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A model of bridge building - Challenging Canada 150 at Nipissing University

This past fall the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada funded a series of conferences on the topic of Canada 150.  Nipissing University professors and Canada Research Chair holders Dr. Kirsten Greer and Dr. April James, joined efforts with Dr. Alan Lester, deputy vice-provost, Geography, at the University of Sussex and a leading British scholar in settler colonial studies to host Challenging Canada 150 this past October.  Treaty historian Dr. Catherine Murton Stoehr was hired to help plan the conference with the specific task of indigenizing it at the structural level.

Symposium attendees from many First Nations as well as visitors from the United States and England were treated to five days of learning at five different locations.  The organizers’ goal, as indicated by the grant-winning proposal’s title, Challenging Canada 150: Settler Colonialism and Critical Environmental Sciences, was to provide an indigenized learning experience open to as many different kinds of knowledge as possible in considering the question of Canada’s birthday.  Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod set the tone with his keynote on day one speaking plainly and at length about the agreements made, broken and forgotten, between settlers and the Anishinabeg over the use of the Lake Nipissing fishery.  He ended with a hopeful and heartfelt reflection on meaningful acts of reconciliation that he has witnessed in the North Bay community and said that people who gather to try to learn how to do better, like the people at the symposium, “are reconciliation.”

Renowned author of Our Knowledge is not Primitive: Decolonizing Botanical Anishinaabe Teachings, and Bear Clan Cree professor from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Dr. Wendy Makoons Geniusz, said, “This symposium started so many conversations about important issues surrounding land use, colonization, decolonization, and ways of talking about all of these things, that it will no doubt influence the teaching, thinking, and scholarship of participants for years to come.” 

Dr. Laura Cameron, a historical geographer from Queen’s University appreciated the  “pace and tone set by elders of Nipissing and Dokis First Nations who were reflective on the past but focused on the future and our roles in that future.”  Cameron also noted how the structure of the symposium was “fully attentive to where we were, at Lake Nipissing and other places we traveled, critically exploring ways our own disciplines and practices have enabled settler colonialism and dispossession.”  

Randy Restoule from Dokis First Nation who shared organizing responsibilities and hosted an entire day of the event at Dokis observed, “It was a great opportunity to highlight the ongoing partnership between Dokis and Nipissing University. We are fortunate to have worked together on so many projects.”  His comments were demonstrated in real time by the presence that day of Dr. Dan Walters and Dr. Carly Dokis, Nipissing University professors with long reciprocal relationships at Dokis, as well as a gift from the community of a map made to Dr. Greer, a song and ceremony led by Dokis children, and a surprise visit and teaching from Dokis Chief Gerry Duquette Jr.

Dr. Chris Duvall, a symposium participant from the University of New Mexico said “The efforts Nipissing has made to learn from and contribute to Dokis and Nipissing First Nations were inspiring, as were the efforts toward taking indigenous knowledge seriously that were represented by the other Canadian academics I met.  My colleague here, Maria Lane, and I have begun to build on what we’ve learned, and intend to improve and expand how we support indigenous students, and encourage learning about the impacts of colonialism.”

Trycia Bazinet, a PhD student in Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University and an active member of the symposium said that “Challenging Canada 150 was exemplary in its model; it demonstrated the exact kind of bridging work that will increasingly be needed between academia and affected communities. As a graduate student, I found it enriching to be included in those networks for a short time, which provided me with the chance to intimately learn about local struggles.” 

Nipissing history professor Dr. James Murton, who had the jarring experience of traveling between the North Bay symposium and another Canada 150 conference held the very same week in Toronto reflected, “One [conference] was challenging the 150th anniversary and one largely accepted it.  The more innovative work on reconciliation was taking place outside the major centre of Toronto.” 

All students in the Nipissing University Masters of Environmental Sciences/ Studies experienced the symposium as a core element of their program this year, attending all days.  Some were more than a little awed by tossing ideas back and forth with international scholars whose articles they had studied.

Dokis and Nipissing First Nation community members and elders who have been guiding this institution for years as it struggles toward indigenization showed up and shouldered their burden once again.  John Sawyer, Lorraine White Duck Liberty, Norm Dokis, the aforementioned Randy Restoule, and new friends Dan Commanda and Leland Bell of Wikwemikong Unceded First Nation shared teachings, music, encouragement, and challenges. 

Another Nipissing First Nation member, Dr. Cindy Peltier, Chair of Indigenous Education at Nipissing, provided guidance and led a reflection circle on day three of the symposium. 

Maurice Switzer of Alderville First Nation and Tanya Lukin-Linklater of Port Lyons and Afognac helped the organizers open their minds and hearts to better ways of sharing knowledge at an academic conference and supported throughout.  Mr. Switzer continues his role, now pressing the participants to put the knowledge shared to work.

Not all the reports are in, and some will never be shared.  Colonialism has long arms and enforces silence fiercely.  What was done wrong at the symposium, what was left out, what lies were told, who was hurt and how, is not going to show up here, but that doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen right alongside all the good and the organizers wish to acknowledge that too.  It is our great hope that the symposium strengthened the credibility of our commitment, and Nipissing University’s commitment, to doing better.

Submitted by Dr. Catherine Murton Stoehr
Nipissing University
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