of Indigenous peoples.”

UofT may not have participated in the direct implementation of residential schools, yet the University was still a participant in the system. The TRC explains that the University educated the “generations of political leaders, policy makers, teachers, civil servants, and many others” who became proponents for the abuse and oppression happening in residential schools. Even after the harm and damage of the residential schooling system became widely known, the University did not urge its strong research faculties to investigate.

The reality of this complicit participation in the residential schooling system can be a hard truth to face, as the report acknowledges. For any student who has walked across the University’s St. George campus and seen the banners promoting the school’s Boundless campaign, it would be difficult to imagine an education system not designed for the individual’s liberation. Each banner displays a research question, putting forth the image of an institution dedicated to individual liberation and improvement through education. In its very title, the Boundless initiative reasserts that UofT students are genuinely freed through their education. For most students and educators, this assumption is a natural one; education is empowerment.

Any student who reads the TRC’s final report, however, might come to view these Boundless flags differently the next time they see them on the way to class. As the report explains, UofT ignored the residential schooling system that existed not to liberate, but to repress. This truth should not be passed off as a thing of the distant past, either. The birth year of many UofT students in their third year coincides with the closure of the final residential school in Canada; the last registered school to close its doors was only terminated in 1996. By that time, over 140 residential schools had operated in Canada, and an estimated 150,000 First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students passed through their doors. Today, as Canada comes into its 150th year, it must be remembered that the residential school system, in many ways—from personal trauma, to community memory—still exists.

However, this piece of history forms only one part of the entire truth: the truth that comes from colonialism, forced conversion, and ignorance; the truth that encompasses a long list of tortures; the truth that is cultural genocide. But giving a number to the faces, or articulating black-and-white facts in academic language, does not hold substance for the path towards reconciliation. “Fine words are not enough. ‘Mindsets’ have to change, especially among the members of the dominant community,” the TRC urges.

If mindsets are to change, the Canadian narrative must grow. This was a central theme in the 2017 Indigenous Education Week at UofT, which followed on the heels of the TRC’s new report. The IEW expanded upon these “Calls to Action” by bringing forth the necessary narratives of Indigenous novelists, poets, and artists.  For the repression of truth does not, by any means, happen strictly within Canadian institutions. It happens just as actively and forcefully within Canadian literary and arts circles.

One of the creators that contributed to this discussion and shared their works during IEW was Gwen Benaway, a Two-spirited Trans poet of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. In a 2016 interview, she relayed, “I think ‘CanLit’ is a cluster of bullshit which avoids the truth of Canada.” The majority of acclaimed Canadian authors can be placed within a loose grouping of works that Benaway describes as “being used to sell a particular vision of Canada and its history, a cottage-lined Muskoka painting of a rough land with cold winters and unbalanced homesteaders.” This is a concern for reconciliation efforts at UofT, as many of these Canadian authors are the ones that the University has chosen to lift the highest. In doing so, authors like Lee Maracle, herself, who has been praised on the international scene and recognized for numerous published works, are left unmentioned in favour of the canonical regulars.

Considering the ever-increasing emphasis on accessing and utilizing information, the bandwagon of liberal values, and the developing political awareness of youth on campus and across the nation, the need for more realistic and truthful narratives in the twenty-first century can no longer be deferred. Canadians have collectively failed to depart with the passive narrative of centuries ago, opting instead to remain an idle member of what the TRC describes as “a dominant settler culture.”

The truth, Benaway explains, would entail that, “if we talk about cottages, it’s because wealthy white people own them and have pushed us out of our ancestral lands.” In shifting from the colonial narrative, IEW reminds students and citizens that the arts will be a vital tool.

Benaway’s event, which also featured Gregory Scofield, a Red River Métis of Cree, Scottish, and European descent, and Lee Maracle, was titled “Poetry for a Unified Future.” This title considers two possibilities at once: the significant role of the arts as UofT and Canada move forward with truth and reconciliation efforts, and also providing a subtle warning of the many Canadian works that have moved us in the opposite direction.

