Indigenous teenager holding many books of law.
Meryl McMaster, Time’s Gravity, 2015 (detail). Archival pigment print on watercolour paper, edition 3 of 3, 76.2 cm x 114.3 cm. Collection of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto Scarborough.
Thursday, September 7 - 2017
Alexandra Shimo and Sarah Barmak

In the wake of a historic report about the abusive treatment of Indigenous people in residential schools, universities confront a dark piece of Canadian history

On the evening of November 16, 2016, about 100 students came to the screening of a documentary that explored a shameful piece of Canadian history. The film, The Pass System, was about laws that were established after the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. “The pass laws,” as they were called, required any Indigenous person in western Canada to get a written pass from the local Indian Agent if they wanted to go anywhere off their reserve. This stayed in effect until 1941.

The audience — partly Indigenous, partly not — applauded after the film. But the response was subdued, even awkward.

For many people, this was the first time they had been exposed to the treatment of Indigenous people. The university has failed miserably in this area. By being silent, the prejudice in popular culture takes over.

“The event was discomforting,” says organizer Joe Hermer, a sociology professor at U of T Scarborough. “For many people, this was the first time they had been exposed to the treatment of Indigenous people. The university has failed miserably in this area. By being silent, the prejudice in popular culture takes over.”

This is why many such events are happening here and across U of T, as part of the University’s response to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC has delivered 94 calls to action — many of them to federal and other levels of government, asking for policy changes to address the legacy of the Indian Residential School system and other aspects of Canada’s own cultural genocide.

But true reconciliation arises not just from Ottawa’s missives, delivered top-down. It requires a genuine shift in the relationship between Indigenous people and other Canadians. For a university, that means understanding how and why it has ignored Indigenous history and culture, and working to change that.

Indigenous people have long been silenced — politically, culturally, economically and linguistically. The pass laws mentioned above are but one example of attempts to control them and restrain their opposition to losing their land. Indigenous voices and stories have been left out of history books. But today Indigenous people are speaking out — changing the perception of Canada’s past, and also its present and future.


This year marks Canada’s sesquicentennial, but the history of people on this land goes back far beyond 150 years. In Toronto and Scarborough, the estimate is 10,000 to 13,000 years. The first people recorded in the area in written history were the Huron-Wendat, a confederacy of four nations.

Professor Jon Johnson says there were an estimated 75,000 people from the Huron-Wendat and other Indigenous nations living in what is now the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Johnson, a member of York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, is lead organizer of First Story Toronto, a program at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. The program researches and shares the city’s Indigenous heritage through walking tours. (See Part Four for the campus’s partnership with First Story Toronto.)

However, with disease and the stresses and wars that came with European presence, the Huron-Wendat confederacy was greatly weakened, and to maintain their numbers, they joined together with the Tionontate nation. After an epic battle in 1649, the Huron-Wendat were pushed out by the Haudenosaunee (a confederacy of five Indigenous nations, including the Seneca), who were later massacred by the French.  The Mississaugas then moved into the area.

It was a long and turbulent history marked by wars, war heroes and great battles; epidemics; political allegiances; treaties, international confederacies; and constitutions such as the Iroquois Great Law of Peace.

After the TRC released its final report in 2015, and after close consultation with U of T’s First Nations House, members of the U of T Scarborough community began to say the following before all important events:

We wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.

But at many public events in the GTA, only the last of the tribes — the Mississaugas, who moved here between 1700 and 1720 — are acknowledged. Several Indigenous authors have expressed irritation at this practice, including Suzanne Methot, a Cree author and educator originally from Peace River, Alberta.

“When we acknowledge Toronto as ‘Mississauga territory,’ we commit a grave error in inclusive practice,” Methot has written in her blog, “We superimpose a Eurocentric frame of reference on what is included, not included and valued in the discussion …. By prioritizing the Mississauga agreement with the Crown and assuming that the Mississauga ‘own this territory’ as a result, we reproduce the idea that it is possible (and desirable) to own creation. The fact is, Toronto has played host to no less than three distinct peoples (the Huron, the Haudenosaunee and the Mississauga), two different cultures (Iroquoian and Algonquian), and was the site of many trade gatherings and inter-tribal ceremonies.”

The differences between the three peoples were stark. The Huron-Wendat, Seneca and Mississauga all spoke different languages. They dressed differently and prayed to different gods. They had different gender role divisions. The Mississauga were mainly patrilineal, while both the Wendat and Seneca were matrilineal and matriarchal. The Mississauga were semi-nomadic hunters; the Wendat and Seneca farmed the land. 

