Get to know Canada’s new Indigenous think tank

Ryerson University’s Yellowhead Institute launches this week. We speak to Indigenous education adviser Hayden King about the complex process of reconciliation in post-secondary institutions
By Chantal Braganza - Published on June 5, 2018
Hayden King,  Indigenous education adviser to Ryerson University’s Faculty of Arts dean.
Hayden King is the Indigenous education adviser to Ryerson University’s Faculty of Arts dean. (Clifton Yi, Ryerson University)

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Ever since it was voted into federal government in 2015, the Liberal Party has produced a consistent stream of new policy changes and funding announcements for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities across the country. “It got to the point where there was so much happening — the amount of new legislations, the MOUs, agreements in principle,” says Hayden King, currently Indigenous education adviser to Ryerson University’s Faculty of Arts dean. “It’s dizzying really, the amount of new material the government is putting out.” This should constitute a rich field for analysis, but Canada does not yet have a research centre entirely devoted to Indigenous governance and policy issues. As the Toronto Star pointed out in a recent survey, this absence is deeply felt when it comes to who is most often invited to comment publicly on such policy issues.

This week, King, criminology professor Shiri Pasternak, and Ryerson’s Faculty of Arts will debut the Yellowhead Institute, a think tank that aims to rectify that. A relaunch of the school’s Centre for Indigenous Governance, Yellowhead will be governed by an advisory board and staffed by researchers who, for the most part, identify as First Nations, Inuit, or Métis. Its first report, about the new rights and recognition framework legislation, will be released on Tuesday.

TVO.org spoke with King about the institute, misconceptions about contemporary Indigenous law, and the complex process of reconciliation in post-secondary institutions.

So, what is the Yellowhead Institute? What does it aim to do?

It’s a research centre based in the Faculty of Arts at Ryerson. It’s being modelled as a national think tank on Indigenous policy and politics. We have five broad goals. First, to support Indigenous assertions — primarily First Nations, but also Inuit and Métis. Second, to hold both First Nations and Canadian governments accountable for their policies and legislation, and hopefully influence the trajectory of that policy. We’re based in a university, so we have a mandate to do public education, and we want to do that in accessible ways — to break down for Canadians and Indigenous people the complex relationship between the state and Indigenous communities. Fourth, we want to support Indigenous students who come to Ryerson, work on mentorship, and really bring them into the development of Yellowhead’s work. And finally, we want to model what a constructive working relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can be. For so long, it’s been the case that non-Indigenous researchers have just exploited Indigenous people. We want to change that model.

What’s behind the name?

Think tanks are often named after individuals they aspire to. We wanted to honour someone who was local to Toronto, or the region at least. I thought of William Yellowhead because he was at the very first reserve experiment at Coldwater Mellows. My ancestors are from there, too. He was a complex figure. He fought in the War of 1812 and was a British loyalist — but he was also subject to some of the most oppressive features of British and Canadian colonialism. Through all of that, he continued to assert Anishinaabe jurisdiction on that reserve, was active in making international treaties, contributed to sending diplomats to London to seek redress, and was a champion of Indigenous ceremony, medicine, and philosophy, even though he adopted some aspects of Christianity.

Muskoka is named after him: his Anishinaabemowin name was Misko Aki. He eventually founded Rama First Nation. When we thought that maybe the name was appropriate, we spoke to the Yellowhead family at Rama and got their support.

Who’s supporting the work?

The Faculty of Arts has provided and is paying for my position and has provided a tremendous amount of creative support and administrative support. That support from the Faculty of Arts is allowing us to go out and do the fundraising required to be a self-sustaining institute. We have a modest budget that will allow us to do the core activities that we hope to do, but we also plan to fundraise and grow into a significant presence.

Yellowhead’s first report comes out today. Can you tell us a little more about it?

On February 14, the prime minister spoke in the House of Commons about the new rights and recognition framework legislation, which will “breathe life” into Section 35 of the Constitution. Even before this, but especially afterwards, all those policy pieces are contributing to the rights framework. We’re trying to break that down and provide info to the relevant communities.  These changes are happening in non-transparent ways, very quickly, and there’s virtually no policy analysis of any of it. Over the course of the next two years, or this government’s mandate, we’ll be keeping a close eye on how this progresses.

I might add: there is a provincial election happening. We expect, in addition, a new government in Ontario, and that will also mean changes to Indigenous policy in this province and work to stay in front of that — and to hold the new provincial government accountable as well.

Are there commonly held misconceptions about how contemporary Indigenous law exists — and interacts — with Canadian law?

I think that a lot of Canadians see Indigenous people as just angry protesters blockading pipelines and logging roads. Canadians don’t realize that, in most of those cases, Indigenous people are enforcing their laws. Often, it’s obligations to the land. Many Indigenous peoples, First Nations particularly, have treaties with the land. When there’s a blockade, it’s not only to asset legal authority — it’s the enactment of obligations to the land. That’s one big misconception that Canadians have; they think it’s just protesting or causing trouble. But, really, it’s much deeper than that.

Has this changed in recent years?

The Idle No More movement really changed discourse in the country forever. You had Indigenous women and Two Spirit activists demanding justice for ongoing violence against women, and the culmination of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We’re in a place where a new government has been elected and is responding to all that activism and trying to make change. I think the challenge now is making sure the outcome of those conversations actually benefits Indigenous people. We don’t want to allow people to make promises, to speak in this flowery reconciliatory language, and maintain the same policy tools that have been in place for 150 years, which is what we see happening. We see pre-existing federal government policies being repackaged in new ways, but not leading to the transformative change they suggest they’re planning.

That’s the important element of this shift in discourse we have to keep in mind. It can be symbolic, or it can be material. We want to make sure it has material consequences that are positive.

How about discourse shifts in the academy? Since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report’s recommendations on education, many post-secondary institutions have taken on the project of Indigenizing their campuses and curricula.

I think that Indigenous knowledge, thought, and people have long had a contentious relationship with universities. Context matters: the West Coast is different from the Prairies is different from Ontario.

In Ontario, there’s invisibility. There are very few Indigenous faculty in universities, students have little support, and there’s not a lot of space. It’s not a surprise, then, that there are no Indigenous-led research centres in many other places, because that contentious relationship continues to exist. And I think it always will, to be honest with you. There are always going to be ways of teaching and understanding knowledge that will clash with Western ideologies and epistemologies.

But we have to ensure that Indigenous people are leading these changes. There’s this tremendous rush in Ontario and across the country: they are realizing the TRC calls to action on education have come out, and realize they have only three or four Indigenous faculty members. So there’s this scramble. I think there’s a danger of not getting it right, or of university administrations just jumping into it without guidance or leadership from the Indigenous community.

The support I’ve received at Ryerson has been really wonderful, and I don’t think that’s the case everywhere, but it’s been a positive thing for me here. That said, we have a lot of work to do here as well.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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