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Soup and Substance 4: Decolonization. Helpers (Oshkaabawiisen): Event reflection

by Sarena Sekwun Johnson

I had the opportunity to share this content at ‘Soup and Substance’ – a panel on “Decolonization”, and due to time constraints I was only able to share a small portion of it, hence the more fulsome share through this medium at this time.

(Anishnaabemowin intro.) I didn’t actually say my introduction in the language since I thought we had five minutes total per section, for three panelists. I tried to cut down my words and was reading from my paper to make sure each word, each second, counted. After the event I learned we had five minutes each. So, here is what I planned to say and would have said if time was not a factor:

My name is Sarena Johnson and I was born in Toronto. My mother’s family are Nehiyaw Cree Metis from the Quapelle valley in Saskatchewan and my father is Anishinaabe from Caldwell First Nation and Lenni Lenape from Moraviantown, Muncey Delaware and Six Nations. I work in Ryerson Student Affairs in the Special Projects & Storytelling Unit. My work is primarily related to communications, writing and editing, and my title is storyteller, content and communications. But the things I am sharing at this event are my own opinions as an Indigenous person, a learner and a student. So that’s my disclaimer.

What is your definition of decolonizing?

Put simply – the act of dismantling colonial power. Speaking with broad strokes in a Canadian context, decolonizing is about repairing the harmful effects of settler colonialism and would involve drastically altering existing systems of power. Since most of Canada was never ceded and those lands that were ceded were negotiated in nation to nation treaties with the crown, decolonizing would mean honouring Indigenous nations’ sovereignty as international law. A practical example would be undoing Indigenous organizations’ funding formulas having to be determined by municipal, provincial or even federal governments. Indigenous nations and NGO’s wouldn’t have to constantly re-apply for the same funding over and over and worry about programs or jobs lost every fiscal year or every election.

It would also mean that a lot of stolen land and resources would need to be returned. And I bet a lot of people just got really uncomfortable, and I don’t think that’s what I’m being asked to talk about here. For this conversation today I think we’re focusing more specifically about decolonizing in terms of my everyday experiences working here at Ryerson University.

So, Ryerson is a University. In the ‘academy’ we have the opportunity to participate in actual knowledge production. Universities are a major site where ideas and knowledges are given validation and authenticity. But these are also colonial institutions- they were built on ideologies that Indigenous people were less than human. Ideologies that justified generations of genocidal practices. So we need to acknowledge that we are in a space with colonization as it’s DNA. It’s not like you can snap your fingers and magically “decolonize” that away from such an institution. I mean, this city, this country is full of institutions that were built on these principles – but what irks me most personally is that colonization determines how I think, what I value, and how I move through the world. Colonization isn’t just an academic or activist buzzword, it’s in my head and my body.

Someone I know shared that when he found out he was Native at age 6 – he cried. So that’s the end product of colonization. To maintain white superiority and indigenous inferiority in people’s minds – at any age. Growing up, the hidden curriculum was that I was inherently, undeserving, of little value, and just generally bad. Because I was Native and because I was a Native girl. But my family were loving and supportive so at times the self esteem from that would show, and someone (often my own people) would subconsciously flag that and put me in check to maintain/uphold the systems of power from which I was excluded. Those experiences made me question my own value as a person, or rather, made me feel like less than a person.

So decolonizing starts with interrogating our own thoughts and beliefs and identifying how they were constructed to maintain structures like colonialism at all costs, including and especially when it comes to blame and shame. Decolonizing means healing. It means love. Love for self and love for others in relationship. It means showing kindness and giving self and others the benefit of the doubt instead of rushing to individual criticism.

But decolonizing does require criticism of our every day experiences. Critical decolonial thoughts look like noticing how Game of Thrones and every other fantastical tv show set in some made up place, automatically assumes a British accent to lend itself credibility as “old timey.” Then talking with other people about what that might mean. (Not to hate on GOT – I’ve read all the books and love the show, but it’s a good example here.)

2. Integration – How do I integrate these beliefs into my work?

In the Blackfoot tipi teachings that inspired Maslow’s hierarchy, self actualization is actually at the bottom of the pyramid – it’s the basis from which community well-being and the highest goal of cultural perpetuity are built upon. (I first heard about this from LeRoy Little Bear & if you hadn’t heard about the Maslow-Blackfoot connection, there’s a piece with that title on Colonization creates ongoing crises that prevent Indigenous people from reaching self actualization – or how I look at it, healing and living your best life. In Blackfoot epistemology, this wholeness of self is the very basic level, it’s the starting point.

Ongoing learning is a big piece of decolonization. I make learning a part of my job and I’m grateful to be working in a space with such an abundance of amazing learning opportunities. I’m a student too, doing an M.Ed in Urban Indigenous Education at York. So I’m always balancing a bundle of responsibilities, but self care is not optional for me- it’s imperative. It takes a lot of work to bring my “whole” self to work. Overcoming intergenerational and ongoing trauma requires enormous energy. Since colonization and its resultant trauma are housed in the body, then decolonizing the body is also a set of physical acts we perform on a daily basis.

Decolonizing requires that I don’t eat wheat or sugar because those starvation tactic colonial commodities affect my body and mental health in negative ways. I need to get to the gym on a regular basis to manage anxiety and depression. I use my OPSEU benefits. I see a naturopath. I get acupuncture. I see Elders. I get reiki treatments. I get pedicures. The pedicures are unfortunately not covered by the benefits, but one can dream. And I’ve recently taken up archery which links my love of martial arts with a cultural practice linking me to my ancestors – a form of meditation – and just a generally cool hobby. Indigenous magic.

