(Aneta Rebiszewski/Ryersonian)

The increase of Indigenous staff and faculty has been one of the most positive outcomes of Ryerson University’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) community consultation report, according to Olson Crow, a fourth-year criminology student, who identifies as a two-spirit Haudenosaunee person.

“This semester I’m taking three classes, two of which are taught by Indigenous professors,” he said. “It’s exciting to be able to go to a classroom and have people who look like me.”

The TRC community consultation report was released in January 2018. The report outlines six key themes — Indigenizing the university, improving and expanding support for Indigenous learners, Indigenizing teaching and learning practices, increasing Indigenous staff and faculty, deepening engagement with Indigenous communities, and increasing Indigenous visibility at Ryerson and honouring Indigenous culture and history. The report also suggests 50 recommendations based on these six themes.

“I’m extremely proud of everything we’ve achieved since the announcement (of) our Truth and Reconciliation response about a year ago,” said Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi.

He said this past year, Ryerson hosted its first powwow in almost 20 years, introduced an orange shirt day to honour residential school survivors and established the Yellowhead Institute within the Faculty of Arts.

He also added that the university has made it a priority to hire more Indigenous faculty.

“We’re proud to have a very aggressive recruitment plan to attract Indigenous faculty members to Ryerson,” said Lachemi. “Every time I talk to people who are in charge of hiring, they are repeating to me that we are actually making a lot of progress getting top faculty and staff with Indigenous roots.”

Since the report was released, seven Indigenous staff members have been hired, a significant increase from previous years.

According to Ryerson’s 2015 and 2016 Employee Diversity Self-ID Report, Indigenous employees made up only one per cent of Ryerson employees in 2016. Additionally, there were no full-time faculty hires of Indigenous Peoples in 2015 and 2016.

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These new faculty hires have made all the difference to Crow, who is currently taking the Aboriginal Media course at Ryerson. As a side note, he said that he would love for the university to stop using the word “Aboriginal” as it is outdated.

“I told one of my friends going into the class, I was like, ‘if this class is taught by a white person, I swear to God I’m dropping it immediately,’” he said. “When I walked in, it’s this wonderful Indigenous woman artist who’s teaching it and that’s so exciting.”

Although Crow has seen a huge improvement in the number of Indigenous faculty members at Ryerson, he said that he would like to see more traditional knowledge-keepers.

“When we’re talking about Indigenous staff, I think we need to have the very real conversation that a lot of Indigenous folks aren’t in the positions of privilege to have PhDs to be university professors,” he said. “A lot of Indigenous knowledge is land knowledge, is traditional knowledge, is passed down from our elders and our family members.

“When we’re not having (traditional knowledge-keepers) in this space, we’re delegitimizing that knowledge and saying it’s less important than academia.”

Denise O’Neil Green, Ryerson’s vice-president, equity and community inclusion, worked on the university’s TRC community consultation report.

She said she, along with members of the TRC Strategic Planning Group, are working towards hiring more traditional knowledge-keepers.

“There’s been a memorandum of understanding signed between the administration and the Ryerson Faculty Association to look at equivalency so that we can bring knowledge-keepers and elders into the community to teach.”

Indigenizing teaching and learning practices

Ryerson currently offers 15 undergraduate Indigenous courses and four graduate Indigenous courses.

Lynn Lavallée, who is the strategic lead, Indigenous resurgence in the Faculty of Community Services, is among Ryerson’s new Indigenous staff. She worked at Ryerson in 2017, but left to take on the role of vice-provost, Indigenous engagement at the University of Manitoba. She returned to Ryerson in January 2019.

Lavallée, who is Anishinaabe-Métis, said Ryerson’s TRC community consultation report is a good step, but thinks that the Indigenizing curriculum part needs to be explored further.

“We have to look at what we are teaching and what the quality of the instruction is,” she said. “Are we educating non-Indigenous people to teach Indigenous content? So, again, we’re moving away from supporting Indigenous people, if that’s the case.”

She said that oftentimes, Indigenous Peoples are brought in as guest or contract lecturers and not as tenured professors, tenure track professors or CUPE faculty.

“Our knowledge is being extracted through the exercise of reconciliation and it’s not being appropriately valued or honoured,” Lavallée said.

Another recent addition to Ryerson’s faculty is Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work. He is a two-spirit band member at Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation.

