What’s in a Symbol? Taking Representation and Visibility Seriously on Campus and in Curricula

McGill celebrates National Aboriginal Day and releases the final report of the Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Education

In just two months, McGill has made many aesthetic changes on and around our downtown campus. Flags of the world frame both sides of the Roddick Gates, and twelve sculptures inspired by the universal values of humanism, tolerance and openness, have made the campus grounds their home for the summer. While these new additions are temporary (part of an outdoor exhibit in collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), another long awaited and symbolically significant change has been made in one of McGill’s most visible spots on campus: The Hochelaga Rock has been moved to the entrance of the Roddick Gates, directly across from the James McGill statue.

On June 21st, National Aboriginal Day, McGill celebrated this move by hosting a commemorative ceremony and making another important announcement. After a year of research and collaboration, the final report of Provost Christopher Manfredi’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Education is ready for implementation. The Provost himself was there to see the commemoration, as were many other important figures from McGill and the Aboriginal community.

One such person was Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk activist and artist from Kanehsatà:ke Nation – Turtle Clan, and the former head of the First People’s House. Poised and direct, and standing in front of the aligned flags of the Iroquois Confederacy, McGill, Quebec, and Canada, Gabriel gave an address that resounded bittersweet tones. For her, it seems as long as “McGill continues [its efforts] to consult with Indigenous elders and community members to recognize that Indigenous knowledge is the key to opening a greater understanding, and to bring out the pillars of which it’s values are on”, then the right path has been embarked upon.

For years, the Rock sat on main campus’ Lower Field, hidden between the Roddick Gates and McLennan Library. The location was so obscured from the route of daily passersby that most students never knew it existed. The hidden placement was unfortunate, as the Rock holds major historical significance for Iroquoian, Canadian, and McGill history: it commemorates the land which once belonged to the Iroquois people, and is now McGill’s downtown campus. The Rock also symbolizes the first contact made between the settlers of Jacques Cartier and the Iroquois of Turtle Island.

Another speaker was retired McGill Professor Michael Loft, of the Mohawk community at Kahnawake. Professor Loft was especially excited by the idea of making Aboriginal presence more visible on our campus, and he was instrumental in the campaign to move the Rock from its rather clandestine corner to where it is now.

“I would like to see this beautiful flag [of the Iroquois Confederacy] fly on top of the Arts Building – give the Martlet a break. Each year, on National Aboriginal Day, and perhaps a couple of days afterwards, that wouldn’t hurt anybody. That’s our good Provost’s idea. And to rotate, every year or month, with the flags of other Aboriginal nations,” Loft said in his lighthearted address.

The Task Force was launched in 2016, under Provost Manfredi’s mandate, and bolstered by the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, particularly its emphasis on the role of education and Canadian institutions in confronting the profound harms of colonial legacies like the residential school system. The Task Force’s 50-page report boils down its McGill-specific findings into five main calls-to-action: Student Recruitment and Retention; Physical Representation and Symbolic Recognition; Academic Programs and Curriculum; Research and Academic Complement; and Building Capacity and Human Resources.

Though all calls were recognized in their addresses, the Indigenous speakers at the ceremony placed particular emphasis on issues of representation, recognition, and visibility for Indigenous students at McGill.

“They will feel a home, in their homelands,” Gabriel said, noting the importance that increased representation in classroom curricula, as well as visibility in the physical surroundings, has for McGill’s current and future Indigenous students. “They will feel the pride that should have been there all along, that colonization has tried to take away. And I ask McGill: don’t practice what government is doing, and the status quo. Consult with indigenous communities. McGill, we are there with you. We don’t want you ahead or behind us, we will walk beside you.”

Professor Loft shared similar sentiments. “As we come down Sherbrooke, all these flags here make you feel good. It’s nice to see that. But we want our flag to be there too someday. We want to feel good, and it’s going to make us feel welcome.”

“This single act from McGill, putting up this flag, explaining a little more of the true story of the contact between Cartier and the ancient Iroquois, is going to help piece things together. I think it has to be done – it will send a powerful message of acceptance across Turtle Island.”

The new location of the Rock, auspiciously placed directly across the statue of James McGill.  

The eloquent and passionate address of Mohawk activist Ellen Gabriel was a highlight of the ceremony and reminded the crowd of the importance of paying proper respects to Indigenous heritage. Credit: Owen Egen

Task Force co-chairs Hudson Meadwell, Paige Isaac and Angela Campbell at the ceremony. Credit: Owen Egen

Retired McGill Professor Michael Loft, standing next to the Hochelaga Rock, at the 2016 ceremony which inaugurated the Indigenous Task Force under Provost Christopher Manfredi