Different tribes are “as different as the French and English,” explains Professor Amos Key Jr., a Mohawk elder who teaches at U of T’s Centre for Indigenous Studies and Department of Linguistics. A lack of specificity is a reminder, says Key, of a category first imposed on Indigenous people, without consultation, by a paternalist document, the Indian Act.

Under the act, Indigenous people living on reserves were labeled “Indians” and given status cards — the source of the term, “card-carrying Indian” — as a legal definition. This made it easier for the federal government to enact policy that was often aimed at exactly what Indigenous people did not want: assimilation.

Once organized and numbered, the people were easier to control. So explains author Thomas King in The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. “Even though disease and conflict had dramatically reduced the tribes, there were still, in the minds of policy makers, too many Indians. Too many Indians, too many tribes, too many languages. Indians were a great sprawling mess.

“What was needed,” King continues, “was a plan to give this snarl of cultures a definitive and manageable form. So, out of ignorance, disregard, frustration and expediency, North America set about creating a single entity, an entity that would stand for the whole. The Indian.”

Making “the Indian” into what King describes as “good little white brown men” through the use of residential schools was thought to be in the nation’s best interest. To that end, Catholics, Anglicans and Methodists competed for funds from the Department of Indian Affairs. The goal: to convert the so-called heathens and pagans.

The first residential schools were established in the 1800s, and the system reached its peak around 1930, with 80 schools housing a total of 17,000 children. In 1979 there were still 15 residential schools in Canada, and the very last one — the Gordon Residential School, in Saskatchewan — didn’t close until 1996. They were in all parts of Canada except Newfoundland, New Brunswick and PEI, with the largest concentration in the prairie and western provinces.

The system was not designed for sustainability, writes John Milloy, author of A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. With competition between churches, there was a period of rapid growth. Everyone — at least everyone non-Indigenous — had a vested interest in opening more schools. The churches wanted more converts. The government wanted to assimilate Indigenous people and close the reserves — in other words, as it was spoken of at the time, to “solve the Indian problem.” And Canada wanted cheap farm labour.

From the beginning, residential schools were known to have serious problems. But once they had started, they were too big to fail.


In 1904, the Department of Indian Affairs sent Dr. Peter Bryce to investigate the conditions of residential schools in western Canada. His indictment was damning. The schools were mouldy, cold, damp and falling apart. “A trail of disease and death has gone on almost unchecked by any serious efforts on the part of the department,” Bryce wrote in his 1907 report. In some schools, the death rate of children was one in two.

This wasn’t what Ottawa wanted to hear.

Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of the department, pulled support for the research, and Bryce was blocked from presenting his findings at conferences. Finally, in 1921, he was fired from his job as chief medical officer. In addition, the government stopped collecting death records at the schools.

Later, 200,000 Indian Affairs files from between 1936 and 1944 were destroyed. This is one reason there is still dispute, even today, about how many children died in the schools.

Sue Enberg, a documentary filmmaker and indigenous activist, says the firing of Peter Bryce showed “a concerted attempt by the Canadian government to hide its attempts at committing cultural genocide.”

Similarly, teachers and other staff were ignored when they tried to give warnings about sickness and death. A culture of cruelty and silence arose, says Andrew Wesley, elder in residence at U of T’s First Nations House. And the children, of course, were silenced too.

At most schools, their silencing began at dawn. Once they awoke, they were forbidden to speak unless spoken to. Any criticism about the school would be  deleted from their letters home. They weren’t allowed to tell outsiders, such as the school inspectors who visited every few months, what was really going on.

“They beat us,” says Edmund Metatawabin, a Cree activist, author and former student of St. Anne’s Residential School in northern Ontario. He says children were whipped or hit with whatever was at hand — books, bells, etc. If they broke the rules, they were electrocuted in a homemade electric chair or locked in a dark basement — solitary confinement, essentially — with rats. “It was absolute hell in there. But if we tried to speak out, they whipped or beat us.” Metatawabin wrote about the experience in his memoir Up Ghost River [co-written with one of this article’s authors, Alexandra Shimo — Ed.].

When indigenous leaders spoke against the abuse, their concerns were widely left out of mainstream media. Consider the 1970 protest at Blue Quills Indian Residential School, near two hundred kilometres northeast of Edmonton. According to former Native Women’s Association of Canada President Marilyn Buffalo, herself a residential school survivor, the school was widely known as being abusive, which is why 300 people, including students and community leaders, both Indigenous and non-, organized a month-long sit-in. “We had had enough. We organized a political take over because we were tired of being indoctrinated in a foreign language and culture. We wanted no more abuse or cultural genocide. We wanted the nuns and priests out.”