McNeil-Seymour said Ryerson should have a mandatory Indigenous-focused course credit among all programs and faculties. There is one Indigenous student in his Aboriginal Approaches to Social Work class. Even the non-Indigenous students in his class want more Indigenous courses, he said.  

He said having a “Native 101” course as a prerequisite will “put students into service of Indigenous persons and communities and help students move away from guilt and shame by active participation and researching.”

Egerton Ryerson’s past

The statue of Egerton Ryerson on Gould St. (Nicole Di Donato/Ryersonian)

Egerton Ryerson, the educator after whom Ryerson is named, helped create the residential school system in Canada.

In the summer of 2017, the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) led a campaign called Colonialism 150, which criticized Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations and informed the community about Indigenous history and culture. Crow, the former vice-president equity for the RSU, played a huge role in the campaign.

On Canada Day that year, the RSU published a list of demands regarding Indigenous justice on campus. Demands included renaming the university and removing the statue of Egerton Ryerson on campus.  

As part of the TRC community consultation report, the school installed a plaque beside the statue in June, contextualizing Egerton Ryerson’s colonial legacy.

The Ryerson community installed this plaque beside the statue of Egerton Ryerson on June 25, 2018, contextualizing his role in the creation of Canada’s residential school system (Nicole Di Donato/Ryersonian)

“I think the plaque is a great stepping stone. I don’t think it’s a solution,” said Crow. “I still firmly stand by the statue being removed.”

This remains a topic of controversy for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members.

“Telling the true story of (Egerton) Ryerson himself is a great start,” said McNeil-Seymour. “I don’t believe in the removal of statues – it smooths away and erases settler complicity and aids in the move towards innocence.”

But not everyone shares this view.

“I totally understand where folks are coming from, but we’re never going to erase residential schools,” said Crow. “That’s never something that’s going to be erased, that will always live in Canadian history, that always exists in the trauma of community members.”

Crow said that the school should leave the plaque and remove the statue.

“Our name of the university is probably always going to be Ryerson because there’s been huge pushback against the name change,” he said. “So, I feel like that alone is acknowledging that history. Why do we need to have a giant bust of this man?”

Next steps

The TRC Strategic Planning Group continues to make significant progress, according to an article posted by Ryerson Today.

The group is led by O’Neil Green, campus elder Joanne Dallaire and provost and vice-president academic Michael Benarroch. The group is made up of more than 30 Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff, faculty and students from across the university.

“(This) is really one of the first times that the community has come together to advance the TRC recommendations and goals that were articulated in the report,” said O’Neil Green.  

Monica McKay, director of Aboriginal initiatives at Ryerson, said she appreciates the diversity of the group.

“If we are to undertake the work and address systemic barriers, it needs to be done in this fashion,” said McKay. “If we are to make change and ensure sustainability, it is all of our responsibility.”

However, some Ryerson community members feel that there are some voices missing from the group.

“My voice isn’t part of that,” Lavallée said. “There were some Indigenous faculty who were not included in that.”

With that being said, Lavallée acknowledges the hard work of those involved in the report and said she knows it wasn’t easy to coordinate.

Crow agrees, adding that it’s interesting to see who gets chosen to be part of the group and who doesn’t.

“I would like to see voices invited to the table that maybe are a little bit more controversial, that they don’t necessarily want to hear from,” he said.

Moving forward, Crow said he also wants to see more than one elder on campus, more programming for two-spirit students, more meaningful engagement with Indigenous students and more visible spaces for Indigenous Peoples and groups such as Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services (RASS).

“In one year, we have made huge progress – not enough for me,” said Lachemi. “We need to do more.

“I think post-secondary education is the best way to give a new future, new hope for Indigenous youth,” he said.

McNeil-Seymour said that Ryerson has the opportunity to do something truly amazing and cutting-edge.

“Universities are deeply entwined with one’s identity formation and thus healing,” he said. “For myself, it’s where I came to understand my purpose and positioning within multiple communities and especially as a Secwépemc two-spirit land and water defender and truth speaker, akin to parrhesia.”

Lavallée said Ryerson has the potential to change the conversation surrounding truth and reconciliation.

“Ryerson in the Indigenous community is known,” said Lavallée. “I know because I worked in a different province. Especially when I told people I’m going back to Ryerson, they were like, ‘wow, that’s where you belong,’ because it’s seen as being politically active. We can actually challenge systems here.”

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