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by Sarena Johnson

Monique Mojica’s In Plain Sight: Enscripted Earth and Invisible Realities begins with a visit to the unmarked burial mounds at High Park. This sacred location is just one of many in Tkaronto that house the hidden Indigenous histories of this land. It’s also a site that I’ve visited in my work with First Story Toronto, an educational outreach organization that started from Rodney Bobiwash’s work at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto’s History Project. Last year I worked with First Story and Hart House at the University of Toronto to fashion an Indigenous focused campus walking tour for Hart House staff training. In the meantime, now working at Ryerson University, I have begun conducting, or rather performing, a similar campus tour. This article is based on me analyzing my experience of the tour project so far, anticipating how I can minimize concerns with it as I train students to perform it, and just generally processing my emotional labour around this work.
Here’s a video and a bit about the tour:

Roots of Ryerson: Indigenous walking tour

We often hear land acknowledgements at events but do we pause and really think about what they mean? Beyond those few minutes, how connected do we feel to the land we walk on? Join us in a walk around Ryerson campus and surrounding area to discuss the Indigenous related history of the area, as well as visit contemporary Indigenous community spaces. We will consider the Tkaronto Indigenous community’s past, present and future to build connection to space through time.

This latest campus tour came out of Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services (RASS) requesting First Story Toronto’s research and educational outreach services. Since I work at Ryerson and also First Story, this project gravitated to me and was supported by Jon Johnson, Lead Organizer at First Story. Jon had done a previous walking tour of the campus so there was already a basis for research material. I have since been researching, adding personal stories, consulting with community members and incorporating participant feedback to curate content for the walk.

Since its inception, Roots of Ryerson has been getting a lot of traction. Many non-Indigenous staff, student and conference groups have been requesting the tour. While I’ve consulted other Indigenous staff members and students, I have assumed primary responsibility for this project and am looking to train incoming RASS students to conduct future tours.

Why is Roots of Ryerson  important?

This walking tour is important for a number of reasons. For one, it’s a way to speak to the Egerton Ryerson statue and namesake. This influential figure in residential schools looms larger than life over the crossroads of Gould and Bond Streets, in the heart of Ryerson campus. The legacy of its namesake is kind of like the university’s elephant in the room when it comes to Indigenous history. According to Indigenous scholar Hayden King (Personal communication, Aug. 15, 2018), Ryerson’s legacy is one of the key factors blamed for the difficulty attracting Indigenous staff and students at the University. The walking tour is a great way to have that important yet uncomfortable discussion with the Ryerson and higher education community.  

Another reason the tour is so important is that since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 Report, most post secondary institutions are aiming to increase their Indigenous profiles. Educators want to incorporate Indigenous content into their events. Including the tour provides positive optics for them and since it’s outdoors it can be a great value added activity for conferences and symposia. I in no way mean to understate the authenticity of people’s interest, but to be frank the optics are a legitimate bonus.  

The walking tour has been generally well received and a huge learning opportunity for me. But I’ve also come across many concerns and considerations in doing this work. It’s a lot of emotional labour for me, people don’t seem to offer fair valuation to it, and it can present some awkward social power dynamics which shouldn’t be ignored.

In processing the various factors involved in this kind of work, my primary aim right now is to explore ways I can mitigate potential harm as I prepare to train RASS student employees to conduct the tour this fall. It doesn’t mean that I am letting the project go, but I don’t expect to be able to meet the growing demand for the tours during the school year without sacrificing productivity in my job. In fact, this work isn’t technically even part of my job – it’s something I was compelled to take on. So I am using critical analysis to explore both the value of the tour (benefits) and my difficulties with it (concerns) in this article.

Benefits of + Inspiration for Roots of Ryerson

This project is capable of connecting the past with the future, and the land with the people. It has potential to make an impact. Based on verbal feedback, it already has. The tour requests have been from various Ryerson staff groups and conferences primarily, including external and visiting scholar conferences. It gives people a sense of Indigenous history that’s personalized into story format and includes anecdotes from my own family examples. In doing so I aim to legitimize Indigenous struggle and humanize the history to build empathy – a powerful connector and locus of allyship.  

