Expanding the Circle: A Forum on the Indigenous Affairs at Mount Allison University was the first indigenous affairs forum to take place at the university. It was open to anyone involved in campus life and was structured around the principle “Share a thought, pose a question.”
The forum kicked off Friday night with traditional dances and a drum circle outside of the R.P. Bell Library. Participants regrouped on Saturday to discuss what indigenization of the university should look like and how to implement it.
The day was divided into four sessions ranging from “Campus-life view from an Indigenous perspective” to “What can you do to move forward with inclusion in your classroom?” Topics of discussion varied from the need for more cultural inclusion in residences and meal hall to the nuances of developing decolonized curriculum.
Doreen Richard, the new Indigenous Affairs coordinator, was instrumental in the organization of the forum. The coordinator position is the first of its kind at Mount Allison. With its inception, Richard hopes to see greater discussion pertaining to aboriginal affairs of the campus.
Richard said that “more exposure for first-nations culture around campus” is the primary mandate for her position. Richard also said the university must start to decolonize curriculums while looking for ways to do that respectfully.
The Mount Allison Aboriginal Support Group was crucial in establishing Richard’s position as well as aiding the the success of the forum. The group is dedicated to discussing aboriginal issues and lobbying for indigenous awareness on campus
Spencer Isaac, a Mi’kmaq student and member of the support group, was outspoken at the forum. “The goal is to incorporate an indigenous perspective into the university setting,” he said. “We want to become a dynamic part of the Mount Allison community.”
The importance of including an indigenous perspective at Mt. A was paramount in Saturday’s dialogue. The discussions called for administrators, students and faculty The Association of Chronically Ill and Disabled Students (ACID) held their first wheelchair campus tour, in which participants tried to navigate campus in a wheelchair to get to their regularly scheduled classes. ACID is a student-led organization founded in Oct. 2014. Olivia Auriat, the president of ACID, said, “Our focus includes trying to make sure RAs are trained to deal with disability and chronic illness properly so that they can deal with things like allergic reactions and asthma attacks that might not seem like chronic illnesses.” ACID additionally hopes to ensure that when facilities are being renovated, the university plans for a more accessible future. The event last Saturday held 14 different participants, including Mount Allison Students’ Union President Dylan Wooley-Berry. “I was shocked to discover just how hard it was to move around campus in a wheelchair,” he said. Wooley-Berry said he will be sitting on the committee which is reviewing the master plan of the campus. “The Mount Allison Students’ Union fully intends to work with stakeholders to bring forward policy to the university senate,” he said. The event revealed that the Marjorie Young Bell Conservatory of Music and Hart Hall cannot be accessed by a student in a wheelchair. Additional problems include the absence of a handrail on the ramp in Flemington. In terms of improvement to the campus, ACID is looking for “small things,” said Auriat. “We are aware that we’re dealing with an older campus. We can’t make everything accessible, but at the same time […] we don’t see any reason why – with proper planning and consideration – we can’t do that here,” said Auriat. Traditional drummers led a drum circle to open the Indigenous forum Expanding the Circle outside of the library. Allison Grogan/Argosy to collectively work toward this common goal. Many at the forum felt the conference represented an important initial step in the process of indigenization.
Eileen Herteis, director of the Purdy Crawford Teaching Centre, was adamant about the importance of having the whole university engage in making campus a more inclusive space.
“The first thing is our social responsibility as a university to make this a welcoming place for our First Nations students,” she said.
There was an overall sense of achievement during the forum’s closing remarks. The discussion engaged people from a diverse set of backgrounds. Lorraine SmithCollins, a Mi’kmaq resident of Hantsport, had driven from Nova Scotia to attend Expanding the Circle.
“The participants are eager and ready to take the next step in the positive direction of recognizing indigenous peoples,” said SmithCollins. “As a major effort to indigenize the campus, it came off effortlessly.”
The forum’s open structure created an accessible dialogue aimed at reconciling the needs of indigenous students at Mt. A. The discussions emphasized the importance of moving forward with the inclusion of aboriginal culture and perspectives on campus.
Alex Lepianka, MASU’s vicepresident finance and operations, outlined the necessity of having these discussions: “This forum was important in creating a dialogue that actually challenges the way we do things and forces us to recognize that changes should be made.”
“It’s a great first step in developing a process where that critical literacy is the norm,” said Lepianka.
The forum’s organizers hope to harness ideas and concerns raised at the conference to further introduce an indigenous perspective into everyday life at the university. They will be working towards a larger provincial indigenous forum scheduled for March.