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Is it time for Mohawk College to change its name?

Mohawk College opened its doors on November 27, 1967. It was one of nine new colleges in Ontario. At the time, the School’s Board of Governors chose to name the school “Mohawk” with land recognition in mind.

According to the book Mohawk College: The Years 1946-1985 by S. Patricia Filer, Brantford was nearly the home of Mohawk College. To settle any dispute between the communities, the board chose the name “Mohawk College” with Joseph Brant in mind.

The cover of the book Mohawk College: The Years to 1985 by S. Patricia Filer
The school’s Board of Governors settled on the name “Mohawk College” with consideration for Brantford.

A passage from Mohawk College: The Years 1946-1985 reads: “Joseph Brant, Chief of the Mohawks, had played a prodigious role in the British Colony, winning respect for himself and his people. Note was made of the fact that the Mohawk Trail School, not far from the site of the College, was being turned into a museum for the celebration of the Canadian Centennial. Mohawk Road is a well-known thoroughfare in Hamilton. The name “Mohawk” was comfortable for both Hamilton and Brantford.”

But what was “comfortable” in 1967 may not be so comfortable today. With many sports teams changing names that might be problematic, some people are asking why Mohawk College still has the same name. A member of the Bear Clan of the Six Nations, who asked that her name not be used for fear she might be targeted for attack, says the college has no right to the name.

“It’s about usurping our identity and throwing it on themselves, like they have every right to do so,” she said. “How colonial is that? That is Colonial Thinking 101: ‘We have the right to do whatever we want to you, and with your name and with your identity. And we can take it on and it’s ours, and you can do nothing about it.’ How colonial is that? It should never happen. And yet, here we are.”

Johanne McCarthy is a teaching and learning consultant for Indigenous Education at the Centre for Teaching & Learning at Mohawk College. She said reconciliation at Mohawk College should start with educating students about the name.

“When I walked through the halls when I first started, I used to ask the students, ‘Where do you think the Mohawk College name came from?’” McCarthy said. “And they thought it came because of the haircut, right? They had no idea that the word Mohawk actually means people. When we’re appropriating it and changing it and not explaining to the students who belong to the institution where those names come from, that’s not conducive to a reconciliatory relationship with people.”

Mohawk College has acknowledged the conversation surrounding its name on its website. Under a heading titled “The Name of the College comes from the Mohawk Nation”, a statement details the history of how and why the name was chosen in 1966 as well as recognizing the hurt the name selection caused.

“Some (Indigenous people) feel that because there was no consultation, the use of this name perpetuates an imbalanced power relationship and advertises permission to appropriate culture,” the website reads. “Reconciliation will require that we welcome discussion surrounding this controversy and promote continued efforts to consult and seek consent as well as uphold and honour “Mohawk Nation” values, belonging and participation at this institution.”

To the Bear Clan member, the reconciliation initiative is not a passing fad.

“It’s like the environment of post-secondary institutions right now. Everybody wants to indigenize. They’re trying to throw it on there and talk about reconciliation. And they want to be seen as reconciliation-friendly,” she said. “[But] it means you have to actually listen to what we’re saying, and then change your behaviour. Reconciliation is about reconciling with yourself, the colonial and racist crap that you have done, admitting it, bring it up to the surface, looking at it, and then changing your behaviour. Becoming an ally to actual Indigenous people.”

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