Equity, Diversity, InclusionHeeding the Call(s)Indigenizing RyersonSA

Heeding the Call(s): On Allyship, Being a Good Friend, and Doing Better

The Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report is hovering, waiting for us to read, write, and develop programs in response to their findings. I feel personally and professionally compelled to participate in necessary and long-overdue healing. Heeding the Call(s) is my attempt to further the conversation about the TRC’s Final Report, its urgency, and what we can do in response as Student Affairs professionals.

This series, “Heeding the Call(s),” has emerged organically. Horrified by what I’d not learned before, keen to proactively shed light on my own complicity, and curious to co-imagine harmonized programs and daily practises, I have been writing in reaction to the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ Final Report and Calls to Action. This led to an exploration of indigenous ways of knowing, following which, a storied piece about my own family’s history. Here, now, with ever-building concerns and wonderings, if not full-fledged frustrations and lamentations, I realize that there’s a question I’m eager to tease apart, a question that underlies each of the past posts and themes: what does it mean to be an ally?

With ineloquence, awkwardness, vulnerability, and sincerity in equal measure, I turned to three remarkable thinkers for insight. I interviewed historical researcher, Laurie Leclair; Anishinaabe writer, educator, and activist, Hayden King; and Ryerson’s elder and traditional counsellor, Joanne Dallaire. I asked each about how to be a good ally. I asked what’s hidden in the frequent use of the word “allyship.” And in own my desire to learn and become an ally, I asked about what non-aboriginal people must be mindful of so as not to recreate harm.

First Lessons

Leclair pointed out, succinct and clear, “to be an ally is to first understand treaties.” Aware and a little ashamed of my own lack of knowledge, I asked her to elaborate. “The history of treaties is a history of promises, most of which have not been kept.” As someone who has worked daily for over two-and-a-half decades sleuthing out documents and surveys to bolster indigenous land claims, she urged me to read about treaties, and to grasp that they continue to be living relationships.

She lent me Anastasia Shkilnyk’s book, A Poison Stronger Than Love: The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community, which documents the horrors of Grassy Narrows. She laid out and contrasted old treaty maps with those more recent, space dwindling with each iteration. And she had me borrow from the library the very helpful grade school book, We Are All Treaty People. This condensed and illustrated history outlined the path of treaties. Aboriginal peoples, the book explains:

“…were knowledgeable about their environment…They took only what they needed from Mother Earth to survive, and offered something in return for everything they took…They traded…Sharing with others was the greatest virtue…The earliest treaties were…treaties of peace and friendship…And included reciprocity, giving back.” (pp. 6-15)

Initially, treaties were “made in the spirit of friendship, for trade. They included promises of protection from poverty and the taking of land.” But tragically, “[o]ver a short amount of time…[t]reaties became tools to acquire the vast tracts…of land. Rather than uphold the promises of protection, colonial settlers displaced, defrauded, deceived, and threatened” (pp. 15-17).

It didn’t take long into my reading to understand why Leclair had called treaties the starting point. Right here, right now, we occupy treaty land, and it wasn’t freely given. Leclaire also urged me to become informed about what enfranchisement, non-status, status, and fiduciary duties meant. And to understand that treaties make obligations clear, yet they’re not adhered to.

From Powerless to Proactive

Hayden King, an associate professor in Carleton’s School of Public Policy and Administration, urges that instead of feeling powerless, those “who are non-native can come to learn about settler colonialism, and intervene in indigenous misrepresentations and perpetuations of harm.” One way to do this, says King, is to “turn the mirror on themselves and examine what Canadian attitudes and institutions cause harm.” He explains how we need to take a critical view of the criminal justice system, health care, how natural resources are regulated, and indeed post-secondary institutions, each and all of these being a barrier to equity for indigenous people. In looking at these, he suggests we each ask ourselves how we are complicit in maintaining barriers. “What are you doing,” King asks, “to work towards making these institutions more hospitable to indigenous people, to create conditions for indigenous people to flourish?”

In the concluding pages of We Are All Treaty People, Commissioner Sidney Linden is quoted:

“Every Ontarian should understand that this province and our country were built upon the treaties negotiated with our First Nations and that everyone shares the benefits and obligations of those treaties…First Nations people view treaties as ‘living’ agreements that respect their status as nations…Treaty promises will be fulfilled when First Nations children can look forward to accessing the same education opportunities, the same quality health care and the same job prospects as their neighbours.” (pp. 33-34)

King makes clear, “learning and coming to understand are the first step, but they’re not the last. What you learn and understand must be used productively. Acts of low level activism do contribute. Address…lobby…work towards removing structural barriers. Ensure your committees include indigenous voices, go to events, advertise events. And to use the disability axiom, ‘nothing about us without us.’”

