Only 2 Indigenous members on Ryerson’s renaming committee, student rep says

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By Mariam Nouser

This story has been updated to include comment from Wreckonciliation X University.

Following Ryerson University’s announcement of an advisory committee to identify a new name for the institution, a student on the committee is raising concerns over Indigenous representation and tokenization of committee members.

Out of the 17 members on the advisory committee, only two are Indigenous and just three are students, according to Miranda Black, a master’s student in environmental applied science and management. Black alleges she is the only Indigenous student on the committee.

On Sept. 12, Ryerson announced the creation of the advisory committee to “guide the process of identifying a new name” that reflects the “university’s strengths, values and aspirations.” 

The committee was created after Ryerson’s Board of Governors (BoG) approved all 22 recommendations from the Standing Strong Task Force’s final report, including a recommendation to rename the university, in August.

Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi previously told The Eyeopener that the composition of the advisory committee is a representation of all stakeholders—including representatives for students, faculty, alumni, the Senate and the BoG—and features “representation from Indigenous people…from our Black community and…from everybody.” According to Lachemi, the committee’s makeup is “a reflection of the diversity of our entire community.”

The other Indigenous member of the committee, according to Black, is Michael Mihalicz, a professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management.

Black, who is Onkwehonewe with lineage stemming from the Mohawk of the Bay of Quinte, told The Eye she’s concerned over being the only Indigenous student on the committee and the toll that could take on her.

“[Most of the] people on the committee are staff or faculty and have jobs that pay them over $100,000 annually. While for me, I am a student with over $50,000 in debt,” said Black. 

“The amount of emotional labour that is on Indigenous students at the institution already is something that I live with on a daily basis, let alone being on a committee filled with funders and PR reps who do not understand Indigenous protocols or colonial legacies.”

Black said having just two Indigenous members on the committee makes her feel as if she is being tokenized.

“The amount of tokenization that happens when creating such a committee and using students from racialized, Black and Indigenous communities as diversity is disgusting,” said Black. “I am constantly educating settlers, being taken advantage of and that’s how the committee is going to be without recognition of my emotional labour.”

When asked about the advisory committee only having two Indigenous members, Lachemi said that number is “not accurate” but could not provide a specific number in its place.

According to a statement from the university, “while the advisory committee consists of members with diverse expertise, identities and experiences, the community engagement that the committee oversees will invite all community members to participate in a process that informs the decision of a new name.” 

Ryerson added that the committee’s work will result in recommendations that will be submitted to university leadership for consideration, which will then be presented to the BoG for a decision by the end of the 2021-22 academic year.

In an email to The Eye, Wreckonciliation X University, a collective of Indigenous students who initially called for the university to be renamed, wrote that despite Indigenous leadership leading the renaming process, the involvement of Indigenous community members is “still being marginalized.”

“The advisory committee must reflect the perspectives of First Nations, Inuit, Métis and Newcomers equitably,” the group wrote.

“The amount of emotional labour that is on Indigenous students at the institution already is something that I live with on a daily basis”

Lori Campbell, associate vice-president of Indigenous engagement at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, said Indigenous voices should carry an equitable weight and should receive equitable compensation for their expertise on Indigenous issues.

“What often happens is that we are only invited to specific tables when those who hold power are at those tables,” said Campbell. “Usually white people think that the topic they are covering is an Indigenous issue and, in doing so, they assume that we should jump at the opportunity to provide free labour to elevate their work.”

As of Sept. 27, neither Black nor Kiera Meinart, another student representative on the committee from the RTA program, had received information that they would be compensated for their work on the committee, with Meinart adding she was “under the impression it is a voluntary position.”

However, the university told The Eye on Sept. 28 that all students on the committee will receive an honorarium for their time and work. 

Black said she believes all student committee members, including non-Indigenous ones, should be paid for their time, as they are not just struggling with physical labour on the committee, but emotional labour as well. 

According to Black, some of the committee members also provide funding to the university, which she says creates a power imbalance.

Ryerson confirmed the participation of donors on the renaming committee in a statement to The Eye, writing, “the committee consists of faculty, staff, students and alumni who are engaged members of the Ryerson community. As such, some of the members are also donors who actively support university initiatives.” 

This includes Ryerson alumna Valerie Pringle, a Canadian television host and journalist who owns a $5.5 million home near Casa Loma. 

According to Black and Meinart, the formation of the committee and their own involvement was a hasty process. “The invitations were sent out only a week before the publication of the committee,” said Black. 

The student representatives had their names put forward by staff members for the committee in early September, with both receiving their official ‘acceptance’ letters on the week of Sept. 10 from the Office of the President.

Lachemi previously said the Task Force recommended the school engage in an open process and include all community members to be part of the renaming conversation. At an August BoG meeting, Lachemi agreed to keep the Ryerson community updated on the progress of all 22 Task Force recommendations.

According to the university, biographies for the advisory committee members, as well as the committee’s mandate and timeline, will be made available in the coming days on Ryerson’s Next Chapter webpage. Yet, when requested before accepting the position, Black said she was not sent information on the time commitment for the committee.

“What is seen here is direct tokenization of Indigenous students, exactly when the Canadian government has decided that our lives matter, just a bit, by enacting Canada’s first Truth and Reconciliation Day,” said Black.

Campbell said it’s important for non-Indigenous university administrations to avoid tokenizing select people from Indigenous communities in order to fit their ideal amount of representation.

“What it should look like is providing resources so that Indigenous Peoples can have the opportunity to gather amongst themselves, with their own trusted Elders, Knowledge-Keepers to heal from the trauma,” said Campbell. “Non-Indigenous leadership needs to do their own decolonizing work. They should be learning about how they are tied to and invested in the colonial project.” 

“Reconciliation isn’t performative and it isn’t a show.”

A rally is being held at 7 p.m. on Oct. 6 at Church and Gould streets in response to the advisory committee’s lack of Indigenous representation.

With files from Heidi Lee, Thea Gribilas and Sarah Tomlinson

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