From left, Shana Dion, Grant Bruno, Robin Howse and Tiffany Orenda Johnson. Photo by John Ulan
We asked three students and the director of the University of Alberta Aboriginal Student Services Centre to talk about their experiences at the U of A. Two of the students are the first in their families to go to university and two have parents or grandparents who attended residential schools.
Grant Bruno, ’16 BA(NativeStu), from Maskwacis, Alta., is working on a master’s degree in the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology. Robin Howse, a second-year student in the Faculty of Native Studies, has roots in the Miawpukek First Nation and was raised in Treaty 6 territory in Alberta. Tiffany Orenda Johnson, a third-year student in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, has family from Samson Cree Nation and Peepeekisis Cree Nation. Shana Dion, ’05 BA(NativeStu), from the Kehewin Cree Nation, is the director of the Aboriginal Student Services Centre.
Rhonda Kronyk: Can you begin by sharing some of your personal experiences at the U of A?
Robin Howse: I am very light-skinned and, as such, I don’t see as much direct racism as somebody who’s visibly Indigenous. But I listen to conversations that go on on this campus and it blows my mind. The outright racist or ignorant things that are being said sometimes — it’s hurtful to hear. The fall before I came to Native Studies was when the teepee was “TP-ed” [defaced with toilet paper]. Hearing that, I was like “What? At the U of A?” Then the attempted arson of the Red River cart, the vandalizing of the Aboriginal Students’ Council lounge, the racism on social media. … Where do we go from here? I don’t want my kids to be dealing with it when they come here.
Tiffany Johnson: I’ve slowly become disenchanted with being able to celebrate my culture at the U of A. There’s so much covert racism as well as overt racism — certain practices that sororities and fraternities have here that make fun of Indigenous people. At a flash round dance in the middle of Quad, someone was standing behind us and ululating. Just outright racism. I don’t feel like this is a safe space as a student. I don’t feel like the administration is doing anything to protect me as an Indigenous woman.
Grant Bruno: When we’re talking about racism, what we don’t want is sympathy. I don’t feel sorry for myself. In the classroom, you get students saying things like, “Why are we learning Indigenous history? European history is superior.” And the professor doesn’t do anything. People are allowed to spew ignorance and aren’t being challenged. That’s what I have a problem with.
Shana Dion: Hearing these stories, it’s really hard to not be angry. I want students to be proud. I want the university to be a place where they feel respected. … The responsibility of faculty, professors, admin — when something happens on this campus that disrespects First Nations, Métis, Inuit peoples, that’s an open door for conversation to happen. What I know here, as a former student and now in administration, is discrimination of our people happens every single day, and it’s not about asking for an apology or sympathy, it’s coming to an understanding as human beings.
RH: If the university wants to talk about its truths, it should start by incorporating Indigenous knowledge and histories into each aspect of the education system. Seeing that presence of [Indigenous] staff at the university is also big for me — professors but also elders; those knowledge keepers are our original professors.
GB: You go to an Indigenous literature class not taught by an Indigenous person, why is that? Why is that person telling our story? I’ve had a professor tell me the sweetgrass story, which is something I hold very personal; I was gifted the sweetgrass story, and that story changed my life. It was butchered by a professor [who] was well-meaning, I know, but at the same time, there’s ignorance still. They don’t realize they can actually hurt people.
RH: I go into classes where western science is the be-all and end-all and traditional knowledge, if mentioned, is “less than.” It’s hard for me, coming from a perspective where I hold traditional knowledge very high.
GB: One of the big things for me is supporting the students. The university does a really good job of selling itself as a place of growth and opportunity. It’s the followup that I find inadequate. There’s so much trauma with these students — it could be intergenerational, it could be childhood — and as an adult, you bring that with you to university. They should have supports in place for students.
TJ: When you talk to professors, some almost brush off intergenerational trauma sometimes. They’re like, “Yeah, but we’re talking about now.” … I deal with education students, nursing students, sociology students, human ecology students, and there’s such a gap of information. The truth isn’t acknowledged.
RH: The majority of students don’t know whose land this was originally or why they have the privilege of living and playing and learning on these lands.
SD: As first-generation survivors, we’re new to understanding this [colonial history], too. We’re learning this as the nation is learning this. This is something that was very shameful. So, as this nation is trying to move toward reconciliation, we’re trying to find that truth within ourselves. We still need to heal.
RK: How do you cope with these challenges?
GB: For me, it’s community. I’m able to go engage with like-minded individuals here at the [Aboriginal Student Services Centre]. Students have to support students, because it’s not coming much from elsewhere. Another thing I’ve been doing is a lot more ceremony. That rebalances me. The fact that students are here should be celebrated. We should be able to celebrate on our own terms at the university. [We] have to focus on the positives, it’s not all negatives.
TJ: I’m pretty outspoken. I advocate a lot for myself. When somebody is blatantly waving their ignorance flag out there, I want to know what the root is, why they have that stereotype. It’s also important to find allies — other students, professors. There are a lot of people who are open to discussing what happened. I’ve even invited people from my classes to have stew and bannock at ASSC [the Aboriginal Student Support Centre].
RH: Ceremony is a big one. If I didn’t have ceremony in my life, I wouldn’t be here.
RK: All four of you are parents. Can you talk about being a parent and a student?
GB: The reason I’m in post-secondary is I became a father. To set a precedent for my boys gives me the biggest smile because they’re going to see Dad do it. And my sister recently enrolled in the university because she saw me do it.
RH: We have two children, five and seven, and I think they’re what saved my life and brought me here. They’re my motivation. … I’m in environmental conservation and sciences [because] I want to create a positive impact on the future of our planet and Turtle Island [North America] so our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will benefit from the gifts we’ve been given.
TJ: I saw intergenerational trauma and knew I wanted to be a different parent. Our parents mean well, but when you’re parented by an institution [residential school], it has a huge effect. … My father was in one of the last residential schools to close in Alberta. He spent almost eight years in residential schools and during that time he became an orphan, so he went straight into foster care. … Having my son made me not want to repeat the hatred taught in residential schools. I’m effecting change for him and his children.
RK: What would you say to students or alumni who don’t know how to move forward?
SD: Allow us the space to be proud, to attend ceremony, to allow ceremony on campus and to speak our language without the barriers of discrimination.
TJ: People don’t realize that we’re parents and regular people. Other than the devastating effects of colonization, we’re just humans. We want to live our lives and be our best selves.
RH: Build connections with Indigenous people and take time to educate themselves. The Faculty of Native Studies just released its massive open online course, Indigenous Canada. It’s a great way to get to know Canada’s history and Indigenous ways of life.
GB: In the age of information, ignorance is a choice. I’d like to challenge readers — alumni, administration, students — to do their research. I’d like to challenge Indigenous students to use their voice … the fact that you’re walking on campus means you’ve already succeeded.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.