An interview with indigenous leaders on campus
A few weeks ago, on a crazy day between my classes I had the chance to accompany my friend, Corrina Degen, to an interview that she was holding for the Social Justice Radio with members of the Aboriginal Students at X Society. Going into the interview I did not have many expectations, and I was just looking for a way to kill an hour and maybe learn a thing or two in the process. The girls were going to tell us a bit about the society, the upcoming Treaty Day and their place as indigenous students on the StFX campus.
Without my knowing it, the interview I was about to step into with fellow students was about to change the way I saw our school, Antigonish, and Canada as a whole. The beautiful and empowering testimonies I witnessed were very moving and made me rethink what it really means to create an inclusive and diverse community. I am very excited and grateful to be able to share the experience I had with these awesome women with the extended StFX community.
Corrina and I spoke with Jasmine LaBillois, Kashya Young, Tahnyss Paul and Shanna Francis, who are all StFX students and members of the Aboriginal Students at X Society here on campus. Jasmine, the Society President, started off by telling us that the ultimate goal of the Aboriginal Students Society is to create a home away from home for indigenous students. She explains that students often come from communities that have experienced intergenerational trauma and that leaving home and becoming independent can be challenging for these individuals.
It can be especially challenging at a school like StFX where indigenous culture is hard to find. The society holds many events throughout the year to shine a light on indigenous students and their culture and to create awareness of the injustices still experienced by indigenous people. The Aboriginal Students Society is a place for students to come and hang out, drink tea, have snacks, and feel like they are a part of a community – something they feel they cannot always find on the StFX campus.
The girls also spoke about the wider Antigonish community and their relationship with the Mi’kmaq people. StFX is located on unceded Mi’kmaq territory. This is something that is often unrecognized by the school and the community as a whole. Kashya, who is the Vice-President of the Aboriginal Students At X Society, discussed how in her experience Antigonish does not recognize its Mi’kmaq heritage or its relationship at all with the Mi’kmaq community. When she was researching for a class project, Kashya found there to be no information on Antigonish tourism websites regarding Mi’kmaq culture or the position of the town on unceded Mi’kmaq territory.
The girls discussed how this has an impact on Aboriginal students. They explained that we are on Mi’kmaq land and that the Mi’kmaq people will never give it up and will continue to live here. Indigenous students want to see their culture being recognized not only in the wider Antigonish community but in the classroom as well. These women explained how they have spent their whole lives learning about the history of Canada from a settler perspective but barely have had a chance to learn or teach other students about their story, the history of the Mi’kmaq people in Nova Scotia.
The discussion become really powerful when we decided to ask the girls what Treaty Day meant to them. Treaty Day is held every year on October 1st to commemorate the treaty and friendship agreements that took place between the settlers and the indigenous people in Canada. The girls explained that Treaty Day is a day for us as Canadians to look back at our relationships with each other and celebrate the friendship treaties that were made. This part of the interview became extremely emotional, as Jasmine explained that Treaty Day is the one day a year when indigenous heritage and culture is brought into the spotlight and celebrated and people are given the opportunity to learn more. The girls stressed the fact that Treaty Day is ultimately about two groups of people – indigenous people and settlers.
“We are all treaty people,” one said, but only one side of the treaty is celebrating. As Canadians, we all have a responsibility to recognize and celebrate these treaties and the progress that we have made. These young women are extremely proud of their heritage and explain that because they often come from traumatic communities they do not always have the opportunity to celebrate the good and beautiful aspects of their culture. Kashya spoke about how Treaty Day is not a statutory holiday, but that it should be. Indigenous communities take the day off to celebrate, but other Canadians are hardly knowledgeable of its existence.
On September 30th, the Mi’kmaq flag was raised at StFX, which instills pride in many Mi’kmaq people. The flag, however, is only flown for a month, because it is Mi’kmaq Heritage Month. The girls talked about how watching the flag come down after the month really hurts them and other members of the indigenous community. Why can we not fly this Mi’kmaq flag all year round, especially if our town and school are located on unceded Mi’kmaq territory? This flag, if flown all year, could be a small but significant step towards recognizing indigenous individuals and culture in our community.
As a whole, the interview was very moving and eye opening. These young women have a lot to contribute to StFX as we work to indigenize this institution. For many students, StFX is not as diverse or inclusive as it claims to be. Students like Jasmine, Kashya, Tahnyss, and Shanna have to fight to hold certain cultural events and to be recognized as a community within the StFX campus.
The bottom line is that StFX cannot hope to indigenize this school without the help of indigenous students, and students like these young women who are educated and willing to discuss crucial issues need to be given a voice within the faculty. In doing this interview, I came to the realization that there is a major divide between students on our campus. There are still certain groups that struggle to be included in campus life and we need to make space to have inter-student discussions about how we feel as a whole student body. The under appreciation of Treaty Day is a prime example of the disconnect that exists between students and between Canadians as a whole.
I would like to thank Corrina Degen and the Aboriginal Students Society for the opportunity to have this powerful and moving discussion. I encourage you to listen to the whole interview on the Social Justice Radio website and learn something about your fellow students this Mi’kmaq History Month.