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Decolonization begins in our thoughts

Elders at first Soup & Substance series panel prompt us to challenge the colonization of our minds
By: Antoinette Mercurio
February 19, 2019
From left: Tracey King, Joanne Dallaire, Clayton Shirt, Banakonda Kennedy-Kish, Monica McKay and Cheryl Trudeau

A full house of community members came out in support of the first Soup & Substance series on decolonization at Ryerson. From left: Tracey King, Ryerson’s Aboriginal human resources lead/consultant; Ryerson Elder Joanne Dallaire; Clayton Shirt, Elder-in-Residence, Toronto Catholic District School Board and Elder at the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health; Banakonda Kennedy-Kish, Elder-in-Residence, Program Elder, Indigenous Field of Study, Faculty of Social Work at Wilfred Laurier University; Monica McKay, director, Aboriginal Initiatives; and Cheryl Trudeau, coordinator, Aboriginal Education Council. Photo credit: Victoria Vaughan.

If there’s one thing to learn from our Elders, it’s that decolonization is an ongoing process.

On January 31, community members got a peek into the thoughts, feelings and journeys of three Indigenous knowledge-keepers who spoke about their views on decolonization. This was the first in a four-part Soup & Substance series on what decolonization looks like at Ryerson, hosted by the Office of the Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion.

Learning From Our Grandparents and Knowledge Keepers featured Ryerson Elder Joanne Dallaire; Banakonda Kennedy-Kish, Elder-in-Residence, Program Elder, Indigenous Field of Study, Faculty of Social Work at Wilfred Laurier University; and Clayton Shirt, Elder-in-Residence, Toronto Catholic District School Board and Elder at the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Moderator Tracey King, Ryerson’s Aboriginal human resources lead/consultant, kicked off the talk with the question, “What does decolonization mean from your perspective?”

Here’s what each Elder had to say:

Clayton Shirt

“How many people here have heard of the Doctrine of Discovery? Okay, start there, look at that one doctrine that happened 500 years ago and is a very powerful document and that’s the root of it all. It’s the root, it set the tone here for the last 500 years, that one document … it says, ‘We have the supreme authority to do whatever we want to non-Christians, the supreme authority from our God to do whatever we want, to take whatever we want.’ They went to Africa with this, they went to Asia, they came here with that document. So the way I see it, it’s a mind-altering thing, our minds have been altered to perceive this reality through that lens.

So we need to question that, how we see things and our ceremonies, our culture, our teachings can help us decolonize our own minds. That’s what I’ve been doing, I’m trying to decolonize my mind.”

Banakonda Kennedy-Kish

“I don’t know what happened to the settler when he came over here in terms of spirituality. I’m not talking about religion, I’m talking about the spirit and I’m talking about the relationship of the spirit, and maybe the trauma of having to leave their land. It seems to me that as an Indigenous person I am not the only one suffering and having to navigate trauma and the loss of my language, the loss of my culture and the loss of life in my family due to a residential school, due to the Sixties Scoop and all the other products of colonization, and those are fires that I no longer want to feed.

But I do want to speak about some truths here because a lot of what settlers believe about us, that’s caught in and boxed up and packaged in colonization, is projection, like we are all thieves. We grew up with that. Where does that come from? I would call that projection, I would call it serious projection because who took our land, who is still taking our land and who has entitlement because they have our land, and the great tragedy of that is those takers of our land don’t love it.

Yes, they don’t have that intimate valued relationship to the land, and if we don’t have that intimate valued relationship, how do we stand up for her [Mother Earth], how do we take care of her, how do we protect her.

So when you ask me about colonization and decolonization, my final response to that is we need to know we have a right to see ourselves as loved by Gichi-manidoo, as loved and valued by the Creator. We know absolutely and I want you all to know the Creator made no mistakes when he made us, and the Creator made no mistakes when he created you.

Colonization is a by-product of a people who forgot that and who need to find ways to stand that up in themselves. In terms of the academy, my interest is in making an Indigenous pathway in the academy.

I do not want to make settlers Indigenous, I am not interested in changing sides, but I want settlers to know that western knowledge is only one knowledge and that Christianity is one faith; and the efforts to make Christianity a universality, this one story that is trying to mix all our stories together in a mixing bowl so they cease to be identifiable, we cease to source the roots of them – that’s wrong.”

Joanne Dallaire

“I come from not knowing where I was from, not knowing who my mother was, not knowing and will never know who my father is, and to finding out for sure who I was at 45. So all my life it’s been about who am I, how do people see me.

I didn’t understand the prejudice that I grew up with because I was taught to be part of it, and I grew up singing songs like, ‘One little, two little, three little Indians, four little’ – all of that stuff, I knew no different; the kids knew but I didn’t know. And so when I hear people speak like this and talk about their history, their land, where they grew up, I’m disconnected, and I know that many people sitting in this room with ancestry and Indigenous backgrounds are feeling the same way.

And so when we talk about the colonizers, a lot of us have colonizer blood....

I believe that my inability to know who I was challenged me in ways that other people aren’t challenged. I had to really come to terms with who I was and feel confident in who I am so that I don’t have to defend myself anymore, and so colonization to me starts with inside, it starts with myself and you coming to terms with your decolonizing thoughts.

So moving forward, I think we have to be very careful about what we believe. You need to evaluate your own belief system. I needed to evaluate mine to find out what I believed, was it really my belief, or just something that I had been fed all my life. And so decolonization starts from here (gesturing to her heart) and moves out, it’s about responsibility, and the more and more teachings I get, the more and more I realize that even in my subtle ways of knowing and being, I’m still colonized.”

Moderator Tracey King wrote a reflection on this first panel, available on the Office of the Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion website.

The next Soup & Substance will be on February 21, at noon in Oakham Lounge, on Hearing From Our Learners: Our Ryerson Students.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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