When I asked about the terms, meanings, and aims of “decolonize” and “indigenize,” Professor King described how too often such words are thrown around with little meaning, depth, or action behind them. He encourages robust conceptualizations of terms. To decolonize, he says, is to “take the colonial influence out of our lives”; to indigenize is to leave the institutions and structures fundamentally as they are but still “work towards improving their hospitality to indigenous people.” Likewise, says King, “reconciliation” is often used without a rich understanding: reconciliation comprises “restitution, which is a giving back of what was taken, a transformation of society, and living together in dignity.” And, more than just defining each of these, he encourages using them as a “double check, as a framework.”

To be an ally, King notes, is “to be open, to break down arrogance about how sure we are about how we learn, to be aware of essentializing,” and to stay clear of thinking of aboriginal peoples and ways of doing and knowing as homogenous. Paralleling these insights, Dallaire prioritizes open communication, and cautions against appropriating suffering.

Be a Good Friend

Dallaire feels that at the heart of a being a good ally is being a “good friend.” A friendship rich with “mutual sharing, accommodation differences, sought out parallels, and engagement with each other.” Disagreements and agreements, both, will emerge, and it’s crucial to be “transparent in the relationship.”

Instead of imposing, “I think this might work,” friends offer their strengths, an open-hearted willingness to lend a hand, and seek to empower their friend instead of taking over. She also recommends doing away with “shoulds”, embracing honesty, letting go of the need to apologize, and extending a heartfelt offer of “I’d like to help and here’s what I’m good at.” And along with knowing one’s self, she encourages “knowing who you want to be allies with. Who you want to assist. The key is to understanding. To be with is to be willing to share your own story. This is walking a good path together.”

How to Bring Allyship In Our Work With Students

I asked Dallaire as to her suggestions about harmonizing student support with the facts of the TRC, and with indigenous ways of being. She replied with a poignant metaphor of tending to the four elements: mind, body, spirit, and emotion. She said to envision this as a four wheeled vehicle, each element a tire. “You need to tend to each of these everyday. You can’t over-inflate the mind and body yet under-inflate the spirit and emotion. Your car won’t work.” This image has sat with me in every student session since our conversation. Moreover, Dallaire reminds about inner knowledge; as a compliment to our near universal strengths-based approach in SA, encouraging students to embrace that there is nothing lacking to them, no deficit, that they are “supposed to be themselves just as they are” and to reawaken their intuitive ways of knowing.

Dallaire cautions against fear and self-consciousness which can be immobilizing and unhelpful. Many, myself included, can experience feelings of guilt, dismayed at all they didn’t know. But Dallaire reminds, “Maya Angelou wrote, ‘I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.’ So, now that you know better, indeed, do better. Leave talking about being an ally behind. Be it. Be the ally.” She also warned against being overly cautious, about being “so cautious as to be afraid. You don’t have to justify your interest, or your desire to help. It’s enough for it to be because you care.”

Professor King echoes these insights, encouraging those interested in allyship to “try to understand in a deliberative way, call out injustice, and be unafraid to be bold and vocal.” He reminds, as the land acknowledgment depicts,

“Toronto is in the ‘Dish With One Spoon Territory.’ The Dish With One Spoon is a treaty between the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee that bound them to share the territory and protect the land. Subsequent Indigenous Nations and peoples, Europeans and all newcomers have been invited into this treaty in the spirit of peace, friendship, and respect.”

In this, King points out, is a reminder of our responsibilities to each other. We all share in this covenant. And, in a follow-up conversation, King also noted that this acknowledgment isn’t static or fixed; nor is it without complexities or flaws. Like treaties, the Land Acknowledgement too is a living entity, and will change and shift. “Native and non-native,” he highlights, “we have obligations to each other. All of us are obligated to ensure that the dish never runs empty.”

Heeding the Call(s) is a series dedicated to Student Affairs contribution to integrating the TRC’s findings into our everyday work. Join me as I explore some principles of aboriginal education, examples of “indigenized” programming, and suggestions of how we might transition towards what some call indigagogy, all in the hopes of taking responsibility and prioritizing reconciliation.