Yet the media coverage includes no mention of pervasive student abuse. Instead, the sit-in was framed as a political tiff, a struggle for administrative control. “Indians stage sit-in over school transfer proposal,” announced the July 15 headline in the Edmonton Journal. The subhead: “A group of Alberta Indians started a sit-in at a school near St. Paul, and do not intend to end it until certain educational questions are resolved.”

For many, there are parallels between the silencing in the media, of the children and the political silencing of adults. Until 1960, Indigenous people couldn’t vote in Canada. They couldn’t hire lawyers. Nor could they demand political representation. It was illegal for them to form political parties until 1951. (Those who met certain criteria could gain the vote and other full rights of Canadian citizenship by doing what was called “enfranchising” — giving up their ancestral identities and rights, including the right to live on a reserve. The criteria included being male; over 21; able to read, write and speak either English or French; and being of “good moral character.”)

After so much disenfranchisement and marginalization, it is perhaps no wonder that Indigenous stories have long been excluded from an institution such as U of T. “The bottom line is that there is very little institutional knowledge at the university around these issues,” says Sociology Professor Joe Hermer, who organized the screening of The Pass System.

Desmond Morton’s A Short History of Canada, one of the most popular books of its kind, is an illustration. Morton, a professor emeritus at U of T was principal of Erindale College from 1986 to 1994. First published in 1983, the book gives a wonderfully detailed account of economic history, but it doesn't cover residential schools and barely mentions Indigenous people. Five hundred years of Indigenous history is given five pages of the 395-page book, and even then the topic is seen through a colonial, somewhat reductive lens.

“Whatever their form of life, Native North Americans saw themselves as part of nature and not its masters,” Morton wrote. “Though they fought other bands and nations, they had very little sense of territorial ownership.” In other words, Indigenous people liked to fight, though not about anything in particular. And they didn’t need land because they had no sense of ownership. The latter may be politically convenient, but is contrary to many historic documents.

Whether or not the omissions were deliberate, the impact is hard to underestimate. So explains Wayne Spear, a Mohawk and author of Full Circle: The Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the Unfinished Work of Hope, Healing and Reconciliation. “When you leave Indigenous people and their stories out of history,” says Spear, “you are pretty much invalidating their experience, saying that it doesn’t matter.”

Spear says the omissions have made it much harder for non-Native people to cross cultural boundaries and understand and relate to the Indigenous experience. “If you aren’t familiar with the history of another group, and if you can’t empathize, it becomes an impediment to doing anything else.”


In the summer of 1990, a decision to expand a golf course led to a sweltering and violent standoff between the Kanien’keha:ke (Mohawks) of Kanesatake, Quebec, and the Canadian army. Known as the Oka crisis, it is emblematic of what can happen when Aboriginal land claims are ignored for generations — a violent and bitter confrontation.

But from the ashes rose the beginnings of something positive. To avoid such conflicts in future, Brian Mulroney’s federal government established the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), to interview Indigenous people nationwide and examine the historical, political and economic causes of contemporary problems on reserves.

One topic consistently emerged as having destroyed individuals and communities: residential schools and the abuse that took place in them.

“When RCAP went out to do this national tour,” says Wayne Spear, “they had a long list of things they knew they were going to hear about, including land claims, language loss, housing, diabetes, suicide. The one thing they didn’t anticipate was residential schools.

“This was 1991,” he continues. “The first person would talk about residential schools, and then everyone else would start talking about it. It was like a floodgate. That’s when they realized, ‘this is a huge issue and we really have to look at it.’”

As more people came forward, questions were raised. How widespread was the abuse? Were all the schools abusive or just some? And how could people who supposedly gave their lives to the service of God become abusive and sadistic or — even worse — become sexual predators who targeted children?

In 1995 Nora Bernard, a grandmother who lived near Truro, Nova Scotia, filed a claim not just on her own behalf, but on behalf of all Mi’kmaq First Nation children who had attended the Shubenacadie Residential School. As more students stepped forward, the case would eventually become the largest class action lawsuit in Canada.

Individual court cases, too, were an important step in the long march towards justice. But after a few years, it became apparent that they, in their own way, were silencing people.

Abuse, especially sexual abuse, is hard to prove at the best of times. Given the private nature of the crime, there is often a lack of witnesses and evidence. For residential school victims, many of whom were abused decades before, it was nearly impossible.

