Waubageshig’s half-century championing Indigenous students

How Waubageshig launched the country’s first Indigenous-studies program — and helped shape the teaching of Indigenous history and culture
By Marsha McLeod - Published on Mar 12, 2021
In November 2020, Waubageshig was appointed to the Order of Canada for his half century of work championing Indigenous students (Shelby Lisk)



In October 1967, Waubageshig found himself sitting down for a meeting with the founding president of Trent University, the late Thomas H.B. Symons. At the time, Waubageshig, whose English name is Harvey McCue, was the only Indigenous student at the Peterborough-based university — and the second in its history. He’d transferred there after studying for two years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, where he recalls having been ostracized and ignored by his white peers. At Trent, though, he found different attitudes and was elected student president of Champlain College. In their meeting, he says, Symons asked him what the school could do to support Indigenous peoples — and he remembers thinking of an article he’d read that noted there had been only 112 Indigenous students at Canadian universities in 1966: “‘Well, Mr. President,’ I said, ‘If you could do anything that could increase the presence of Indigenous students … that would be a great thing.’”

About a year and a half later, as Waubageshig was set to graduate, Symons asked whether he’d be interested in becoming a faculty member and working with him to start an Indigenous-studies program. “There wasn’t anything like this at any university in the country,” says Waubageshig, who is Anishinaabe from Georgina Island First Nation, which is on Lake Simcoe, near Barrie. That fall, they launched the program, then called Indian-Eskimo Studies. It was the first of its kind in Canada and the second in North America. “It was an exciting time,” he says. “It was totally new. There were no precedents for courses, and we had to create something out of nothing.”

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At Trent, Waubageshig taught about the importance of two goals — ones that he would work toward for the rest of his career. He wanted to enable Indigenous students to learn in their own language and with curricula focusing on the history and culture of their communities — content that the provincial system often ignored. They were not small goals: when Waubageshig began teaching, in the 1970s, Canada had only just closed the bulk of its residential schools; the final institution wasn’t shuttered until 1996.

In the fall of 1969, 24 students enrolled in Trent’s inaugural Indigenous-studies class, Waubageshig says; four of them were Indigenous. About five years later, there were more than 50 Indigenous students in the program, and several hundred students were taking first-year classes. In 1971, it became its own department. Then called the Native Studies Department, it’s now the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies. That same year, Waubageshig attended a powwow at the University of Montana and returned to Trent with a renewed focus on providing students with cultural opportunities. “In 1950, 1960, and into 1970, cultural expressions — Indian cultural expressions — were few and far between. There weren’t any powwows to speak of, and languages were slowly dying, except in small pockets,” he says. “It wasn’t until the mid-to-late ’70s, and into the ’80s, that a cultural renaissance began to occur.”

Waubageshig teaching at Trent University
At Trent University, Waubageshig taught the importance of Indigenous students learning in their own language (Courtesy of Trent University Library and Archives)

Roronhiakewen (a Mohawk name meaning He Clears the Sky) enrolled in the program in 1973. Now an associate professor within the department himself, Roronhiakewen, whose English name is Dan Longboat, says that students were lucky to have “cutting-edge” faculty, including Don McCaskill, Marlene Brant Castellano, the late Chief Jacob Thomas, and the late Joseph Couture, who was the first Indigenous person in Canada to receive a PhD in psychology. “Joe [Couture] was really big on providing cultural experience for us students, so he would bring in some of the top — I'm talking top — elders of that time, way back in the ’70s,” Roronhiakewen says. “These are the elders’ elders, and we were — us young folk, young students — at the feet of these men and women and the knowledge that they brought to us.”

As a child, Roronhiakewen, who is from Six Nations of the Grand River, went to an Indian Day School — “residential school where students went home at the end of the day,” he says. (The last of Canada’s nearly 700 Indian Day Schools was operational until 2000.) “Going to school back then, it was pretty rough, and I never really had an opportunity throughout my younger, elementary years — because of the teaching and just the lack of capacity and opportunity within the classroom — to really learn how to read and how to not only write, but do grammar,” Roronhiakewen says. “So I struggled with that throughout my entire life.” Recalling his first-year essays at Trent, he says, “I would get more red-pen comments on mine than my actual writing ... I’d be lucky to get a C. I'd be happy if I got a C. Most times, it would be a D or a D-. Sometimes, it’d be an F — once in a great while.”

But that changed in his second year, when Roronhiakewen took a class with Waubageshig that focused on culture and community. For one essay, he wrote about a cultural practice in Six Nations. “It had some red marks by the time I got it back, but I got an A on that essay,” Roronhiakewen says. “I can tell you, that A from him, that changed my whole life. From that time on, two things happened: one was that I knew I was capable of getting an A, and number two — probably most importantly — was the value of recognizing the integrity of our cultural knowledge and practices.”

Roronhiakewen says that he went from being on academic probation after his first year to graduating as an A and B+ student. “That was all him that spurred it on,” Roronhiakewen says, referring to Waubageshig. “That's the power of a caring, empathetic, and supportive teacher and the recognition of our value as Indigenous peoples and of Indigenous knowledge.”

After graduating, Roronhiakewen pursued a career in banking, real estate, and government, before getting his master’s and PhD from York University. In 1995, he returned to teach at Trent. David Newhouse, the department’s long-time chair, asked him to work alongside Chief Thomas, also from Six Nations, who was one of the first elders to be made faculty at a Canadian university on the basis of their traditional knowledge. In 2003, Roronhiakewen became the founding director of Trent’s Indigenous Environmental Studies and Sciences program, the first of its kind in North America. "None of that would have possible without Harvey's contribution to the program” and without the contributions of other faculty and the university at large, Roronhiakewen says.

