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Creating safe spaces for language, culture and life

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Guest blog by Caleb Snider, Congress 2017 blogger

The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences brings together leading thinkers, academics, researchers, policy-makers and innovators to explore some of the world’s most challenging issues. Congress celebrates the vitality and quality of Canadian research contributions, and helps train the next generation of Canadian ideas leadership. This year’s theme “The Next 150, on Indigenous Lands" celebrates the history, legacy and achievements of the peoples and territories that make us who we are, and anticipates the boundless opportunities of the future. Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, this year’s Congress is being hosted by Ryerson University in Toronto from May 27-June 2. Follow this series of Big Picture at #congressh blogs.

Kevin Lamoureux, Associate Vice-President of Indigenous Affairs and a doctoral candidate at University of Winnipeg, kicked off the “Remembering our past, rethinking the next 150 years and beyond” session with a bang. He disarmed the audience with his warm and self-deprecating sense of humour before dropping a proverbial emotional bombshell in recounting the circumstances and suicide of a young Indigenous woman named Kathleen.

This story provided grave context to Lamoureux’s definition of Indigenization, which he devised after seeking the advice of elders and knowledge keepers within the Indigenous community: for Lamoureux, Indiginization is all about safety. It is the need to establish safe spaces for the most marginalized members of our society who may not have safe spaces at home. He pointed out the responsibility of the academy to guarantee a place of physical and cultural safety for Indigenous students and scholars in a postcolonial society. He pointed out that establishing these spaces requires a lot of hard work and will be difficult to achieve, but he was buoyed by seeing so many allies packed into the standing room only event.

Professor Judy Iseke (University of Alberta) spoke passionately about the need to conserve Indigenous languages and her concerns at the current emphasis on the superficial in Inidiginization processes in the academy. For Professor Iseke, preserving Indigenous languages means preserving their accompanying knowledge systems, and retaining a people’s stories is the key step in retaining respect for them. Her own work in preserving language and stories began very personally, with the recording of her own family’s stories as recounted by her aunt, but quickly expanded beyond her personal context.

Both panelists also spoke passionately about opening space for Indigenous scholars and Indigenous languages in the academy. Lamoureux pointed out that language is synonymous with culture, and that culture is whatever seems normal to you. Language is also synonymous with power: language can be a material asset, one that can open doors or shut them just as quickly, and native speakers of dominant languages often take for granted the privileged position their circumstances provide. Professor Iseke pointed out that universities here in Canada still operate in the colonial languages of English or French, and that it is now time to push the boundaries that suppress Indigenous languages by opening space for students to write and present their work in their native Indigenous languages.

The panel closed with an Indigenous graduate student and member of the audience thanking the panelists for modelling how to be an Indigenous academic and showing the way forward for future Indigenous scholars.

Kevin Lamoureux and Judy Iseke together made up a panel discussion entitled Remembering our past, rethinking the next 150 years and beyond at Congress 2017 at Ryerson University. This cross-disciplinary session was co-hosted by: Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE), Canadian Historical Association (CHA), Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE) and Canadian Sociological Association (CSA). 

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