What is McMaster doing for reconciliation?

Amarah Hasham-Steele
November 5, 2021
Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes

How McMaster observed the first official National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

C/O Marcus Urbenz, Unsplash

On Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was observed across the country. Meant to acknowledge the tragic legacy of the residential school system and honour those who were and are impacted by it, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation became a federal statutory holiday in June 2021 and was celebrated for the first time in September. Although it is a federal statutory holiday, it is not recognized as a statutory holiday by numerous provinces, including Ontario.

At McMaster University, this day was observed through a series of events on campus. Katelyn Knott, coordinator of Indigenous-focused events at McMaster, explained the significance of these events.

“As part of the Orange shirt campaign, we did a commemoration event at the beginning of the day, which included a sacred fire, some drummers and dancers. The drum group was called Spirit Vision and they’re a local Hamilton group. We put this on to commemorate the uncovering of Indigenous children at residential schools as well as acknowledging [Phyllis Webstad],” said Knott. 

A survivor of the residential school system, Phyllis Webstad founded Orange Shirt Day in 2013, as a way to acknowledge the history and legacy of residential schools in Canada. As of this year, Orange Shirt Day became officially recognized as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. 

“[This was] significant because music and dance is a great way for Indigenous people to come together to celebrate, to honour or to heal each other. And so we did that and we invited the McMaster community to join in with us for some teachings and some honoring,” explained Knott.

Knott also discussed how on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, many Indigenous faculty and staff members at McMaster called on the community to take steps towards reconciliation. 

“Some of the recommendations were to pick [just one call to action] and make that commitment to addressing it. Other ones were to read and familiarize yourself, if you haven't already, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to look into the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, to do that self-education beyond September 30,”

katelyn knott

Despite the on-campus events that acknowledged the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, classes and tests continued to operate at McMaster. While instructors had the option to cancel their classes or to use their classes for relevant discussion, they also had the ability to continue classes and assessments as usual. 

One on-campus event, A Conversation about Indigenous Inclusion, was originally scheduled to take place on Sept. 28 but was cancelled on Sept. 27. This event, organized by McMaster's Equity and Inclusion Office and Indigenous Link, was advertised as a discussion about how to best include Indigenous peoples in the workplace.

On Sept. 24, the Cooperative of Indigenous Students Studies and Alumni at McMaster published an Instagram post calling for the cancellation of this event. In their post, CISSA highlighted the lack of on-campus Indigenous voices included in the planning of this event, the questions about identity raised by the description of the speaker as having Métis ancestors and the focus on Indigenous inclusion rather than self-determination. 

“[F]rom Indigenous perspectives, the idea of ‘identity and inclusion is highly problematic. Grounded in a [World Health Organization] Commission, Indigenous peoples have largely rejected a social inclusion framework — our goal is to self-determine,” CISSA stated. 

When the Silhouette reached out to the Equity and Inclusion Office to discuss the cancellation of this event, they declined to interview. 

When discussing McMaster’s approach to reconciliation and support for Indigenous peoples, Knott expressed appreciation for the services available on campus. 

“They have so many different programs, so many different initiatives and supports. In my time as an undergraduate and graduate at McMaster University, they were foundational to my success. If folks are looking for support or just a sense of belonging, [I really encourage] that they reach out to Indigenous Student Services and Indigenous studies program,” said Knott.

Adrienne Xavier, director of the Indigenous studies program, noted that McMaster’s Indigenous studies program has been in place for a long time and as a result, McMaster is somewhat ahead of other universities in their reconciliation efforts. 

“There were a lot of movements that have been made, but those were things that McMaster chose to do before the TRC. They didn’t need to be asked by the government; they were asked by Indigenous communities,” said Xavier. 

However, Knott also highlighted that there is much more progress to be made. 

“[Regarding] the dialogue that we're having as Indigenous people with the institution, I think that there are definite positive parts and positive people. But we can always do better,” said Knott. 

In discussing how McMaster can continue to take steps towards reconciliation, Knott emphasized the need for more Indigenous staff and faculty members. 

“Indigenous staff and faculty do really incredible work and are overburdened by the demands that are put on Indigenous people,” explained Knott. 

Xavier emphasized that reconciliation is a long process, but that the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation has opened a wider conversation about Indigenous affairs. For many individuals, Xavier explained, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is their first introduction to this conversation.

“We aren't a problem. At the end of the day, Indigenous people have history in this country, but we aren't an issue. We aren't a problem to be solved. We are people to be celebrated. We are people to be acknowledged. We are histories that have to be understood,” said Xavier.

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