First, each claimant would need school documents to prove they had even attended the school in question — this when many school files had been lost or deliberately destroyed. They would need a lawyer willing to take the case — usually pro bono. And they would need to prove they had been sexually or physically abused — this when many of the schools did not keep medical records. The challenge was to prove that things had happened the way they said, often decades earlier, with some of the witnesses now dead, and with memory often imprecise because of time, trauma and, sometimes, alcohol. A claimant who succeeded despite all this would get a financial payout — usually a few thousand dollars.

The process was also antithetical to Indigenous conceptions of justice. For instance, as Wayne Spear explains, the Cree word for justice, kintohpatatin, loosely translates to “you’ve been listened to.” This sees justice as something that will be achieved only if the crime against you, and its impact on your life, is taken seriously by someone compassionate and fair — someone who will work with you and the perpetrator to find a form of redress that takes your needs seriously.

“Indigenous people only go to court if it’s the last resort,” Spear says. “They would prefer a healing circle or something non-confrontational. With the court system, the best case scenario is that you get a cheque. You can buy a truck or whatever. But what does that get you? It’s not as if it fixes your life.”

Spear adds that the court system brings another level of cultural degradation and power dynamics. “We’ve been screwed over so many times by Canadian courts,” he says. “They don’t even recognize the legitimacy of our laws or experiences.”

By the early 2000s, there was a sense that residential school abuse was more widespread than had been recognized. Faced with ever more cases, the government introduced an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process in 2003. Instead of a court case, an independent adjudicator would listen to the evidence, then award compensation based on government-approved guidelines.

ADR was supposed to be faster, less formal and more humane and compassionate than the court system. But two years later, its failings were clear. Whether the claim was for $200 or $200,000, each case had to be personally approved by the assistant deputy minister of Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada. And the government scrutinized and challenged many of the adjudicators’ decisions. In one case, Ottawa spent $20,000 on legal costs and travelling expenses to challenge a claim with a $3,500 ceiling.

In another case, Flora Merrick, 88, of the Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba, applied for $1,500 for having been beaten and locked in solitary confinement in “a small, dark room” for two weeks — a punishment for trying to run away. Again the government spent $20,000 — this time not to challenge the truth of her story, but to challenge her right to compensation. Their argument: such inhumane treatment was morally acceptable, as it was consistent with the “standards of the day.”

For every $1 awarded to survivors through ADR, Ottawa spent $4 on lawyers and administrative costs. And the process was slow. By 2005, only 50 of 12,000 claims had been settled, and the rest were estimated to take the next 53 years. The average age of the claimants was 68, and they were dying at a rate of about five per week. As Jim Prentice, a Calgary MP at the time, summed up the ADR process: “judged by any sensible measure, it’s been a disaster.”

Meanwhile, Nora Bernard’s class action case was still making its way through the courts — now encompassing others including the Cloud, Dieter, Pauchay, Straightnose and Baxter National class action cases. By 2006, the suit involved 79,000 former students. That December, a single compensation deal was reached: the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). It was a landmark deal and one of the most complex in Canadian history. The federal government agreed to pay $2 billion to the survivors of Canada’s residential schools.

The deal also included establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Modelled on the South African commission of the same name, Canada’s TRC provided a national forum for Indigenous people’s stories to be told, heard and recorded.

In South Africa, it was widely believed that reconciliation would begin with truth of what had really happened during the forty-six year period (1948-1994) of the Apartheid era. Officially, the government admitted to “suppressing political resistance.” But the details were far more disturbing and tragic, and included disappearances, assassinations, beatings and the widely used “necklacing” (a form of torture/ murder where a rubber tire is tied around the neck, filled with gasoline and set alight). All were left out of the media coverage, history books and official narrative.

According to Richard Goldstone, a world-renowned South African judge, there were two histories of apartheid prior to the TRC: the “white history of denial,” and the truth: a history of abuse against black people.

Canada’s crimes against its Indigenous population have not included state-orchestrated murder of political opponents. But Canada’s reserves actually influenced apartheid. South African officials toured and studied reserves in western Canada several times — most recently in 1962. And the violence and deaths in residential schools alone demanded a nationwide reckoning.

