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Queen’s and the TRC: Reaching all corners of the university

Queen’s and the TRC: Reaching all corners of the university

[Gerald McMaster, niya nêhiyaw, 1993, acrylic and graphite on unstretched canvas]
Gerald McMaster, niya nêhiyaw, 1993, acrylic and graphite on unstretched canvas

As an Aboriginal student at Queen’s in the early 1950s, Marlene Brant Castellano didn’t find university to be the close-knit community experienced by others. She felt like she had “walked off the dock into the deep end.”

Today, Dr. Brant Castellano – a pioneer and champion of Indigenous rights and education – sees the opportunity for Queen’s to grow and become a more inclusive community that supports all its members, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. With her fellow members of the Queen’s Truth and Reconciliation Task Force, she is confident a big shift is on the horizon.

In Aboriginal communities, children are born into a web of relationships – relationships that support them and grow as the years go by, says Marlene Brant Castellano (Arts’55, LLD’91). These relationships are honoured and remembered. In contrast, she says, in institutions, rules take the place of relationships; they work through the form of policies. In such a setting, “you have to make a place for yourself,” instead of being welcomed into an already existing framework, as is the case in close Aboriginal communities.

“For Aboriginal students, it’s difficult to leave the community of gift-giving and sharing – of inclusion and reciprocity – to come to a formal environment such as a university campus,” says Dr. Brant Castellano, a member of the Mohawk Nation, Bay of Quinte Band, and a pioneer and champion of Indigenous rights and education. When she left her home to come to Queen’s as a student in the early 1950s, Dr. Brant Castellano felt exactly that: she had to make a place for herself in an environment that felt very foreign.

“Since childhood, I was an intellectual. Thinking, reading, and writing all nurtured that intellect. But nobody in my community had gone to university, and it never occurred to me to go to university until my high school teachers told me I should go, and that they would help find a way to do that,” she says.

Marlene Brant arrived at Queen’s in 1952, not quite 17, and lived in Ban Righ Hall.

[Tricolour photos]
Marlene Brant in the 1955 Tricolour

“I walked off the dock into the deep end. There were a handful of students I connected with – students who had also come from rural areas, students who were also a bit ‘at sea.’ I found a little nest, a little clique, and not quite knowing what else to do, we focused on academic work.”

She says she was not engaged with the “normal” community, didn’t go to any football games, but instead survived with “some social and emotional contacts from other rural people” and through joining the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Dr. Brant Castellano didn’t expect to find a community when she came to Queen’s – “it was like a job: I would earn a degree, get a job, and give back to family” – and she didn’t, and still doesn’t, expect Queen’s to apologize for its colonial roots or its Scottish symbols and traditions.

But a great deal has changed since her undergraduate years. Canada is at a critical juncture in addressing past and present injustices toward Aboriginal Peoples, and the university needs and wants to play a lead role in shifting the landscape toward inclusivity and reciprocity.

Dr. Brant Castellano wants everyone on campus, people of all backgrounds, to feel welcome. She wants attention to be paid to making an inclusive environment for a diverse population. That’s why she believes the most exciting work being done through the Queen’s Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Task Force, on which she serves with a group of university, student, and community representatives, is focused on creating a welcoming community.

[Marlene Brant Castellano and Lauren Winkler]
Marlene Brant Castellano and Lauren Winkler (photo by Bernard Clark)

“There is a lot of talk of targeted services for Aboriginal students, but underlying that, the desired outcome is to change the climate and sense of community. This will affect everyone.”

In early 2016 Queen’s established the TRC Task Force to address calls to action outlined in the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, which focuses on the repercussions and legacy of the Indian Residential School system. Several of the calls to action are directed toward the education sector, and three are specifically addressed to post-secondary institutions in Canada.

Last August, the Queen’s task force released its preliminary report, detailing the consultation and information-gathering process and the longer-term plan, and in the fall, five public consultations took place on campus, each centred on a specific theme:

  1. Governance and strategic planning; space and place,
  2. Student access, transition, and student support services,
  3. Indigenous faculty/staff recruitment and Indigenous research,
  4. Academic programming and academic planning,
  5. Awareness and climate.

Those consultations were intended to be a “truth-telling process,” said the task force’s co-chair, Professor Mark Green, last September when they began. They provided a forum for discussion and feedback for Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members, all of which served to inform the university’s process in addressing the federal calls to action. The task force also facilitated consultations with stakeholder communities, including Tyendinaga, Manitoulin Island, and in Kingston, as well as private consultations, and sessions with specific groups, including the
Senate, student societies, and alumni.