Another benefit of this tour is that it uses oral transmission. It’s not written in stone, every tour is different as it’s always changing. The content grows with my knowledge and participants are welcome to add to it. Essentially it’s a living document. There’s room to focus on specific topics based on group interests and it’s responsive to how much time participants have allotted in their schedules.

Roots of Ryerson is also an example of urban land based pedagogy. This is a fairly new concept for me that was introduced by Doug Anderson’s presentation at my M.Ed class at York University. Doug created Naadmaagit Ki Group, a traditional Anishnaabe teaching lodge along the Humber river. He chose a location with a high Indigenous population that was also close to the river and used it to build a community of folks learning Anishnaabemowin, participating in ceremony and teachings. This summer I saw Doug’s teaching lodge come full circle at Indigenous Master’s student Natasha Navaeu’s thesis art installation Shkakamikwe Kido with footage of Naadmaagit Ki Group. Natasha re-created the lodge in an indoor space at Ryerson, complete with Anishnaabemowin syllabic subtitled videos playing on all four walls of the lodge. 

I feel fortunate to have also had the pleasure of working with Monica Mojica at Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS), an art  installation and ceremony for MMIWG. Her “In Plain Sight” work (I won’t call it a paper since it was more of a physical project involving movement) resonates for me in several ways. Mojica’s journey begins at the unmarked burial mounds at High Park. Earlier in this article I mentioned my relationship with that space, a significant stop on First Story bus tours. This connection and having worked with her on WWOS made her work feel immediately familiar to me. However, I’ve never visited the mounds alone or with folks who were especially sensitive to energy. In Plain Sight made me want to re-examine how I visit space, how I relate to it or don’t. For example, according to Helen Mills of Lost Rivers/Rivers Rising, there’s an underground river under Kerr Hall at Ryerson, and I walk over top of it every day. Despite being a somewhat energetically sensitive person, I’ve never consciously tuned into it. So this tour for me is a step towards building a more wholistic relationship to the land I walk on. After all, that’s what Roots of Ryerson is about. And the more I feel through this project the more layers of it reveal themselves. Perhaps I will incorporate awareness of the river into future tours. Embodied knowledge is so often ignored and this is an opportunity to embrace it.

Another project of inspiration for Roots of Ryerson is the Ogimaa Mikana: Reclaiming/Renaming language arts project by Hayden King and Susan Blight which began during Idle No More where they changed street signs with Indigenous names. Hayden is at Ryerson now as a professor and visiting scholar and I have had the opportunity to interview him for Our interview was based on the opening of his new Yellowhead Institute for critical Indigenous policy analysis, housed out of Ryerson Faculty of Arts.

Ogimaa Mikana was a striking example of reclaiming Indigenous space in Toronto. When I look around and see monuments to colonialism, they just seemed “normal”, whereas Indigenous art and artifacts stand out as novel. Whether statues or street names, Indigenous folks have to look for, stretch for, markers that we still exist. Roots of Ryerson is an opportunity to have this conversation. For example, Jarvis Street is named after a slave owner who stole large amounts of money while he was the Minister of Indian Affairs. The tiny stretch of Lower Jarvis is now named Warrior’s Way for the 10,000 First Nations warriors who contributed to Tkaronto remaining Canada during the war of 1812. But Indigenous people had to lobby to have that tiny stretch of road named and Jarvis didn’t have to do anything, in fact he gave up his land to pay debts he stole from the government and they still named the street after him. Roots of Ryerson outs Jarvis and discusses the truth. It makes the invisible visible. So there’s a huge value in that for me and my communities.

This walk could be likened to Linda Smith’s 25 Indigenous projects in that it involved claiming and storytelling. This is storytelling however it’s not the usual researcher listening to a participant’s story. It’s research then storytelling then listening back for response. For example, on a recent walk August 22 an Indigenous participant talked about keeping the statue up as a way to publicly shame Ryerson. He cited that some Indigenous groups would use public shaming as a form of justice. This is an opportunity to shame Ryerson, Jarvis, and other public figures of undeserved recognition. So they can no longer “hide in plain sight”. To tell the real story. So the tour is growing based on participants’ contributions and the questions they ask. It has become an ongoing conversation with the community. 