As the Honourable Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, wrote in his final report: the residential school abuse wasn’t limited to a few errant priests, but part of a larger systematic program to wipe out Indigenous cultures and identities. Residential schools were its keystone, whose mandate was “Kill the Indian to Save the Man.” But for the past 150 years, there have been pervasive and sustained policies to decimate First Nations’ political and social structures, including forced displacements to dispossess First Nations of their land; the pass laws; the suppression of Indigenous religions and cultures under the Potlatch Ban; the wilful destruction of traditional Indigenous economies under the Indian Act; broken treaties; the forced removal of children from their parents and communities, for adoption, usually by non-Indigenous families (known as the Sixties Scoop); and the elimination of historic records showing that all of the above took place.

Accepting the truth about residential schools is just the first part of the healing process. So explains Sinclair, who was Alberta’s first-ever Indigenous judge and is now a Canadian senator. But real reconciliation is about more than correcting the history books, but instead shifting the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. To accomplish this, the TRC issued 94 calls to action.

“The fact that [they] were termed ‘Calls to Action’ and not simply ‘recommendations,’ and that they were addressed not just to all levels of government but to the private sector, churches, education institutions, and civil society has meant that Canadians are taking the TRC challenges seriously,” explains Tim O’Loan, former advisor to the chair of the TRC, and a Dene First Nation person living in Ottawa.
Forty-five of these Calls to Action were addressed to the federal government; the rest were to provincial, territorial and municipal governments, private institutions and civic society. Education was a key component: the TRC called on federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions to provide the funding necessary for change. And it called on educators to work with residential school survivors and other Indigenous people to “indigenize the curriculum” and integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.

Many universities — including Lakehead, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Regina — responded to the calls to action, and began to work towards addressing all the ways that they had, inadvertently or not, silenced Indigenous people. U of T and UTSC are setting out on that journey now. 


Diane Hill is well acquainted with Canada’s history of cultural genocide against her people. When she was small, her grandfather told her stories of being forbidden from speaking Oneida at his elementary school in Middlesex County, Ontario. And this was a public — not residential — school. The concern was that speaking the Oneida language would disrupt his education.

Hill’s own childhood, in contrast, offered many reasons for hope. She grew up in the Oneida Nation of the Thames community in southwestern Ontario — a place, she says, with many youth programs that celebrated the community and taught its culture. She was taught some Oneida at her elementary school, Standing Stone.

When she arrived at U of T Scarborough as an undergraduate, however, things took a turn. The campus she had chosen because of its reputation for excellence lacked Indigenous services, Indigenous faculty and any kind of Indigenous centre.

“I was surprised at the lack of representation,” says Hill, “because Toronto has one of the largest urban Aboriginal populations in Canada. My mom worked in Toronto for many years at various Native organizations, so I expected there to be at least some supports or initiatives at UTSC.”

Hill’s studies in computer science meant she spent a lot of time in “a whole faculty of white men.” She didn’t see herself represented in her program. This did little to combat the racist stereotypes she had long been aware of — that Indigenous youth “don’t belong” in university and “aren’t smart enough.”  

“I don’t see myself reflected in the architecture, in the land, in the staff,” she explains. “Staff would tell me, ‘You can just go to First Nations House [on the St. George campus] for that.’” But the trip downtown would take three hours from her day. Hill’s feelings of invisibility were reflected in her interactions with fellow students. “They thought I was Hispanic or Filipino. When I told them I was Native, they didn’t even know what that was.” And the assumptions they did have about Indigenous Canadians came from stereotypes or misconceptions: “They’d say, ‘Oh, you go to school for free, right? You don’t pay taxes, do you?’”

Hill thought about switching to a university with more Indigenous outreach. “At Western,” she says, “they had this program where they’d take youth from my community and have an exchange or do summer programming. For me, that was really inspiring. It showed me that I could belong.”

Cat Criger, an Indigenous elder who works with youth across U of T’s campuses, encouraged Hill to stay. So did staff at Student Life. She focused on building up her emotional, spiritual and physical well-being, which helped increase her confidence. Instead of switching schools, she switched to a double major in health studies and anthropology, which she felt passionate about.

She also felt she could help create change. “What I realized is that I’m here for a reason.”

Now 22, Hill has become an educator and activist. In 2016 she gave a TEDxUTSC talk about the barriers Indigenous youth face in the education system. Other Canadians tend to talk about systemic discrimination against Indigenous people as if it was distant history, she says, but major obstacles still exist.

“The university, like other institutions, is coming to terms with its own complicity in the fact that Indigenous issues have been invisible,” says Joe Hermer.
Universities face a great responsibility in implementing the TRC calls to action. Some U of T Scarborough faculty have been adding content to their curricula, such as Hermer’s screening of The Pass System. Last winter, to formally address the silencing of Indigenous people and the need to indigenize the university, U of T formed a 17-member Truth and Reconciliation Commission Steering Committee to review the 94 calls to action and implement those which are applicable to the post-secondary setting.

