McGill is situated on the traditional territory of the Kanien’keha:ka, the easterly Iroquois tribe whose territory stretches from west of present-day New York all the way to southern Quebec and eastern Ontario. The Kanien’keha:ka are the custodians of the land which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations. Today, universities across Canada are recognizing their role in disrupting Indigenous livelihood and traditions, and are making concerted efforts to create awareness among their communities. To commemorate the past and presence of Indigeneity at McGill, part of the first month of each academic year is devoted to Indigenous awareness. The two-week-long event aims to raise awareness and initiate an exchange of ideas on First Nations, Métis and Inuit topics within the McGill community. As this year’s event comes to a close, what practical steps can the University take so that its programming is more than symbolic?McGill’s First People’s House, is an office that aims to provide a voice and sense of community to Indigenous students and staff. It’s considered a “home away from home” for many First Nations, Inuit and Métis students. Alyse VanEvery is the First People’s House Student Associate. She is a graduate of McGill University and a member of the Six Nations Community. Part of her mandate is to develop workshops and events to help Aboriginal students overcome obstacles and help them familiarize themselves with McGill. She offers one-on-one advising and first-year orientation appointments.
VanEvery believes the resources for student success are available within the administrative setup but there is still room to expand. Her focus is on building strong, holistic relationships with Indigenous students, even before they arrive at McGill. She explains that the advantage of having such a small number of students to serve is that she is able to work closely with them and know who they really are.
VanEvery currently acts as an advisor for 350 Indigenous students. She places great importance on maintaining close partnerships across campus that help in her capacity as the sole advisor for all Indigenous students, “You need a strong internal network of colleagues to count on,” she says.
The Provosts’ Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education is a good example of how self-examination can produce valuable and applicable solutions to deep-rooted problems. In a 2017 Final Report, the Task Force set a goal of increasing enrolment for Indigenous students up to 1,000 and hiring more Indigenous staff and faculty members. Based on the University’s goals, the support system will continue to expand in the future.
VanEvery has always been a supporter of having Indigenous staff not just in roles like Indigenous Student Advisors or the Director of First People’s House. “For a student to walk around campus and see an Indigenous librarian, mental health counsellor, or even just anyone of colour, is important,” she adds. “It is powerful to make goals and put them in writing, but to recruit students and have them here means we need to have the support in place when they arrive.”
Aaron Mills is a new Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law. Mills is a doctoral student currently finishing his dissertation and comes from the Anishinaabe band located throughout Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the United States. In recognizing and valuing Indigenous academics’ work within communities, in addition to their academic achievements, the Faculty has put one of the Task Force’s recommendations on hiring in effect.
While new faculty hires like Professor Mills are underway, an expansion of the Indigenous Studies program should also be on the radar for the future.
“I think the next step would be to bring the indigenous studies minor into a major”, says VanEvery, “and to incorporate more indigenous courses into the curriculum. Students should be able to see themselves reflected within the institution.”
VanEvery advises students to get involved in whatever they can right away and to remember that anything that engages with the community is not a misuse of study time. She also reminds Indigenous students to consider First People’s House as a safe place where building community and finding opportunities to grow are presented as stepping stones to the wider McGill community.
In order to assist their students and pave the way for the future, McGill’s First People’s House (FPH), in collaboration with the McGill Career Planning Service and Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers, is hosting an “Indigenous Career Day” (October 13). The purpose of the event is to connect current students and alumni with employers to “discuss and bridge the school to work transition.” For more information or to register please contact jesse.mcclintock [at] mcgill.ca.