There are so many factors to this storytelling: It defies western research conventions on purpose. I am storytelling AS my research. There is research involved in the content of the tour and this is always changing and growing. But a big part of that comes through conversation with the folks I’m sharing story with. (I want a better word for them, for the participants. I will use that for now.) But how people respond, who speaks back, who interacts, subtle emotional exchanges –  these factors are all part of the research, project, story.

Roots of Ryerson gives me the chance to educate people about the contributions and injustices. We are reclaiming our own history and right to be in this space. The campus is framed as a formerly colonial space, and the campus itself is a microcosm of academia. We are taking our place in the academy. Many post secondary institutions are making efforts of Indigenization so we have this great opportunity where they’re actually listening – but are they really? Is this project really meaningful at all?

Concerns with Roots of Ryerson

For something to be meaningful it has to be valued. But is this project really valued by the University? I have been receiving numerous requests for this tour and have gotten largely positive verbal feedback. Perhaps a designated process of assessment could also be helpful. Some sort of data collection would be helpful if I aim to turn this into a research project. Perhaps that could be an online survey to take after the walk anonymously, and I could offer a paper option as well. (This train of thought outlines my western bias in empirical research, that for this to be real research it has to gather numbers and facts on paper.)  

But back to the question of value. While I get a high amount of requests (at least one a week) for this not being something officially in my job description, I don’t get offers of honoraria for this time. I’m not sure if folks assume it’s part of my job. Me being on the “Storytelling” team could be confusing and lead them to believe that it’s part of that. But the point is that folks don’t offer and I haven’t decided on a process or framework by which to charge or not charge for this service. I’m doing extra work without extra pay. Some would say I’m being exploited. Which is extremely common for Indigenous people, knowledge, and women’s work.

Another value factor is the time allotted for tours. I need at least an hour to do this walk justice, but many folks don’t seem to have purposefully budgeted the walk in their schedules. I’ve been asked for several 45 minute tours and even half hour tours. I don’t want it to feel like people are just ticking off an Indigenous box, like the tour is an afterthought. The same thing goes with last minute requests and so I’m no longer taking on any tours with less than two weeks notice and that time frame could change. This will be part of the boundaries and protocols I’m establishing for Roots of Ryerson.

I feel like when I’m the one doing the tours I can be treated like ‘less than’ in some cases. For the most part this doesn’t occur but I have already experienced microaggressions. For example, once I was basically asked to leave when the tour was done. I know the organizer was on a tight time frame and the tour was a very short length of time. But we ended the tour outdoors and she basically shooed me away when it was officially over. I was mildly insulted but chalked it up to scheduling. I criticized myself for being hyper-sensitive. I’m an adult and a professional. However, this is important to note since I want to ensure that any students I train do not experience those feelings in doing this work. This is another area to include in protocol planning.

There is no shortage of opportunity to feel vulnerable when conducting these walks. When you lead a walk, you’re presenting, with all the insecurities that can come from that. When you present, you open yourself up to judgement from the audience. I used audience there because it really does feel like a performance much of the time. When I lead a walk I feel hyper-visible. I also tell stories of family trauma. So I wrestle with how to be authentic and educate because I choose to, I want people to know just how messed up systemic racism has been to Indigenous peoples. Yet I risk re-traumatizing myself if the content isn’t received with respect. So it’s my responsibility to share only what feels right and establish firm boundaries. The fact is there is a lot of emotional labour involved in this negotiation. I am also willing to draw boundaries between the tour and myself. It doesn’t have to be so personal. This work takes a willingness to be flexible and a confidence that you can care for yourself appropriately through whatever may come up from the experience of sharing intimate knowledge with strangers. There’s agency in what you share and how. Removing myself a bit from the equation can help, but when you’re up close and personal with thirty people and telling them about your family’s experiences with residential schools, it feels pretty fucking personal.  