The committee, formed by U of T President Meric Gertler and Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr, included Indigenous students such as Hill, and elders such as Lee Maracle, an author and Indigenous studies instructor. Its final report was released this January. Titled Wecheehetowin (Cree for “working together”), the report called for integrating more accurate Indigenous history and culture into the curriculum. It called for honouring the truth, but also for reconciliation: healing and promoting U of T’s relationship with Indigenous students, hiring Indigenous faculty and designating more Indigenous spaces.

“This is going to be a task of months and years — it’s not going to be a quick fix,” says Bruce Kidd, U of T vice-president and U of T Scarborough principal. There are many immediate plans, though. First on the list: the hiring of Indigenous faculty, lecturers, guest educators and staff.

“Part of what we have to think about,” says Professor William Gough, “is how we engage the Indigenous community itself” in delivering the material. Gough, who is vice-principal academic and dean at U of T Scarborough, says efforts must be made to hire educators who have deep knowledge but face systemic barriers to getting degrees. (According to a 2016 report by the C.D. Howe Institute, only four out of 10 Indigenous people living on reserves graduate from high school.)

Similar exceptions are already being made, says Gough. The University hires “individuals who don’t have PhDs but have accreditation within their own communities ... people who can teach tax law [or] environmental law who don’t have PhDs ... and creative individuals, artists.”

Gough would also like to offer faculty members “Indigenous leave,” where they could develop a relationship with Indigenous communities and bring back previously excluded knowledge and alternative forms of teaching.

Then there’s the curriculum itself. The steering committee decided against a simple Indigenous history requirement for all students, fearing that would tokenize the topic. Instead, it called for the integrations of Indigenous voices into courses from sociology to environmental science to literature, and a proposed new course, The Sociology of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Gough struck a working group last fall to outline the new mandate. “I’m really heartened by the tremendous interest,” he says. “By faculty stepping up.”

Transforming the oldest and largest post-secondary institution in Canada will mean working with existing teaching practices and finding innovative solutions. One example of the latter is the campus’s partnership with First Story Toronto, a group that documents and shares Toronto’s Indigenous history via walking tours. First Story is working on a project to develop an Indigenous storytelling walk on and around the Scarborough campus.

How do you unearth the history of people whose existence has been deliberately erased? Jon Johnson says while untrained eyes may not find many overt expressions of Indigenous heritage in the city, it isn’t hard to pick up threads of Indigenous stories once you start to know the land and its history. He learns from the Indigenous guides he works with at First Story such as Philip Cote, John Croutch, Jill Carter, and others, and shares stories he’s learned from his own research.

“The tours aren’t a monologue, with one person expounding. It’s more like a conversation,” he explains. “One person will say something and allow another person to recall something.”

Just look at Taber Hill, the Wendat burial mound at the intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Bellamy Road in Scarborough. Without a noticeable sign, plaque or other marker, it was almost destroyed in 1956 when a power shovel aiming to remove the 18-metre hill uncovered human bones. 

“They dug them up, studied them and reconsecrated the remains in a modern-day feast of souls,” says Johnson. “About 500 individuals are estimated to be in that mound. It’s a very visible reminder of Indigenous presence. Even though there was a vast campaign to eradicate Indigenous stories, they’re still in the land.”
Diane Hill believes educators must do more than add Indigenous content — they must explore non-colonial forms of pedagogy. Indigenous people have their own long-standing ways of passing knowledge on to their communities. She points to a geography course that Cat Criger assists with. “He takes students out, so they can have a meaningful connection to the land. They sit in a circle, and everyone can see everyone. Everyone’s heads are the same height. Everyone’s words have the same weight.”

Equally important is the need to increase Indigenous recruitment. Hill says fewer than 50 students on campus identify as Indigenous. Principal Kidd says many don’t identify themselves or take advantage of resources — and that’s a problem. “If we create the program and structures, the students will come,” Hill says. Outreach should begin before they arrive at university. The steering committee recommended that the campus hire an Indigenous outreach co-ordinator to build new relationships with First Nations and Métis communities and urban Indigenous groups.

Hill says on-campus mentors and elders are also crucial. Cat Criger is shared with other U of T campuses, and is in Scarborough only two days a week. William Gough would like to have elders more accessible, and to find a female elder as well.

