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Leader of Four Directions, Clan Mother, and mentor to many

On March 21, the Queen’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Task Force will present its final report with recommendations to the university community. The historical milestone will be marked with an event that day at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 5:30-7 pm. Leading up to and following the event, the Gazette is featuring profiles of Indigenous members of the TRC Task Force. Today, the focus is on Janice Hill, Director, Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre.

Ever since she was a small child, Janice Hill wanted to be a teacher. With friends and siblings at Tyendinaga, she used to “play school” and she was always the teacher. Ms. Hill even taught her little sister how to read.

“Education was always very important to my father as well,” says Ms. Hill, a member of the Turtle Clan, Mohawk Nation, who has been director of Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre at Queen’s since 2010. “He couldn’t go to school because he had to work. But he read voraciously, and encouraged me to keep going with my education. I was only one of two in my class on the reserve who graduated Grade 13.”

Janice Hill, a member of the Turtle Clan, Mohawk Nation, has led Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre at Queen's since 2010. (Photo by Garrett Elliott)

Since then, Ms. Hill’s life has largely focused on education – Aboriginal education, in particular. She studied at Trent University, where one of her first teachers and mentors was Marlene Brant Castellano (Arts’55, LLD’91), and where she delved into social justice – “it was an exciting time to be a young Indigenous person” – through letter-writing, protests, and marches.

While Ms. Hill didn’t finish her degree at that time, those formative years had an impact, and later, after travelling, having her first son, and moving back to Tyendinaga, she landed at Queen’s in the Faculty of Education. What was supposed to be a 10-day contract as “culture broker” between Queen’s and the Indigenous community led to a 10-year tenure, during which time she helped start the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP), served as academic co-director for the program for a year, and finished her undergraduate degree at Trent and a Bachelor of Education at Queen’s.

Ms. Hill spent the following decade at Tyendinaga, teaching and coordinating an adult education program, establishing a private high school rooted in Haudenosaunee culture, and helping to start the HOPE program for Mohawk students at risk of failure or dropping out. She also served as academic dean at First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI), where she oversaw 17 undergraduate, graduate, and community programs, and led FNTI through a process to gain Indigenous Accreditation status with the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium in 2009.

Back at Queen’s, Four Directions, and “always students first”

Being involved in many things at once and taking on challenges seems to be second nature to Ms. Hill. At just 28 years old, she became a Turtle Clan Mother of the Longhouse Community – an honour and responsibility in her community usually granted to much older women.

“They asked me to hold the seat, and now, 30 years later, I am still holding the seat!” she says, laughing.

But, she takes on the challenge humbly, and relishes the opportunity to do important and necessary work – in the same way she does at Queen’s as director of Four Directions. She took on that role during a time of turmoil, when the centre was lacking direction and Aboriginal Council had become “unwieldy.”

“It was clear that the university had a lot going on (in terms of Aboriginal programming and initiatives), but there were also large gaps, and some of those were historic and systemic,” says Ms. Hill, who came into the position at Four Directions with many contacts and allies across the university from her days at the Faculty of Education.

Over the next few years, she worked with others across campus to review the council’s original intent and revise it in order to make the council into a strong, meaningful body (which she is confident it is today). She also worked intently on relationship-building – in particular, strengthening the Indigenous community’s views of Queen’s and its ongoing efforts to bolster Aboriginal initiatives across campus.

Overarching everything in Ms. Hill’s work, however, is an unwavering commitment to Aboriginal students and to helping them to succeed during their time at the university.

“My philosophy is always students first. My door is always open, and I am here to provide a listening ear,” she says. “Four Directions is a safe haven for them, where they can come have a cup of tea, and some cookies. Whatever they need is here.

“It is really hard on Queen’s campus. There is a lot of privilege, not much diversity, and not much understanding of Indigenous cultures. I tell the students, ‘You have power, you have a voice. Use it and make sure people hear you.’”

TRC Task Force, graduate work, and the road ahead

Moving forward, Ms. Hill says she is encouraged by recent events at the university – by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Task Force (on which she served), by Principal Daniel Woolf’s statement at the special Senate meeting March 7, by the work of the new Provost Benoit-Antoine Bacon and the steps he’s taken in the half-year he has been at Queen’s, and by the plan to expand Four Directions’ space on Barrie Street.

“The TRC report (federal) has created more awareness and understanding of what Aboriginal people face because of the intergenerational trauma created by residential schools. It is now important for us to keep on the path – to move forward with a good mind and a good heart,” says Ms. Hill. “The Queen’s task force has made amazing recommendations, and I think they are significant enough to make a meaningful impact on the community.”

Ms. Hill’s own educational path has been ever-winding, with efforts to start and finish graduate work thwarted by various life turns – another son, her mother becoming ill, work, and other commitments. But through all her additional responsibilities, she has kept at it, and will graduate with a master’s degree in gender studies from Queen’s next year. It’s an achievement, along with her undergraduate degrees, that she wishes her father had lived to see.