College officials recognize the need for change at the school, and are working to honour Indigenous history and heritage for future generations of students
A historical milestone of the past year was when Canada initiated a new Federal statutory holiday, the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, honouring the children who were lost to the residential school system, as well as the families and communities affected.
“The Indian Residential Schools Survivor Agreement is the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history,” Director of Indigenous Initiatives & Special Advisor for Mohawk College Amy Kelaidis said. “From that agreement, what the survivors asked for is that Canada put together a commission to be able to hear stories, to be able to archive everything so that we can start to honour and understand the truth about what happened in Canada … the [Truth and Reconciliation Commision] really comes from a story of resilience and bravery of earlier generations and our intergenerational survivors.”
Kelaidis, who is of the Mississaugas of The Credit First Nation, has been with Mohawk College for 16 years, the last four as the director of Indigenous initiatives.
“When I took on the role, we decided to put me in the academic side to really start to build that out,” Kelaidis said. “[Mohawk College] graduates the most Indigenous students out of all post-secondaries in this area. So we know that we’ve got a huge responsibility and a huge gift to be able to create more access.”
One major project Kelaidis is working on is preparing to launch The Centre for Indigenous Relations, Knowledge and Learning, or CIRKL.
This centre will be a resource for others focusing on Indigenous student services, as well as Indigenous knowledge, and will be a step for the college in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.
“What is important are what the calls to action are,” Kelaidis said. “They were survivors’ testimony, plus witnesses putting their word in, to say [these calls to action] are what’s going to make Canada better.”
Mohawk College President Ron McKerlie echoes Kelaidis, and said it is important that all students know that they are safe, welcome and free to be their full, authentic selves while on campus.
“The desire to ensure that all students feel welcome definitely comes from my office,” McKerlie said. “The shared history that we have with Indigenous peoples – we’ll be respectful of that, we will do our part to break up the stereotypes and to help recognize all people are amazing. We can do a lot to support them and encourage them.”
The college recently took on the building of a Hoop Dance Gathering Place on campus. This is an outdoor learning space that was modeled after traditional Indigenous learning practices.
“It’s got a lot of specific attributes to it to help attempt to recreate the way, traditionally, Indigenous people have learned, which was an oral storytelling method,” McKerlie said. “It’s really designed to support our Indigenous students in terms of providing them another way to learn. Not to say that they won’t sit in class and use a computer, but it’s just another way to learn which happens to be traditionally an Indigenous practice.”
McKerlie went on to say that in the end, respect for people at a human level is the main goal, that people from all walks of life tend to want the same things, and the main challenge is recognition of that.
“When you break down those barriers and get to know somebody and realize they’re just trying to enjoy and live life, the same as you are … people are more alike than they’re different,” McKerlie said.
With regard to long-term practices, McKerlie confirms that we are seeing just the beginning of what is to come from this movement.
“Well, the one thing I do have to say is this is not a point in time thing,” McKerlie said. “This is a journey that we’re on and this this journey is going to take years, and it may never be complete in my lifetime, but we’re trying.”