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Un-prescribed learning

This year at Mohawk College, students in the Applied Music program are engaged in a cultural sharing initiative. Students and staff are working alongside Indigenous artists and members of the Six Nations community to prepare for an event showcasing the project and the work being done towards reconciliation.

While the students have been studying Indigenous music and cultures, organizers and partners for the initiative have been learning a lot as well. Bob Shields is the initiative’s coordinator. He says the biggest lesson has been the logistics of making an event like this happen.

“It’s one thing to think, ‘Oh, it would be nice to get together and play some music with some people,’” said Shields. “But allowing that to happen with the freedom it requires to become a teaching opportunity within an educational institution is a lot more difficult than it may seem.”

“For example, I decided I want to document the story,” Shields continued. “Okay, now I have to approach the Journalism department, the Broadcasting department, the Graphic Design department and maybe the MSA. I guess that requires a budget – some of these people need to be paid, and what if we need food for the event, need to pay for that, or pay for a venue that’s not in the college? Now we need that budget approved, which means going through administrative hurdles which can – and have – taken weeks or months. Then, I thought about asking Indigenous artists to come and play with our musicians. Simple in theory, but in practice, that too had a series of hurdles set out.”

When Shields needed help he reached out to Johanne McCarthy, a teaching and learning consultant for Indigenous Education at Mohawk College and a member of the Beaver Clan of the Six Nations. With McCarthy’s help, Shields has been able to take his idea to play some music and turn it into an opportunity for learning and reconciliation.

One lesson that McCarthy has learned is the value that a genuine ally can have in elevating an important cause.

Headshot photo of Dr. Johanne McCarthy
Dr. Johanne McCarthy is a naturopathic doctor from Onondaga Nation, Beaver Clan of The Six Nations. Since 2007, she has been working at Mohawk College to bring about change that will increase student awareness of Indigenous culture and society.

“I learned that there’s a power in finding allyship,” McCarthy said. “For a really long time at Mohawk College, I’ve been trying to initiate changes as an Indigenous woman. It really is an eye opener how slow my progress has been, when you find a non-Indigenous male ally and then changes happen so quickly.”

McCarthy believes that sometimes, the most impactful way to have non-Indigenous people be more accepting and open-minded is to have a non-Indigenous person introduce them to Indigenous culture.

“That means we need to create healthy allies, and what I hope to do working in post-secondary [education] is create allies,” McCarthy said.

According to Shields, the most important lesson to be learned for both students and organizers of the initiative is to be present-focused and keep an open mind.

“Keep a spirit of learning, humbleness, openness, modesty, multi-perspectivity,” Shields said. “Maintaining these states of being are the only way to respectfully engage with a people who have been oppressed and need to be reconciled with.”

As McCarthy, Shields and other organizers of the initiative continue to create an environment of education and reconciliation, so too will these lessons continue to emerge, creating learning opportunities for everyone involved.


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