Waubageshig in Ottawa in January 2021
Since 1988, Waubageshig has lived in Ottawa with his wife, Sharon (Shelby Lisk)

In 1969, the year Trent’s program launched, a political reckoning was unfolding over a policy document known as the White Paper. Created by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien (then the Minister of Indian Affairs), it called for the elimination of Indian status and the abolishment of the Indian Act. It would also have meant the end of post-secondary funding for status First Nations students. The proposal was roundly criticized by Indigenous leaders, and, in particular, by the Cree leader Harold Cardinal. Three years later, the National Indian Brotherhood, a precursor to the Assembly of First Nations, released a policy called “Indian Control of Indian Education.” It called for local Indigenous control over Indigenous children’s education, language, and culture learning in classrooms and for more Indigenous teachers and counsellors, among other changes. 

“When language and culture programming is argued for, it’s not for a return to the past or a sense of we're tuning out or separating ourselves,” says Jean-Paul Restoule, the chair of the Department of Indigenous Education at the University of Victoria, of the push for cultural education following the White Paper. “It’s more like the foundation gives us self-esteem and strength and confidence to be able to do other things well, too. When students have a stronger sense of traditional identity or a spiritual foundation, they will also do better in school.”

According to Restoule, Indigenous-studies programs can be a place for Indigenous students to build that confidence. “It’s a critical safe space for Indigenous students. They might take a course or two, if they’re majoring in some other program, and that provides their place to chill out and be themselves,” he says, adding that it's not that the courses aren't challenging. “For a lot of Indigenous students, they’re the first in their families to go to post-secondary studies, so it can be a friendlier place to experience it for the first time.”  However, he notes, outside of Trent’s program — which he calls a “jewel in [the school’s] crown” — Indigenous-studies programs are often under-resourced and the faculty overburdened.

Trent’s Indigenous-studies program kicked off an “explosion” of similar programs across Canada, Waubageshig says, adding that was “tremendously important,” both for Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students, who went into their lives better informed.

In 1983, after 14 years teaching at Trent, he was invited by Grand Chief Billy Diamond, of the Grand Council of the Crees, to become the director of education services for the Cree School Board, on the coast of James Bay in Quebec. At the time the only Indigenous school board in Canada, it was made up of 10 communities, half of which were accessible only by air. When Waubageshig relocated to Chisasibi — with his wife, Sharon, and his son, Duncan — he made a commitment to stay for at least five years, aware that the high turnover of principals and teachers in northern Indigenous schools have negative effects on students. 

The role, he says, was a chance for him to put some of his theories into practice. He believed it was important for students to receive instruction in their own language: Cree. “Learning in your language is going to facilitate intellectual development,” he says. “It's going to improve and strengthen learning, and a byproduct is that the language is emphasized.” He also wanted to increase the amount of Cree content in the curriculum; Quebec’s curriculum, which the board followed, had virtually none. “That’s been one of the reasons why so many of our kids have difficulty getting through high school, because there’s so little educational and instructional content that is pertinent to their communities and to their culture,” he says, adding that while some progress was made on language awareness, it was an “uphill battle” to get more Cree content into the curriculum. 

After leaving James Bay, Waubageshig served five years with Indian Affairs in Ottawa, including three as the director general of education — the first-ever Indigenous person to fill the role. While staff members were “well-intentioned and well-meaning,” he says, most had never set foot in an Indigenous community, let alone taught in one — an issue, he notes, that persists to this day. 

His career then took him to Nova Scotia, where he worked with 13 Miꞌkmaq communities in the process of creating a board similar to the Cree School Board. Only four had their own schools; the rest sent their children to provincial schools off-reserve. Many of those students, he says, were not doing well, as they encountered racism and teachers who “had no knowledge or understanding” of how to teach or interact with them.

Waubageshig helped three communities open their own schools. “On every occasion, when I went to one of the 13 communities, I would say, ‘Look, I am here to help you educate your children, and I believe that the best way to do that is to educate them in your community,’” he says. 

Since 1988, Waubageshig has lived with his wife, Sharon, in Ottawa. Now 76, he hasn’t retired — although he did shift to part-time in 1995. Since then, he’s worked as an educational consultant with such communities as Long Lake #58 First Nation, about 300 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. At the request of Long Lake’s education director, Claire Onabigon, he developed a history curriculum specific to the community. The curriculum, which covers kindergarten to Grade 12, launched last fall.

“The Long Lake history curriculum is a physical representation of my education theory,” he says. It teaches students about their community and its history, about who their ancestors were and what they believed, as well as about the community’s current-day institutions, he says. “By the end of Grade 12, the kids at Long Lake will know who they are … and that is vital,” he adds. In the coming years, he hopes to work with other communities to create their own versions. 

In November 2020, Waubageshig was appointed to the Order of Canada for his half century of work championing Indigenous students. “A very pleasant young woman called and said, ‘Guess what? You’ve been appointed to the Order of Canada,’” he says. “That was early in October, and for the first time in my life, I was speechless — I was very flattered and humbled and pleased.”

Over his career, Waubageshig’s primary goals have remained the same. “I haven’t wavered from my deep-seated conviction in the importance of Indigenous content in the curriculum and the importance of instruction in the language,” he says. “I have delivered that message to literally thousands of people through conferences and articles and speeches and so on … I think the message is starting to get through.”

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