Op-ed: Ryerson’s revised hiring and evaluation policies should not determine who’s Indigenous and who’s not

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By Miranda Black

As the official announcement of Ryerson (X) University’s new name approaches, the university has since revised policies for Indigenous staff and faculty. In November 2021, the university released the Hiring and Evaluation of Indigenous Faculty Members and Librarians, an evaluation process for Indigenous faculty, librarians and new hires. The policy asks all non-status staff and faculty in job positions dedicated to Indigenous Peoples to submit documentation to show their direct relationship to an Indigenous community or their lineage. If non-status employees who are currently holding job positions cannot provide supplemental documentation of their heritage, the university will evaluate their reasons for being unable to provide such. 

Although the policy primarily focuses on the hiring process of Indigenous faculty and staff, some non-status employees have been shaken by this approach and feel they could potentially lose their jobs if they are unable to come up with documentation. 

As a non-status master’s student and Indigenous researcher at X University, my heritage is easy to prove. Both my grandmother and mother are status Indians and have membership to the Tyendinaga band office. However, it is important to protect Indigenous faculty and staff who may not have documentation that matches their identity for colonial reasons—like the Indian Act, residential schools and the 60s scoop. 

As a student who works vigorously for Indigenous justice and land back, I have been exposed to many injustices surrounding identity. I have also seen how organizations, bureaucracies and governments try to impose their own systems of determining Indigenous identity, rather than following the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) principles of self-determination and self-identification. As of June 2021, Canada has instituted Bill C-15— an act that recognizes the UNDRIP’s declaration of the freedoms of Indigenous Peoples—which means institutions have a long way to go before these principles will be applied to existing governance structures and laws.

On November 18, I was arrested and unlawfully detained in a jail cell for 35 hours, only for being present on Indigenous land. That day I was acting as legal support as there had been word that at least 50 RCMP were on their way to the territory. The truth was that there were at least 70 armed police officers and 30 militarized RCMP—including a canine unit—deployed to the territory. 

 “…colonial institutions such as the BC Supreme Court, X University does not have the ability to dispute Indigenous heritage on behalf of Indigenous Peoples.”

Through what I witnessed and experienced during that time, I see a direct correlation between the colonial bias ingrained in the Hiring and Evaluation of Indigenous Faculty Members and Librarians document and issues that arose in court proceedings while unlawfully detained for over 35 hours. 

This is because institutions are consistently finding loopholes in legislation and regulations to deny Indigenous Peoples the right to self-identify as per UNDRIP’s Article 3.  

Article 3 of UNDRIP states that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

On the morning of my arrest, us supporters of the movement were brought to our knees by over 50 RCMP who came armed with assault rifles, batons and a canine unit.  Over two days, 36 people in total were arrested. Videos have been released by Yintah Access, but none captured the powerlessness that we felt when RCMP raided the territory, burnt down infrastructure, cabins and took everything including the kitchen sink—literally. 

While detained, the bloodlines of matriarchs of the territory were contested in B.C. Supreme Court , stating that they may not be allowed back to their own land as they did not fit the colonial definition of Wet’suwet’en. These claims do not value the principle of self-identification of Indigenous Peoples as outlined in UNDRIP, and, it is a reminder for Indigenous Peoples of unceded territories of the brutality faced for generations due to the Indian Act and the Potlatch Law. 

Those with dropped conditions still face insidious charges for their arrests and have been given permission to visit the territory for “cultural purposes”, with no definition of the term. As arrests happened on the territory during a water ceremony it is questionable what is defined as “cultural purposes” by the Crown.  

Similar to colonial institutions such as the BC Supreme Court, X University does not have the ability to dispute Indigenous heritage on behalf of Indigenous Peoples. And evaluation policies set out by colonial institutions like the Hiring and evaluation of Indigenous Faculty Members and Librarians does not align with the principle of  self-determination.   

 “…having any university as a determining body of Indigenous identity is problematic.”

After reading the Hiring and evaluation of Indigenous Faculty Members and Librarians policy, I’ve wondered if it has been enacted in response to claims made on social media. Earlier this year, one long-term faculty member was proclaimed a ‘pretendian’ by an internet troll as her ancestral lineage and community association does not meet the criteria of the Indian Act. 

Students have spoken out about this as well, asking the faculty member questions about their identity and relationship to their community’s band office. What most people may not know is that many Indigenous Peoples do not have band membership due to the Indian Act, even including some folks who live on reservations. As the impacts of colonialism and colonization are rarely taught in classrooms, these pivotal understandings of Indigenous communities leave X University students, staff and faculty vulnerable to misunderstandings surrounding identity. 

However, having any university as a determining body of Indigenous identity is problematic.  In June 2021, Indigenous faculty at Queen’s University were called out by an online document stating that 16 faculty members who claimed to be Indigenous were “pretendians.” The university chose to ignore these claims as they stated that the report “cited erroneous records and ignored important facts.” 

In response to the university’s complacency regarding this report, several academics spoke out including Damien Lee, Canada Research Chair in Biskaabiiyang and Indigenous Political Resurgence. He wrote in an email to CBC that “universities are not the arbiters of who belongs with Indigenous nations, nor are they in the position to determine which communities are Indigenous and which ones do not…That is for Indigenous nations to decide amongst themselves.” 

Regardless of whether Queen’s ignored these claims—or began divulging information from the faculty included on the list as the Hiring and Evaluation of Indigenous Faculty Members and Librarians policy intends to do—Indigenous academics strongly stated that universities and institutions do not have the authority to decide who is Indigenous and who is not. 

As Pam Palmater, X University’s outspoken Indigenous faculty member and Chair in Indigenous Governance, explains in her book Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity: “The social realities that Indigenous people face today are that they live among other Canadians, frequently intermarry… Consequently, there are no Indigenous groups in Canada that are completely made up of “pure” Aboriginal Peoples—even if there were a test to determine such a status. 

“This fact, however, does not in any way detract from their distinct status as Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples have every right to be recognized whether they fit into the specifications of the Indian Act or not,” she wrote.

As the bloodlines of Indigenous Peoples continue to be questioned by organizations and bureaucratic institutions, it is imperative that institutions become more transparent on the ways they are conducting harm.

Hurt and trauma related to Indigenous bloodlines is something that sticks like glue. The intergenerational and persistent trauma endured by Indigenous Peoples from the residential school system and education models formulated to assimilate Indigenous Peoples also include universities and colleges. 

As Canada continues to oppose the integration of UNDRIP principles and continues to criminalize Indigenous Peoples, I hope that Ryerson University can finally see how inherently linked the Hiring and Evaluation of Indigenous Faculty Members and Librarians policy is to colonial violence happening across the country. 

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