Associate vice-president communications Jeffrey Carleton said St. Thomas University has been working on Indigenous matters since before the 94 Calls to Action were published in 2015. (Alex Dascalu/AQ)

St. Thomas University graduate Mandy Richard said educational institutions have a responsibility when it comes to reconciliation.

“A big part of it does start in the education system,” she said.

Richard is Anishinaabe and Ojibwe, she graduated in 2018 with a major in communications and public policy. During her time at STU, she was an Indigenous advocate and leader.

She said STU made efforts for reconciliation on campus during her time at university. She said as an Indigenous student, she had both positive and negative experiences.

Associate vice-president communications Jeffrey Carleton said STU, which has a nine per cent Indigenous student body, has been working on Indigenous matters from before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action were published in 2015. 

But he said there’s still work to be done.

Efforts for reconciliation

According to Carleton, when Dawn Russell started her presidency at STU eight years ago, she created the Senate Committee on Indigenous Reconciliation, which looks at what STU can do to answer the call for education to be a key role in reconciliation

“She recognized that St. Thomas could have a very important role to play in the reconciliation process,” he said.

Calls 16, 65 and 86 from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission apply directly to post-secondary institutions, such as STU.

Carleton said STU was the first university in Canada to have a chair in the Native Studies department, with professor emerita Andrea Bear Nicholas filling that role.

Bear Nicholas developed a language studies program at STU within the Native Studies program but also language programs on at Tobique and St. Mary’s First Nations. This complied with the Call to Action 16, which calls for post-secondary institutions to create university or college programs in Indigenous languages.

The program, which is the two-year Adult Maliseet Language program, has been offered in Tobique and St. Mary’s First Nations for 20 years. 

“She’s been a leader in New Brunswick in setting up language programs both at STU … [and] also language programs on First Nations,” he said.

STU also offers a program in Elsibogtog First Nation where they offer university level courses that include humanities, native studies and math. If students complete those courses, they count towards their university degree.

Carleton said since 2012, $1.5 million has been raised for programming, financial assistance for Indigenous students and facilities at STU, which included renovating James Dunn Hall to create the Wabanaki Centre and launched the elder-in-residence program in 2012. The money came from the province of New Brunswick, the TD Bank Group and the Harrison McCain Foundation.

The Wabanaki Centre is a space that provides Indigenous students with a culturally and spiritually rich environment for academic and personal support, according to STU’s website. The Indigenous student services coordinator and elder-in-residence offices are also located at the centre.

Carleton added STU has a student orientation for Indigenous students, where Indigenous students move in before the official move-in date to meet upper-year Indigenous students and participate in traditional ceremonies and gatherings.

Carleton also said the Senate Committee on Reconciliation has organized events on campus to educate and promote a better understanding of Indigenous issues and culture.

Every year, an Indigenous documentary film series takes place as well as cultural events that vary each year, such as a public reading of the Calls to Action or Polaris music prize winner Jeremy Dutcher performing on campus last year.

STU also hosts an Eagle Feather ceremony, where graduating students receive an eagle feather prior to graduation. STU’s website reads that the Eagle Feather Ceremony gifts graduating Indigenous students “with an eagle feather to acknowledge, honour, and celebrate their outstanding academic achievement and milestone in their life.”

During graduation, students have “the opportunity to bring the eagle feather with them across the stage while receiving their diploma.”

Richard said the Eagle Feather Ceremony was powerful and emotional to her.

“I was trying not to cry the whole time I was crossing the stage,” she said.

A home away from home

Richard said she applauds any Indigenous person that decides to go to school and post-secondary institutions. 

“Often you would face different struggles than someone who’s not Indigenous would face,” she said.

Richard said Indigenous students carry the weight of intergenerational trauma and their own trauma and histories.

She said deaths in Indigenous communities happen more frequently than in non-Indigenous communities.

“There’s a lot more layers of trauma that is involved with an Indigenous person or with an Indigenous community,” she said.

She said some Indigenous students also have a sense of obligation to educate, advocate and assist the university in reconciliation efforts, on top of being a student and paying their bills.

Richard said she was grateful to have the Wabanaki Centre because she was able to meet other Indigenous students who had different majors than her. The elder-in-residence, Miigam’agan, was one of her first teachers and elders.

“It made me feel like it was my home away from home,” she said.

She said she also met Indigenous students from different communities who had relationships and connections outside of Fredericton – students who became family.

“I felt very welcomed in Wolastoq and Mi’kmaq territory, where I’m not [from] there, I’m Anishinaabe Ojibwe,” she said.

Richard was a member of the Senate Committee on Reconciliation in her fourth year at STU, recommended by former St. Thomas University Students’ Union president Philippe Ferland. She said Indigenous communities make decisions together rather than having an individualized elected position. She said she never made a judgment call or said something without speaking to the Indigenous students about it and getting their perspective.

“That’s for a couple of reasons. One, because we’re so community based, that’s how we are, but secondly, me doing that was speaking at a current because I wasn’t from that territory,” she said.

Richard brought the Red Dress Project to STU in collaboration with professor Josephine Savarese in 2015. It was started by artist Jamie Black after she saw a national callout for everyone to hang red dresses. STU also brought Jamie Black’s exhibit to campus, said Richard. Now, the Red Dress Project happens every year on campus.

