Monthly Archives: April 2017

When to Stop Talking

In the April edition of our blog we hear from Jeff Brown, a former Social Issues Commissioner (SIC) for the Alma Mater Society (AMS). In this blog piece, Jeff explores the meaning of allyship. Using examples from his personal life and time with the AMS, Jeff demonstrates that sometimes being a good ally means listening rather than talking.

Being asked to contribute to this discussion is a tremendous honour. I’ve honestly been churning over in my mind what to offer to the blog for a few months now. Then I remembered, I’m white, I’m 5’11 (6Ft on a good day), and I’m a man…. People listen to me most of the time whether I have something really inspiring to say or if I just raise my voice or ask for the floor.

So with the above in mind, I’ll share the biggest lesson I learned at Queen’s working as the Social Issues Commissioner (SIC) in the AMS: how to stop talking. Learning to stop talking is about using the privilege you have to magnify the hard work of others who have the lived experience to make the biggest impact.

I first learned to stop talking at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI). My Mom was admitted to TRI after a stroke that impacted her speech with Aphasia. It’s been over 15 years since my mom’s stroke and she’s thriving; I’m constantly driven by her grit and humour. My Mom and I were sitting in a windowless room waiting for a Doctor. My mom was raw from surgery, I was in my early teens and I was terrified. At the time my mom’s speech was very limited – knowing her habits and being similar people, I had a knack for helping translate for her. The Doctor walked in and started talking directly to my mom… asking her specific and important question with incredible patience and a palpable caring bedside manner. Trying to help, I tried to voice for my mom – I’d interrupt a bit – then the Doctor kindly but firmly asked me to stop talking……..I could have flipped a table in that moment. This is my mother and I’m trying to help her! I would later come to understand that the Doctor was really trying to help my mom, too. The Doctor gave my mom agency and time and the space to express herself even though it took longer and was the tougher road.

In 2007, I was chosen to serve as Social Issues Commissioner (SIC) in the AMS. I was thrilled and I also knew… for sure… 100% …that I knew everything I needed to know about Diversity…. I grew up in midtown Toronto … after all I had tried falafel.

In 2003, a report came out that shocked many people at Queen’s but validated a lot of concerns that had been raised for years by racialized and Indigenous students and staff: The Henry report galvanized a lot of important conversations. Intelligent, organized, and driven women of colour and others from the Queen’s Coalition against Racial and Ethnic Discrimination easily saw through platitudes and demanded action.
If it wasn’t obvious enough before – I knew nothing, really, about racism. Between 2007-2008 amazing professors like Audrey Kobayashi and incredible staff, most notably Stephanie Simpson, gave me a lot of their time and were very patient. They both taught me to stop talking.

I learned that you can support important action without being the centre of attention. I’m proud of the strides the SIC made that year – we launched a mental health publication and made strides in other areas of Anti-Oppression but QCRED did the critical and hardest work around anti-racism: including unearthing important history around Alfred Pierce – and they were a group without paid staff or meaningful student government funding.

Working on Bay Street in Toronto, I’ve learned now when to start talking. There’s an important role allies can play. Sponsor and mentor people who are different from you for jobs. When your gay friends question the validity of Black Lives Matter’s approach to Pride or carding, bring up the Toronto Bathhouse Raids and remind your white friends of the demographics of incarceration rates- and why the numbers don’t make sense. Speak with your wallet and give money to organizations that deliver essential services that aren’t popular on election platforms. Be a role model, in as many little ways as you can. Learn how to stop talking and how to give the floor to people with something really important and inspiring to say.

Indigenous Studies is not a Ghetto

In the latest edition of our blog, we hear from Dr. Adam Gaudry. In this piece, Adam explores the historical and contemporary tensions that exist between units like Indigenous Studies and the academy. Perfectly timed, Adam’s piece draws our attention to the calls to Action in the recently released Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Indigenous programs are here to stay and it’s time to accept that

 At a 2013 university town hall at the University of Saskatchewan, then-president Ilene Busch-Visniac suggested that Indigenous-specific programming should be amalgamated into “mainstream” university programing over the long term. There was immediate push-back, from both those on-campus and off of it. A concerned Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations interjected, along with numerous faculty and student groups, forcing her to walk back the statement and reaffirm the permanence of Indigenous focused programming at the university. However, underneath this controversy is a pervasive logic shared among many university administrations, one that believes Indigenous programs exist primarily to facilitate student transition from their communities into post-secondary education, and to ultimately give way to the more venerated disciplines of old world education. In short, Indigenous academic units—like Indigenous studies and Indigenous education—are treated as if it were a kind of equity uplift meant to temporarily “bridge the gap” by providing Indigenous students with less competitive (that is, easier) programming.

I hear variations of this kind of thinking a lot, (although rarely from my current administration). Indigenous academic programs are rarely understood as creative, important sites of resistance by Indigenous students and scholars, intended to engage and empower our communities by confronting the violent colonial contexts in which we live. Certainly, Indigenous programs are seldom seen as standalone “disciplines” with their own intellectual traditions, pedagogies, methods, community of scholars, and agreed-upon process for judging the efficacy of scholarship. Many times, I’ve also heard people casually refer to my own discipline, Indigenous studies, as a kind of ghetto, a place where Indigenous students are supposedly denied the knowledge and rigour of the “real disciplines.”

Treating Indigenous academic units as if they are mere equity programs is rooted in three flawed assumptions. First, there has been a normalization of non-Indigenous majorities in post-secondary education, so much so that high concentrations of Indigenous people are treated as abnormal. The presumed goal of much of post-secondary education is the integration of Indigenous students into the mainstream, and while one rarely hears the word assimilate any more, the end effect can often be the same. Second, there is a widespread assumption that European intellectual traditions are superior to Indigenous ones. Indigenous-majority programs, which usually privilege Indigenous experiences and problematize Euro-centric assumptions, are interpreted as inferior. This separate educational path is then said to ‘ghettoize’ Indigenous students into an inferior education path. Third, as a result of the first two assumptions, Indigenous programs are seen by many as a kind of easy leg-up, as if their purpose is to facilitate the integration Indigenous students into the normal (non-Indigenous, Canada-oriented) education system, rather than leaving them confined to (inferior) Indigenous-majority spaces on campus.

While these attitudes may become less pronounced in light of the Calls to Action of the recently released Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s, they certainly continue to exist and therefore need to be addressed if Indigenous people are to have a meaningful place in the universities and colleges of the 21st century.

Lost in this conversation is what exactly Indigenous communities want from universities, a consideration that effective university administration must be focused on. What if the goal is to carve out spaces at post-secondary institutions where Indigenous students can learn skills to be used in service of their people, to work alongside other Indigenous students to hone these skills, and collaborate with Indigenous faculty to integrate traditional and contemporary knowledge aimed at returning power to Indigenous communities? In my experience, Indigenous studies is exactly this, a place for Indigenous peoples to work with Indigenous and allied knowledges to address the needs of their community, in an atmosphere of support from academics and community alike. Students may choose to do this in Indigenous studies, or elsewhere, but they should be encouraged to choose what is best for them and for achieving their goals, not some old colonial metric on what constitutes a “real education.” For many Indigenous students and scholars, this is actually the end goal of Indigenous presence in the academy: transformational social and political change with Indigenous people at the helm and the freedom to chart our own futures.

If universities accept this reality, much more energy can be put towards creating enriching intellectual spaces for Indigenous and supports for a robust and self-sufficient Indigenous intellectual community on campus. This, I believe, is the more important consideration, and is one that gets to deeper truths and a more hopeful future in which Indigenous students and their knowledges are treated with the respect and dignity they are due.