Again and again, IEW speakers echoed the TRC’s “calls to action,” particularly in addressing the importance in revitalizing Indigenous languages. In her conversation with Professor Karyn Recollet, a Cree from the Sturgeon Lake First Nations, the artist Joi Arcand of Muskeg Leg Cree Nation presented the danger of Indigenous language loss through a photographic series, “Here On Future Earth.” Each frame features a standard building seen in small Saskatchewan towns—a gas station, an ice cream stand, a town hall—and in each frame, the English text on the building’s signage is digitally edited to read in Cree Syllabics.

The importance of language is reinforced by Maracle, as well. “We think it’s important to get people speaking our languages, because in our languages is our relationship to the land. And we’re hoping that Canadians will make that same connection.” Providing an example, Maracle explained that the Longhouse people “have a prayer they say that’s called The words that come before all else.” This prayer, Maracle described, was more than simply words; “before we make a decision, we recite these words, and it’s our commitment to stars, sky, land, water, animal, trees, small plants, and human beings.” Laughing, she said, “So, before we buy a car, we make this commitment. It stopped me from buying a car,” she grinned. “Yeah, I didn’t really need it.”

New programs at UofT will be necessary to sustain the language involved in such traditions. In the province of Ontario, Maracle said, there are “a lot of Crees, a lot of Inuits, a lot of Ojibwes, and a lot of Six Nations people. That’s quite a few languages, and I think they only have three of them available right now at the University.”

In spite of the hard truths still to be confronted and the immense journey ahead—or perhaps because of them—there is a sense of hope within the TRC and the participants of the IEW. When asked if she thought a shift was to occur for reconciliation efforts in 2017, Maracle was quick to correct the assumption that such a shift could only be in the future tense. “I think the shift occurred probably about five years ago. The ceremony was just a recognition of it. It’s a bigger shift now, but it started with Naylor, shifting the way he did business with us.”

If the shift truly began with Naylor, who stepped down from his presidency only in 2013, then there exists a pressure for his successor, Meric Gertler, to continue building the shift of which Maracle speaks—to continue growing these healthy, new relationships with Indigenous peoples, inside and outside of UofT. It does appear, according to Maracle, that “the University is committed to putting things in place that will ensure access to our knowledge, to Indigenous Studies, and to our languages. It was denied us for 125 years, so that’s a good thing.”

“We’re hiring a permanent director, which I think is really great,” Maracle says, in relation to the Centre for Indigenous Studies. “Indigenous Studies has been a bit wobbly for a few years because we don’t have a permanent director.” With a new director in place, the Centre can begin securing faculty members who are committed to Indigenous Studies. “Right now, our professors are mostly committed to other programs,” Maracle explained. “Like, 49% Indigenous Studies, 51% whatever else. These things are crippling when you come to disagreement about things.”

While she admitted that the future permanent director for the Centre for Indigenous Studies will have a difficult position in building a program from scratch, her conclusion was one of optimism. “There’s a lot of hope, and I think that’s what this TRC is all about, really—to restore hope for us. You know, Canadians have always had their hopes. They came here with their hopes and dreams, and those hopes and dreams got realized. Ours, at that time, were being crushed.”

None of this, the TRC’s report discloses, is for the sake of pointing fingers. To reduce the topic to merely a matter of blame would be ignorant of its longitudinal and latitudinal context in Canada’s social, cultural, and political growth. As the TRC explains, “Reconciliation is not about closing a sad chapter of Canada’s past, but about opening new healing pathways of reconciliation that are forged in truth and justice.”

Returning to that hallway in the FNH, the thriving plants along the windowsill remind us of the question: Where does growth begin? In this empty hallway, before this one window, these plants can show us what becomes possible when we grow. This image of the plants is not to imply, however, that growth will be a tidy or comfortable process. To grow healing pathways that can move us towards reconciliation, we must face an “uncomfortable, messy process,” as the report notes. However, the recognition of this messy reality is just another part of the truth—another step towards beginning reconciliation from a place of honesty. Like the root of a plant must come before the bud, the TRC reminds us that the process of reconciliation can begin nowhere else than with the truth.