Mohawk College is making efforts to improve relationships with Indigenous communities, but some are wondering if it is enough.
Mohawk College President Ron McKerlie said the school is committed to creating a safe and welcoming environment for Indigenous students and is also working to educate the entire faculty and student body about Indigenous history.
“We are making a commitment to include Indigenous knowledge, culture and history in a lot of different areas of the college experience, like the upcoming initiative with the music program [Musical Sharing: An Indigenous Artists and Mohawk College Student Cultural Engagement and Exchange Initiative],” he said. “This isn’t a bunch of white people doing this just to do it, this is working with Indigenous peoples and communities and really understanding what is important to them.”
Mohawk College is situated on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg nations and is the largest post-secondary educator of Six Nations students. The college sees more Six Nations students than the next two universities and colleges combined. To create a safe and welcoming environment, the college is creating a Centre for Indigenous Knowledge that McKerlie said is scheduled to open within the next year.
“We have hired a number of Indigenous leaders and knowledge helpers to help build this new centre and to teach at the college,” he said. “We also have Rick Hill, who is an elder and a full-time faculty member. He is available as a resource for students, in addition to a number of other spaces, events and groups that are on campus for students to access.”
“It’s not perfect, but we are trying to make a meaningful effort to our Indigenous students, to support them in ways that is meaningful to them,” McKerlie added.
While the college is making efforts, some faculty members feel like it isn’t enough.
Johanne McCarthy is a teaching and learning consultant for Indigenous education and a member of the Six Nations of the Grand River. McCarthy said she was concerned by how institutions measure their efforts.
“There needs to be a willingness in leadership to change how they do things,” McCarthy said. “Instead of just measuring student success by the income after they graduate, you have to start measuring on terms that really matter for Indigenous communities, for sustainability.”
McCarthy said many people in Indigenous communities already mistrust post-secondary institutions.
“The institutions and systems that are in place have to recognize that they are what have to change for reconciliation,” she said. “We have to break down these systems that keep us oppressed, and it’s never moving fast enough for me.”
Bob Shields, part-time coordinator of the Applied Music program and coordinator of the Musical Sharing: An Indigenous Artists and Mohawk College Student Cultural Engagement and Exchange Initiative, echoed McCarthy with regard to the school’s efforts towards truth and reconciliation.
“The college has a checkered past with the surrounding Indigenous communities, and as far as reconciliation goes you can look no further than the appropriation of the name,” Shields said. “Recently, sports teams have changed their names, why haven’t we?”
“To me,” he continued, “the efforts are little bit disingenuous, unless we are willing to look at the whole picture, and really be self-critical. To be open enough to say that we have made and continue to make mistakes and recognize that it’s time to actually apply the lessons learned from them. Continuing to pick and choose what we wish to reconcile is simply a continuation of the colonizing attitude we need to extinguish.”
McCarthy said there are a number of specific things that she would like to see the college look into improving.
“We have to start talking about action,” she said. “Introducing Mohawk language classes, how we deliver, looking into our name, where it comes from and what it should mean and how it was appropriated and correcting that. We also have to change systems that don’t allow us to modify oppressive systems. These are all things that I personally would like to see changed, and fast.”