It can also feel very performative – like I’m acting out my identity as Indigenous and it’s being consumed as entertainment, as novelty, or escape. In so many ways, Indigenous people were reduced to beads and feathers, and I am uncomfortably aware of dressing up my identity. Even the question of what to wear becomes loaded. Do I wear beaded earrings? The answer lately has been NO I won’t wear them on tour days as some small act of rebellion. A decorated object is offered, I’ve heard somewhere. But there have also been days I wanted to wear those earrings. Or the other day I wore them, I really like them, but then I took them off before the tour. It’s highly personal and the personal is indeed political. I just don’t want to feel that I’m wearing a costume for an audience or dressing up like a token.

I write this in consideration of training students to perform these walks. We are planning to do so this fall, however I had to turn down some previous students. They wanted to post the walk text online for any professors who wanted to be able to take their students on this walk. Which felt exploitative. Out of context this project has the potential to be harmful. The walk could become harmful if done in the wrong hands. Even by well intended folks. So there’s also the consideration of how to respectfully house this Indigenous knowledge while also making sure it’s accessible to the Indigenous community at Ryerson.

Final thoughts

I would like to dig further into trauma and resilience education as it pertains to Indigenous history. I don’t recall seeing any studies linking Indigenous content walking tours, urban land based pedagogy, exploitation of Indigenous knowledge/people, resilience, microaggressions, or performativity of identity, but I’m only starting to look. If you are still reading and have any suggestions for me, please let me know in the comments! I also want to read “Is the Sacred for Sale? Tourism and Indigenous Peoples” by A.M. Johnston. I’ve seen some other Indigenous tourism scholarship and I’d like to see what exists in the urban context and what else connects around performativity of Indigenous identity.

So to boil it down, I want to explore ways I can make this work not feel gross. Without this being re-colonizing – how can this be done in an Indigenous framework? Educating non-Indigenous people on Indigenous content can be tricky. How can students be taught to do this work such that it benefits them? Despite the subtle chances of harm, I dare think this process could to be a positive factor in my own healing journey, and hopefully that of the students and tour participants. I want to know how we can minimize the harms of an Indigenous person teaching non-Indigenous folks about Indigenous content on an urban land based project? Can this become a resilience building exercise? Could this model even be applicable to assisting other institutions create their own Indigenous walks? These questions far exceed the limits of this article, however I do appreciate the processing of writing this and look forward to continuing to explore the various dimensions of this project. I will continue to look at this in my studies and work. 

Works Cited

Bunch, Adam. (2013, Feb. 5). The infamous, bloody 1817 duel at the corner of Yonge & College. Retrieved from

CBC News. (2012, June 17). First Nations role in the War of 1812 ‘critical’. Retrieved from

Johnston, A. (2006). Is the Sacred for Sale. London: Routledge.

Mojica, Monique. (2012). In Plain Sight. (This was received as a PDF link from York University Moodle and I’m not able to find it in any databases  – full citation forthcoming.)

Nakata, Martin. (2002). Indigenous Knowledge and the Cultural Interface: underlying issues at the intersection of knowledge and information systems. IFLA Journal. Vol 28, Issue 5-6, pp. 281 – 291. Retrieved from

Natasha Naveau. Shkakamikwe Kido. [Video installation]. Ryerson University, Faculty of Communication and Design. Toronto, ON.

Silversmith, Shondiin. (2016, Sept. 23). Indigenous street names in Toronto get noticed and made ‘official’. Retrieved from

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books.

Truth and Reconciliation Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Windspeaker. (2012). Toronto dedicates street to warriors [afn assembly]. Vol. 30 Issue 5. Retrieved from

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  • Victoria Orr

    Many thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience, you clearly have courage and passion and insight. I hope that you will protect yourself from re-traumatization. Educating others doesn’t have to mean sharing your own family stories and sorrows. It also sounds like these tours (and the research and time you have jnvested) should be financially backed by the University. Maybe you could ask a professor for help putting together a proposal, because the project is valuable to the University and should be treated that way. I wish you well!

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