But decolonization is not just an individual process. So I prioritize building relationship. As an introvert, it might not always look like that, but when the emotional energy to socialize is available, I really go for it. I also prioritize community. I collaborate with Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services/RASS on various projects and working groups. I attend events, a lot of events. Perhaps more than my team realized I would. It’s great to say ‘we want to hire an indigenous person who is involved in their community’ but there needs to be a real life awareness of the commitment that requires.

As far as my programming and services, I do internal Ryerson Student Affairs communications and I’m the editor for (letter s, letter a, dash exchange dot ca), an online space for people who work in Student Affairs across Canada. So my work primarily consists of content creation and development – writing and encouraging others to write or otherwise engage in content creation. I also do social media for both projects, hashtag RyersonSA, hashtag SAcdn. I also work with a nationwide editorial board and ensure that we centre Indigenous voice and stories, so there is a lot of education & outreach built into my role.  

When I introduced myself in Anishnaabemowin, the first thing I said after Aaniiboozhoo (hello) was Ajijauk Dodem, which means I am crane clan. That’s a leadership clan, but specifically external leadership, like building bridges and making connections with distinct groups. So I very much feel that I am fulfilling those clan roles through this work at this time. Anxiety has been a barrier to me sharing in events like this in the past, but sharing feels like a responsibility I have to my ancestors and even my own spirit. So in a way I feel very privileged in that my work can align with what’s most sacred to me, and my team has held space for me to incorporate my own healing journey into my work.

3. How or/Is this being addressed in my faculty or unit?

Often with Indigenous hires – people are encouraged to express their culture – but it’s prescriptive –  like “be Indigenous”- subtext: in a way that adheres to the institution or the department’s cultural norms. I have never felt that pressure from my team at all. They created my position for someone with Indigenous knowledge because they wanted to bake it right into the SA communications strategy as a whole. My supervisors have done a great deal of work to educate themselves, they have demonstrated a clear commitment and gone above and beyond to support me through challenges in a trauma informed way. I consider my team to be allies.

My team is responsible for a great deal of projects that would be considered “decolonial” – this past year they hired a team of student researchers using art as a research methodology to speak to the student experience. They also run ThriveRU and Thriving In Action, a series of resilience training programs for students, staff and staff at other institutions to take away. They do land based pedagogy including remote canoe/ portage trips for students and Mood Routes, urban green walking excursions for the whole community every Tuesday at noon. With RU Student Life they encourage the students to tell their own stories in their own ways. My team are just a champion of diversity and creativity in all forms. I am very fortunate to have been a member of Special Projects/ Storytelling in Student Affairs since Halloween 2017.

As far as the larger body of student affairs, it’s about 150 of the kindest people I have ever had the pleasure to work with. They are going above and beyond to be inclusive, but there is not a high number of Indigenous students at Ryerson and most of them are most comfortable going to Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services. RASS is  since like a catch-all, a one stop shop for services and a sense of community. But Indigenous students are so so very welcome in all SA spaces. So there’s an overwhelming sense of support for Indigenous students just waiting for them in the whole of SA. So we are collectively looking at good ways to build and develop these relationships based on student need.

4. What would you like to see happen/change?

There’s a lot of high quality work happening in many departments, but we need developments in communication – perhaps a centralized process through which the office of Aboriginal Initiatives, essentially Monica McKay, has the opportunity to give feedback on new projects with  Indigenous content or leanings. And from the ground up – not as an afterthought, because it’s highly likely that someone with more experience will have a different take or just some really useful information for your project. Just talk to us.

And I’m reading from this paper because I didn’t have time to feel properly prepared for this talk. There is just so much to do. Which means that we need more of us. More Indigenous students, staff and professors in permanent positions. Having an Indigenous studies undergraduate program would take Ryerson to the next level in terms of student recruitment. And we already have a good deal of interdisciplinary Indigenous courses, with possible language classes forthcoming. We could create core content – the 101’s and the 202’s – and have the basis for a really good Indigenous studies program – easy right? But seriously, look around, we have an amazing community here and we can build the capacity to do this, and to do it in a good way.  

To wrap this up I have some concrete examples and some larger questions. HR is currently working on designations for Indigenous staff to get time off to attend ceremony. This is so important since ceremony was banned for generations under the Indian Act and ceremony is such a vital component of our healing and well-being. This should be applicable to students too. And it might mean some logistical accommodations around assignments and deadlines, but it needs to be a priority.

Create a rooftop space for ceremony with a sweat lodge, etc. and a place to grow traditional foods and medicines. This would give Indigenous students access to their own traditional food medicines, which right now are only for the elite. Have designated parking and accessible space for Elders. Hire an oshkabewis (hence mention in this paper’s title as “helpers” – Oshkaabewiisen) Elder’s helper.

Also, a lot of our students are mature students who come to these programs with years –  even decades of employment, parenting and life experience. We need to honour that and say, exempt those students from having to pay tuition for unpaid internships. Interestingly those internships where they have to pay are in social work and other female dominated industries, whereas the male dominated industries tend to offer paid internships. So there needs to be an equity lens applied there.

As far as a larger question, I wonder how we will navigate decolonization in an institution that bears the weight of Ryerson’s involvement in residential schools? There is so much history and so much investment in the name of the school. And I leave you by asking you to consider the commitment to keeping the statue and absence of conversation about the name. To think about what that commitment means in terms of our own investment in western ways of thinking and being. There are many very good reasons to not even consider it a topic of conversation. And it’s in those reasons that we see how far we would have to go to really decolonize this institution. And at that DNA level, real decolonization might not be possible. But it doesn’t mean we should abandon our efforts to improve. This issue shows how deeply rooted colonialism is in our minds. And not just the minds of the colonized, colonization has been just as harmful to settlers – because they have built their whole worldview on the myth of Canada (as “nice”, Etc.). Miiwe/Miigwetch. 

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