“We need to build trust,” says Hill. “Among Indigenous youth, there is a general mistrust of all institutions. When I go to a program and I see someone who looks and talks like me, it builds that trust.”

Finally, there is what Bruce Kidd calls “the dream.” The steering committee recommended that the campus begin planning for the creation of a “dedicated, appropriate Indigenous space” at U of T Scarborough. While serving the whole campus community, such a space would be a beacon of safety and visibility for Indigenous faculty and students and a cultural centre for the neighboring Indigenous communities. Kidd says the administration has decided that the centre should be a prominently located free-standing building, has identified a site and begun the necessary consultation, planning and fund-raising.

U of T Scarborough has also prioritized other reconciliation-related goals. In the months ahead, Kidd says, UTSC will launch a number of curriculum renewal projects dealing with Indigenous issues, and hire additional Indigenous faculty and staff for outreach and student support.

The question of how to “indigenize” post-secondary education is complex. What does it mean to indigenize history? Should we focus on teaching about the past? Or is it the university’s responsibility to try to correct the mistakes of history and address the legacy of cultural genocide?

The TRC did not specify the precise nature of reconciliation, but it did call for the types of conversation and consultation that are happening at on campus right now, involving and often spearheaded by Indigenous people. Answering the TRC’s calls to action is as much about implementing inclusive and responsive processes as it is about the end product. And it’s a matter of changing the conversation — honouring Indigenous people, history and experience.

“I think indigenizing is a word that gets thrown around a lot,” says Diane Hill, who nearly gave up on U of T Scarborough but stayed on and helped to guide change. “It’s not necessarily indigenizing, but decolonizing the university world,” she says. "I would like to see Indigenous peoples represented in an accurate way that reflects Canada's colonial history. And that we are not all dead and gone. Our people are very much here and thriving.”


Toronto and Scarborough’s Indigenous history is long and complex. Here’s how it breaks down:

Name of First Nation: Huron-Wendat

Other names: Huron, Wendat, Wyandot

Meaning of name: Huron, meaning “boar’s head,” was given to the Wendat by the French, supposedly in reference to how they wore their hair. Wendat means “islanders” or “dwellers on a peninsula.”

Date in the region: 10,000 BCE to 1650 CE. Indigenous people are believed to have lived in the area from about 10,000 BCE; whether the Huron-Wendat were the very first is unknown.

Origin or composition: The Huron-Wendat emerged from the remnants of two earlier groups: the Huron Confederacy and Tionontate, also called the Tobacco Nation.

Language spoken: Wyandot, part of the Iroquoian language group 

Why they left: They were decimated first by disease after contact with Europeans, then by war with the Haudenosaunee.

Name of First Nation: Haudenosaunee

Other name: Iroquois (a French word)

Meaning of name: From the Seneca hotínöhsö:ni:h, meaning “house builders”

Date in the region: 1650 to 1700

Origin or composition: The Haudenosaunee is a confederacy of Indigenous nations: Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida and Tuscarora.

Languages spoken: Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida and Tuscarora — all distinct languages in the Iroquoian language group 

Why they left: They were decimated by disease and wars with the French and with other Indigenous nations.

Name of First Nation: Mississauga

Meaning of name: From the Anishinaabe Misi-zaagiing, meaning "those at the great river-mouth"

Date in the region: 1700 to 1847

Origin or composition: closely related to the Ojibwe nation

Language spoken: Anishinaabe, part of the Algonquian language family 

Why they left: In 1787, the British Crown made what was known as the Toronto Purchase from the Mississauga. It was of dubious legality: the deed was left blank, the exact land size was unclear and the names of Mississauga chiefs were attached by separate pieces of paper. The agreement was renegotiated in 1805, and the Mississauga were moved to near Brantford, where they live today. In 2010, the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation was compensated $145 million for the unlawful transfer of land.


More than 70,000 Indigenous people from all over Canada live in and around Toronto, including Anishinaabe, Cree, Haudenosaunee and Métis.


The year was 1687.

Jacques-René de Brisay de Denonville, the governor of New France, was travelling on what is now Scarborough’s Kingston Road. He’d been riding all day and was tired, but he kept pushing north, a few more miles up the Rouge River, where there was a village of 700 people.

The locals called it Ganatsekwyagon, which is Seneca for “among the birches.” All Haudenosaunee place names were inspired by the most notable feature of the landscape. This includes "Tkaranto," which “Toronto” comes from. It means “where there are trees in the water.”

