Over the past two weeks, the university has hosted a series of guest speakers and events pertaining to reconciliation with the indigenous population. From Caribou Legs to the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission himself, plus another former Prime Minister to boot, StFX has clearly and publicly demonstrated its commitment to reconciliation and indigenization.
I should rephrase: StFX has successfully created the perception that the institution has a deep dedication to indigenous rights. As for actually demonstrating said commitment, the university is still at square one.
In his concluding remarks at Senator Sinclair’s keynote address, Dr. Kent MacDonald acknowledged that StFX is not yet perfect, but insisted, “It is important to recognize that we are not at ground zero.” He did not provide any further details to support this claim.
What has StFX actually done to further reconciliation on campus? That is, bearing in mind that welcoming renowned guest speakers is as much public relations as it is reconciliation.
I do not intend to undermine the consequence or quality of any of our speakers. They have communicated the realities faced by indigenous communities in ways that may have never before been witnessed on this campus, at least not in such a public fashion. There is great potential for the campus community (or at least the handful of 40-50 students that regularly attend such events) to learn from the knowledge and experience imparted by great individuals like Cheryl Maloney and Kerry Prosper, among others.
These conversations also create the opportunity for the university to increase its self-consciousness about its practices. In an interview with Senator Sinclair, he stated, “Universities [have historically] been pretty passive about their role in society.” Sometimes it takes an outsider to shed light on unpleasant realities the administration would rather remain blissfully ignorant to.
Simultaneously, though, these speakers serve to create the illusion that StFX is making great strides toward reconciliation, when in reality there has been very little action taken on the university’s behalf. Spaces for discussion are being created, which is crucial for reconciliation, but they are just the beginning of the process. They are not end goals or accomplishments, despite the fact that the institution has been treating them as such.
Panels and lectures become hollow without tangible acts to substantiate them, and StFX is dangerously behind in that regard. Conversations represent progress, but they are not progress itself.
I do not doubt that the administration means well. Our President was evidently moved after the President’s Colloquium on Social Justice for Reconciliation, and again by the President’s Council’s two-hour talking circle on reconciliation with the Senator and indigenous students and faculty. However, that has not stopped the university from planning to install John A. MacDonald’s desk in the Mulroney Institute, the desk of a man who committed atrocious crimes against indigenous peoples and criminalized homosexuality and abortion.
We are stuck in the eternal contradiction between the walk and the talk, and it’s time for StFX to prove that its concern for indigeneity is more than mere lip service. Yes, these things take time, as is evident by the literal snail’s pace of the indigenization committee, but running the risk of hypocrisy is surely another timely consideration. A university so concerned with optics should understand that indolence has a cost and a breaking point, one that we are fast approaching.
What does this look like? How can StFX demonstrate an ongoing commitment to reconciliation while the larger projects such as curriculum reform are at work?
To start, the university needs to realize that we are paying close attention. Their reluctance to act, or the appearance of their reluctance, is not going unnoticed, nor is their utter lack of transparency. According to an email from Dr. Kent MacDonald, there is an “ongoing dialogue regarding the university’s fulsome response to the TRC.” Apparently, StFX has not yet felt the need to update the greater campus community about its plans or progress on the greatest social and political challenge of the decade.
The Mi’kmaq flag was taken down surreptitiously and without comment, and there has been no word regarding the university’s planned flag policy, a policy we only know about because we reached out to the administration. It is fine to want to raise the flag in a more significant manner and location, but the lack of public acknowledgement denotes lethargy and indifference.
The tremendous Media & Communications team bombards our inboxes with names of impressive political figures, but they are remarkably silent when it comes to indigenous events taking place on campus outside of the Schwartz Auditorium. Other indigenization efforts remain shrouded by the politics of privilege and accountability.
In Senator Sinclair’s words, “There has to be a display of willingness and cooperation on the part of the university to actually make [the] effort to reach out and attract indigenous students to them.” StFX’s usual covert tactics are not going to cut it; we need to see evidence that the university is aware of its shortcomings, is willing to acknowledge them, and make blatant public and collective efforts to make the campus environment more inclusive of indigenous students and community members.
And speaking of inclusivity, the university has to quit it with the commodification of equity and diversity. These words are significant, yet they cease to impart meaning in the midst of the endless slew of jargon and the absence of sincere change. Despite the fact that StFX’s 2017-2022 Strategic Plan identifies Equity & Inclusion as one of its five pillars, there is not a single mention of reconciliation or the TRC in the document.
The Students’ Union is not exempt from this critique either. The SU has been remarkably quiet on issues pertaining to indigenous rights and reconciliation. While passivity is unfortunately to be expected by our institutions, surely young people are still held to a higher, less apathetic standard. If students are not actively advocating for social change, then there is that much less impetus for the university to expend time and resources addressing these matters.
The Students’ Union serves as the intermediary between the student body and the university administration, and our representatives need to take it upon themselves to implore the university to engage in meaningful reconciliatory change. The SU could also benefit from taking a closer look at whether its practices are truly as equitable as they make them out to be. Sex positivity and men’s health are admirable pursuits, but indigenous rights and representation should not be left neglected as a result.
I want to have faith in this institution, but reconciliation is not such a thing one can believe in without seeing. Until the university can substantiate its parade of guest speakers with a concrete list of acts taken to further its relationship with the indigenous community, StFX cannot legitimately claim that it is committed to truth or reconciliation.