This has the potential to be a watershed moment, an opportunity to shift gears – people are very receptive and there is the desire to make real change.

“All of the consultation sessions were well attended, and we’ve received good feedback at a grassroots level,” says Dr. Green, also a Mohawk from the Bay of Quinte, who co-chairs the task force with Jill Scott, Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning). “This has the potential to be a watershed moment, an opportunity to shift gears – people are very receptive and there is the desire to make real change.”

Lauren Winkler (Artsci’17) sees that important shift happening, too – with the TRC Task Force, and the many other Indigenous activities on campus in which she is involved. Ms. Winkler grew up in Markham, Ont. – her father is Italian and her mother is French-Canadian and Mohawk, with ties to Tyendinaga on the Bay of Quinte. “There are really good conversations coming out of the task force consultations. Staff, faculty, and administrators have been very willing to listen to students. I only wish more students were there – they don’t know how much power they have.”

[Marlene Brant Castellano]
Marlene Brant Castellano (photo by Bernard Clark)

Rallying that student power has been, in large part, the focus of Ms. Winkler’s efforts on campus. In addition to serving on the TRC Task Force, she is a student representative on Aboriginal Council of Queen’s University, is president of the Queen’s Native Student Association, and most recently became deputy commissioner of Indigenous affairs for the Alma Mater Society (AMS). She also currently works with a committee of students who are working on several proposals to indigenize campus spaces.

“I think Aboriginal students, faculty, and staff have not always felt welcome on campus, and we need to make it more inclusive for all people,” says Ms. Winkler, who is close to completing a major in history with a minor in Indigenous studies. “That’s the vision for our campus project proposals. We want there to be a more obvious Indigenous presence on campus. I see these things – art, plaques, revitalized green spaces, an outdoor learning classroom – incorporated into the campus space and respected. Then they become normalized.”

Her greater hope for the future is that more students feel comfortable on the physical campus, and, in turn, embrace their Indigenous heritage and feel comfortable self-identifying as Aboriginal – something that many are reluctant to do. “With more visibility, more processes in place, more Indigenous space, more Indigenous faculty, more of the history and culture common knowledge, more people will feel comfortable self-identifying,” says Ms. Winkler. “We are shifting the landscape. First, Queen’s needs to put things in place. Then, more Indigenous students will come here.”

Extending the rafters of the house

In considering the idea of strengthening community, Dr. Brant Castellano says that, for Aboriginal Peoples, the “web of relationships” they are born into is not an insular one. It is natural for them to extend their community out to other peoples. She talks about the first contact between European settlers and the Haudenosaunee, for whom making good relations was a priority. “It was not just about transactions for business. There was that notion that we make a relationship – we extend the rafters of the house to be more inclusive – then you can carry on transactions like trade.”

Dr. Brant Castellano says while she was growing up, the assumption was that Indigenous students were not able to attend university. Instead, they were streamed into vocational, dead-end courses. It was an assumption that she ignored, especially once she began to dig into her studies at Queen’s. After her Bachelor of Arts, she went on to complete a Master of Social Work at the University of Toronto. Later moving into academia, she became one of the early pioneers of Native studies. “I was in the first cohort of professionals in the field. I started teaching at Trent University in the ’70s and we began doing a lot of outreach, which opened the doors to Aboriginal students. There was work to be done.” She became a full professor and, later, chair of the Department of Native Studies. She retired from Trent in 1996, as professor emeritus.

From 1991 to 1996, Dr. Brant Castellano served as co-director of research with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). Recently, she helped organize a national forum in Winnipeg, in conjunction with several universities and organizations, to recognize and learn from the RCAP’s final report, on its 20th anniversary, and the new opportunities to “heal the rift in the Canadian fabric” through the TRC report. In 2004, Dr. Brant Castellano was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada, in recognition of her work bridging cultures, paving the way for Native studies as an academic discipline, and promoting community-based research, which respects Indigenous traditions. It’s just one of the many honours that she has garnered over the years.

Fused in everything Dr. Brant Castellano does is community, and she acknowledges this in all the recognitions she has received. “What I’ve been honoured for over the years hasn’t been my work. It’s the work of a community, of the many talented people who make things go.”

That same spirit extends to everything she does at Queen’s, from her work as co-chair of Aboriginal Council to her attendance at many events to promote and share Indigenous knowledge and culture on campus and her work on the TRC Task Force, whose final report will be released to the community in March.

"It is really encouraging to see – the engagement through the task force consultations is reaching all sectors and corners of the university,” says Dr. Brant Castellano.

[cover of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 1, 2017]