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RSU executives condemn ‘anti-Indigenous’ Facebook statement after non-Indigenous performance of song from Disney’s Pocahontas

by Madi Wong and Emma Sandri

Concerns over anti-Indigenous sentiments have been raised by Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) executives after a non-Indigenous performer sang “Colors of the Wind” from the movie Pocahontas at an event organized by members of the union.

During Ryerson’s Social Justice Week in October, RSU president Vanessa Henry was one of the organizers and speakers of an event called “Generations of Resistance” held on Oct. 30. Henry also had workers from the RSU’s SHIFT centre as co-organizers to help run the event, according to vice-president marketing Victoria Anderson-Gardner.

According to the website for Ryerson’s Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy, the event was for attendees to share “activist knowledge, strategies and tools for resistance across generations.”

“During the event, I was there personally with one of my friends and there was a performer who I will say is non-Indigenous to Turtle Island who sang ‘Colors of the Wind,’” said Anderson-Gardner.

“That film is definitely discriminatory against the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island…I was personally triggered because I was sitting there and I was [thinking], ‘This is the song choice that they’re doing for this sort of event?’” Anderson-Gardner said, noting the song could be traumatic for other Indigenous students at the event. 

Anderson-Gardner added that “Colors of the Wind” made them think of other songs in the film, including the song “Savages.”

“It just makes me think of all of the harmful things done toward the Indigenous community,” they said.

A now-deleted statement published on behalf of the RSU appeared on their Facebook page on Nov. 1, according to Kwaku Agyemang, vice-president education of the RSU. 

Anderson-Gardner said they took down the statement shortly after it was published, claiming it was anti-Indigenous and did not reflect the views of the executives aside from Henry. 

When asked to comment on the matter, Henry responded via email and said the RSU had already dealt with the situation internally.

“We’ve already begun taking steps to reconcile. For instance, to prevent this from occurring again we have taken steps to exercise due diligence, by vetting performer’s acts,” Henry said. 

The Eyeopener obtained a copy of the statement, which said the performer used the song to “tell the story of their own personal resilience.” 

“There is a narrative going around that this performed evoked ‘Cultural Appropriation’ and was ‘harmful to the indigenous population at Ryerson.’ It is very unfortunate that this narrative is being spread,” the statement reads. 

“The RSU stands by its Equity policy and completes all checks and balances to ensure that we are fostering a safe space for students…We (including the RSU and the performer) are not blind to ignorance and we do not tolerate appropriation or racism.”

The statement mentioned that the performer was an international student who “is in fact Indigenous on her own land” and that “when speaking on cultural appropriation it is important to understand that there are multiple ethnicities who are considered Indigenous.”

According to Anderson-Gardner, Agyemang and vice-president student life and events Joshua Wiggins, the statement was released by Henry without consultation of the rest of the executive team. 

“[The president] released it on behalf of the whole organization and not just herself and the organizers, which was a huge problem…[it] means I’m associated with it as well, when it’s something that is harmful towards my own community members,” said Anderson-Gardner. 

The Eye contacted vice-president equity Naja Pereira and vice-president operations Augustine Onuh for comment but they did not respond in time for publication. 

“[The president] released it on behalf of the whole organization and not just herself and the organizers, which was a huge problem…[it] means I’m associated with it as well, when it’s something that is harmful towards my own community members.”

Released in 1995, Disney’s Pocahontas has long been criticized for perpetuating harmful stereotypes about Indigenous Peoples. 

As The Guardian explains, the film whitewashes colonial history, giving viewers the dangerous impression that European colonization of North America was a “cheerful and cooperative effort.”

“Waves of infectious disease and genocide wiped out up to 90 [per cent] of the indigenous population. The white colonizers’ belief in ‘manifest destiny’ licensed a fifty-year transcontinental land-grab and brutal campaign of cultural and ethnic cleansing,” says The Guardian. 

Anderson-Gardner was informed that the statement was posted when they received text messages from people asking them if they supported the statement. 

Anderson-Gardner said they texted Henry to say they would be taking down the statement.

In addition, Anderson-Gardner said they asked for Henry and the organizers to re-release a statement on behalf of themselves, or to “put out a new statement, regarding the whole incident and different calls to action moving forward in regards to just making sure that Indigenous students feel safe…coming into these different events.”

As of Dec. 8, a new statement has not appeared on the RSU’s Facebook page. 

“I feel like you owe it to the students to have an actual apology, not this half-apology,” said Anderson-Gardner.

Henry sent a copy of a Nov. 15 statement from Kiké Roach, Ryerson’s social justice chair, to The Eye on Dec. 6. In the statement, Roach states that she had spoken to Henry directly about the incident. In addition, she states that Henry has “acknowledged that corrective measures must be taken so that, in future, no artistic or other expressions that are offensive to any particular equity-seeking group take place.” 

Although Roach said she was not present for the entire event, she said “it was clear that the organizers put a lot of thought, time and creativity” into the event and highlighting the speakers in attendance. 

How the RSU plans to move forward

According to Anderson-Gardner, “there’s not necessarily a lot of support for Indigenous people within the RSU.”

Anderson-Gardner said that though they are an advocate for Indigenous peoples and issues, it is “tiring being the one person that everyone goes to all the time.” They said that the RSU should keep in mind that there are more Indigenous community members that the union can consult.

They added that performances should be screened beforehand.

Wiggins said he was concerned for Anderson-Gardner who, is an Indigenous leader on campus and was directly affected by the situation. 

Agyemang said it is important to make sure the RSU receives proper equity-based training that is rooted in Indigenous teachings. 

“When we include land acknowledgements, it’s not just stating the acknowledgement but talking about how important [it] is and what we can do to further walk the path of reconciliation,” he said. 

‘Extremely disappointing’

Along with RSU executives, other Ryerson community members have raised concerns about the event, including the Social Work Students’ Union (SWSU).

Following the “Generations of Resistance” event, Ryerson’s SWSU posted a statement to Instagram on Oct. 31. 

“We believe that it is necessary to condemn the performance of a song from a film known to perpetuate extreme stereotypes, appropriation, assimilation and racism towards Indigenous peoples,” the statement reads. 

“We find it extremely disappointing that this occurred at an event advertised by the RSU as a social justice event…and one that we promoted on our social media accounts.” 

The SWSU stated that, moving forward, they hope the RSU and Ryerson’s Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy will collaborate to prevent incidents like this from happening again.

With files from Valerie Dittrich

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