Richard, alongside Kyanna Kingbird, also participated as consultants for former STUSU president Brianna Workman when changing the STUSU bylaws regarding the Indigenous student representative position. It changed from being an elected position to one where the Indigenous community would appoint the representative by whichever method they deem appropriate. Richard had previously acted as a consultant for former STUSU president Phillipe Ferland when building the position.

STU’s journalism program and The Aquinian

Richard said she had frustrations with The Aquinian during her time at STU because Indigenous people were misrepresented.

In 2018, The Aquinian published a paper with a backpage on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, but a two-page centre-spread featured Converse shoes.

“Something as severe of an issue like that should never be on the back page from where I stand, and second of all, if they were not sure of the information put on there, they should have not just done their research but talk to the Indigenous students on campus about it,” she said.

“In my opinion, Converse can hit the backpage.”

Richard said that even though she realized as time went on The Aquinian’s editorial staff were students who were learning, that was “a big testament to what is being taught in the journalism program or what’s not being taught in the journalism program.”

“You are training students to become journalists and you are not giving them the tools that they need in this time of reconciliation, and then the mistakes that keep happening in the media are going to continue happening in the media,” she said.

Call 86 says Canadian journalism programs and media schools require “education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples,” but STU’s journalism program doesn’t offer a course on how to report on Indigenous communities or require journalism students to take native studies courses.

Carleton said the context of that call to action doesn’t apply to STU. Because of the structure of the bachelor of arts degree that requires students to take courses from different disciplines, journalism students would have the opportunity to take a variety of courses from different disciplines including native studies or human rights, said Carleton.

However, journalism majors can graduate without haven’t taken any native studies or human rights courses, as long as they complete their group credits.

Carleton said the Senate Committee, which makes all the curriculum decisions, is looking into whether to make Indigenous content a mandatory course or make it part of current class content.

In a follow up email, Carleton said the administration asks faculty annually to include Indigenous content in their courses. He added that more than 60 courses at STU do include Indigenous content within the Departments of Anthropology, English, Fine Arts, Gerontology, Great Books, Human Rights, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology and Science and Technology Studies.

White supremacist posters

On Sept. 2017, three white supremacist posters were taped on a Maliseet welcome sign at STU. The week the posters appeared, STU held its first conference on reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, hosted by STU’s Senate Committee on Reconciliation.

Richard said she felt frustrated and afraid for her safety. STU’s administration did not release a statement condoning the posters, which affected communities other than the Indigenous one at STU, said Richard.

As a communications graduate, Richard said she understands why the university didn’t do it, but as an Indigenous student, to her, it was needed.

“It was an opportunity to show STU and the students that the administration cares about the safety of their students,” she said.

Personal experiences

When Richard was in November of her second year, she decided to leave STU for a while to find sobriety. She said she hit rock bottom – she didn’t care about schoolwork anymore. She went to the counsellor, who accompanied her to university administration.

They were supportive of her leaving to focus on her sobriety. They didn’t ask her to pay for tuition, and accommodated her semester grades so they wouldn’t affect her GPA.

When she went back to STU almost a year later, she said they welcomed her with open arms. 

Richard said she also received support from the university when her sister went missing during her final year at STU.

“[They had] patience and flexibility with me to ensure I got to that graduation stage.” 

Other schools

In October 2019,STUSU’s Indigenous student representative Leanne Hudson attended a conference called the National Discussion of Indigenous Student Experiences in Post-Secondary, hosted by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

In an interview with The Aquinian in October, Hudson said 13 Indigenous students from across Canada discussed topics such as education, health, childcare and federal education funding policies that could influence how Indigenous students succeed in post-secondary and made recommendations on current policies.

Hudson said she was surprised to see how STU is advanced at providing services to Indigenous students in comparison to other universities.

“For specific universities, they don’t offer spaces for Indigenous students, their self-identification process is extremely lacking, or general, and their support staff are very limited. Here at STU, being a small school, we’re very fortunate with the services that we can offer for Indigenous students,” she said.

Self-identification process

The self-identification process is a part of the STU admissions application. The application reads “Do you consider yourself an Indigenous person?” and provides the options of status, non-status, Métis and Inuit. The student can check the yes or no box. Proof of status isn’t required.

“I agree that that’s the best system possible at this time,” Hudson said.

But Hudson would like to develop that part of the application. She wants more inclusive options, descriptions of the options and a space for students to add comments below if they want.

She said often people are unclear of what it means to be status, non-status, Métis and Inuit, and that it would enhance STU’s numbers of people who are part of those groups if descriptions were included.

Hudson would also like to work towards implementing the two-eye seeing method in experiential learning programs and how those can be further implemented at STU. The two-eye seeing method is the ability to look at things from a Western scientific approach but to also apply the Indigenous traditional lens.

The next step

During Richard’s time at STU, even though some of her professors made efforts to include Indigenous content in class, she feels the next step for reconciliation at STU is to change class curriculums to include more Indigenous-related content.

She said it would be a good idea for STU to make taking a native studies course or two a mandatory requirement for students to graduate, just like it is to complete credits from groups A, B, C and D.

She read an article about a school district in Ottawa that changed their curriculum by replacing Shakespeare’s texts with Indigenous texts, which Richard said is “what you would call an effort in reconciliation.”

“It’s one thing to hold events, it’s one thing to always make sure there’s a land acknowledgement, but if you don’t fully understand the land acknowledgement, you’re just reading empty words, they have no meaning.”