Denonville didn’t take detailed notes, except to say that villages in the area were encircled by wooden palisades and surrounded by fields of corn. But we have a picture of Ganatsekwyagon, thanks to Indigenous sources and archaeological digs at places such as Scarborough’s Bead Hill.

We know the corn fields also contained squash and beans, a combination that was called the Three Sisters. The three were planted together in the fields that stretched out as far as the eye could see. They were supportive “sisters,” which each plant nourishing and sustaining the others. The beans pulled nitrogen from the air, and fixed it in the soil; the corn stalks gave the beans structural support; and the large leaves of the sprawling squash provided shade for all three.

After the crops came grasslands. What looked wild and unruly was actually highly cultivated. Species such as Indiangrass, big bluestem and little bluestem were planted several miles from the village. It was a manmade savannah. Moose, elk, partridge, pigeon, wild turkey, fowl and other creatures would live there and feast on it. And hunting would be easy for the villagers all year long.

By 1690 — only three years later — Ganatsekwyagon was abandoned. Some said it was because of the “white man’s diseases” that had raged across the continent’s northeast. Others said Denonville or his soldiers had burned it to the ground as part of a war against the Seneca. This had happened to other Haudenosaunee villages, and would happen again — acts that Denonville claimed for the French as part of his contribution to the Beaver Wars, the 150-year battle for control of the fur trade.

Similar fates would befall other Haudenosaunee villages nearby: Teiaiakon, Gaensera, Tohaiton, Onnutague, Onnennatu. By 1700, there would be no Haudenosaunee presence in the Scarborough or Toronto area. They had left their mark on the land, though. And their Nation and way of life would continue, eventually pushed to reserves in places such as Tonawanda, New York, and Grand River, Ontario.


Sexual equality, though still a work in progress, is a key value of Canadian society. The women’s rights movement was informed by Indigenous practices that date back to the 1600s in the area. 

In 17th-century Europe, women’s rights were non-existent. A married woman was her husband’s property. Anything she earned or inherited during the marriage — as well as her dowry — was automatically his. Neither rape nor domestic violence was a crime.

In contrast, the Haudenosaunee First Nation was matrilocal: on marriage, a Haudenosaunee man would go to live with his wife and her family, who would run the household.

Ganatsekwyagon (see Snapshot of a Village) and other 17th-century Haudenosaunee villages in the Toronto area were models of women’s rights. Women did the agricultural work, and as farmers they had their own source of income. If a man was abusive, the woman could evict him from the house. And if a couple divorced, the woman would automatically receive her share of their joint property — and custody of the children. In war, women could take up arms. People prayed to “Mother Earth” and the “Sky Mother.”

The Haudenosaunee were long gone from the GTA area by the time of the women’s rights movement in North America. But suffragists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage visited Haudenosaunee communities in upstate New York. There, they saw the same evidence of women’s rights in action. They wrote newspaper articles about this and discussed it at forums such as the first International Council of Women in 1888 in Washington D.C. — an event to which nine countries, including Canada, sent delegates.

Haudenosaunee ideals and practices — of women’s rights, political enfranchisement, equal pay, communal childcare, female political leadership and homes without sexual discrimination or violence — became part of the political discourse of suffragists.

In mainstream Canadian society, some of these concepts would slowly become realities. Women in Manitoba won the right to vote in 1916, and women in the last province, Quebec, in 1940; Kim Campbell became the first female Prime Minister of Canada in 1993. Today, as universities start to implement the TRC calls to action, by indigenizing history, it’s worth remembering the Indigenous ideas, names, beliefs and ideologies that have informed or contributed to the national culture all along.


Journalist Alexandra Shimo is the author of Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve, which was a Globe and Mail best book for 2016; and co-author, with Edmund Metatwabin, of Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History — a Globe and Mail bestseller, finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Non-fiction, and winner of the Speaker’s Book Award and CBC Bookie Award. She teaches creative non-fiction at U of T.

Sarah Barmak is a Toronto freelance journalist and author. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, The Walrus, Chatelaine, VICE and Canadian Business. Her first book, Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality, was published last year by Coach House Press. 

Meryl McMaster is an Ottawa-based artist and holds a BFA in Photography from OCAD University. McMaster is interested in using portraiture and self-portraiture to explore questions of how we construct our sense of self through lineage, history and culture. Her practice extends beyond straight photography by incorporating the meticulous production of props or sculptural garments, improvisational performance and quiet self-reflection. McMaster’s work has been included in exhibitions throughout Canada and the United States. Last fall, the Doris McCarthy Gallery presented “Confluence,” an exhibition of McMaster’s photography.