On Belonging, Indigeneity, and Education @ #WesternU

In An Unsettled Feminist Discourse, Notisha Massaquoi posits that the Canadian identity is based on “what we are not” (p. 75). For Massaquoi, becoming Canadian means to ignore race and ethnicity (p. 76). Massaquoi engages in a discussion on identity, belonging, and citizenship, and briefly mentions that these labels, within a Canadian context, are “based on [Canadians’] ability to subjugate the history of Aboriginal peoples’ marginalization” (p. 78). While her discussion is centred on Black women’s experiences, I would like to explore this statement by Massaquoi in detail from an Indigenous feminist’s perspective.

Massaquoi parallels belonging to citizenship and immigration. However, this concept of belonging, or identity, is complicated once Indigenous peoples are included in the discussion of what it means to be Canadian. Theresa Smith, in her chapter entitled, (Re)Turning Home: An Exploration in the (Re)Claiming of Identity and Belonging, states that “When Canada is mentioned, we are meant to imagine a White identity just as when Jamaican is mentioned we are meant to imagine Black” and continues, “your national/ethnic identity is reinforced by others” (p. 199). Frantz Fanon delineates this notion that one comes to know who they are by what they are not in his seminal work, Black Skins, White Masks—Black people know that they are Black because they are not White (Raza, 2014, p. 145). Massaquoi briefly examines this “knowing who you are by what you are not” in her discussion on foreignness and at homeness. From her experiences, becoming Canadian means to ignore race and ethnicity, which could translate to, for women of colour, forgetting their history or what Amalia Sa’ar (2005) describes as the liberal bargain. Sa’ar (2005) defines the liberal bargain when “some members of marginalized groups internalize liberal epistemology [to think white/think male] to maximize security and optimize their life options” (p. 681). Within this process, to think white/think male, members of marginalized groups negotiate their worlds by leaving behind parts of who they are and where they come from in exchange for maximizing security and optimizing their life options. If forgetting one’s history is part of becoming Canadian, or closer to Whiteness, then similar to Massaquoi’s earlier statement, a Canadian identity is based on subjugating Aboriginal people’s history. For Theresa Smith (2014), this Canadian identity erases Indigenous identity, both literally and figuratively (p. 197). Utilizing an autoethnographic method, I will investigate the concept of belonging for Indigenous students in academia, which I define as the processes involved in the production of knowledge. More specifically, I will investigate the concept of belonging from my experiences as an Indigenous student at Western University, an international-focused institute that is bordered by multiple First Nation communities. This autoethnographic approach will also utilize an anti-racist and anti-colonial inquiry that is centered on decolonization. Raza (2014) puts forward the question, “How can we work with Aboriginal peoples so that we do not exclude them from anti-racist, anti-colonial work?” (p. 145). I will explore Massaquoi’s earlier statement that Canadianness depends on the subjugation of Aboriginal people’s history and in doing so, seek to answer Raza’s question on how to work with Aboriginal peoples to include them within anti-racist, anti-colonialist work, especially within academia, a site of knowledge production.

On anti-racism education, George J. Sefa Dei (2014) writes, “anti-racism is about human action and institutionalized social practices. Our social world can and ought to be more equitable” (p. 2). Sefa Dei highlights that “resisting and challenging racist hegemonic practices is key” (p. 2). Similar to Tsalach (2013), the autoethnographic method is the resistance and challenge to racist hegemonic practices within academia. Raza (2014) expands on the anti-colonial framework as a space to “disrupt the taken-for-granted notions of power, privilege, imposed knowledge and the categories of good (colonizer) and evil (“Other”)” (p. 136). My experiences as an undergraduate student at Western University are informed by these racist hegemonic practices, from racist remarks from other students due to lack of accurate historical education both before and during post-secondary education to racist remarks from colleagues on an Indigenous research team, wherein I was the only Indigenous person employed. An autoethnographic approach is useful then for this conversation on belonging, Indigeneity and education seeking to disrupt the unquestionable structures of power, privilege, and imposed knowledge.

In her piece exploring postcolonial approaches to autoethnography, Archana A. Pathak (2010) writes, “Autoethnography calls to me because it allows me to make sense of the world I have lived in. Autoethnography also gives voice to my life in a way that never seems to be articulated in the academic writings in which I have searched for myself” (p. 2). Autoethnography, for me, is making sense of my experiences in academia, and where exactly do these experiences fit within the larger political, social, and cultural context of belonging for Indigenous identities in academia. Pathak (2010) questions whether her story is worth telling. I do not question whether my story is worth telling. I question what it means to be Indigenous in academia and question whether my story belongs within the larger political, social, and cultural context of Indigenous identities in academia.

On (re)claiming identities, Smith (2014) outlines that individuals must acknowledge the sociohistorical context that shape identities, especially when some are “void of sociohistorical context” (p. 198). Smith (2014) claims a Black identity, for her, is a term that carries a political identity (p. 201). Indigenous, as an identity, acknowledges the sociohistorical context it is situated in, and this in itself is a political act. Throughout my numerous years in education, the history of Canada rarely acknowledges Indigenous peoples, and if they do, it is done so in a manner that erases or at minimum marginalizes their present existence. Lawrence and Dua describe this marginalization or erasure when speaking about Indigenous nationhood. Lawrence and Dua (2005) write, “If Indigenous nationhood is seen as something of the past, the present becomes a site in which Indigenous peoples are reduced to small groups of racially and culturally defined and marginalized individuals drowning in a sea of settlers-who needn’t be taken seriously” (p. 123). Lawrence and Dua acknowledge this colonialist history as “continually re-enacted,” (p. 122) and highlight that colonialism continues to “target [Indigenous peoples] for legal and cultural extinction” (p 125). This colonial project to “Get rid of the Indian problem” is ongoing and not a thing of the past (Lawrence & Dua, 2005; Raza, 2014; Leslie, 1978). It is not by accident that the majority of students who enter university at the undergraduate level do not know what residential schools are or are learning about them for the first time. Raza (2014) even postulates that “colonization is an ongoing process and that schools are one of the key institutions in the success and perpetuation of this project” (p. 36). My (re)claiming of Indigenous as an identity, especially within academia, is to associate it with the sociohistorical and political context for Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Defining Indigenous or Indigeneity is consequential to understanding what it means to belong in academia as an Indigenous student. The concept of Indigenous, within a Canadian context, is sometimes referred to as a “cop-out,” as my (ironically) race, class and colonialism professor put it plainly in a seminar class. He was referring specifically to the individuals who submitted papers speaking on Indigenous issues, and I was one of those individuals. For me, Indigenous as an identity is a political, cultural, and social label. My (re)clamation of Indigenous as an identity is not what I would refer to as a cop-out. Erika Sarivaara, Kaarina Maatta, and Satu Uusiautti (2013) outline the difficulties with defining members of Indigenous groups. For Sarivaara et al., the difficulties arise because of “the assimilation process, history of colonization, or complex legislation regulating membership in an indigenous people” (para. 2). Legislation relegates my legal and political identity as an Indian and an Aboriginal, or more specifically as First Nations member, as per the Indian Act, 1867and the Constitution Act, 1867-1982, respectively (Indian Act, 1867; Constitution Act, 1867-1982). My cultural identity is Anishnaabe, which is my nation—the very identity that colonizers sought to destroy. Sarivaara et al. describe that Indigenous as a definition can “be used for bringing out important common and topical issues of Indigenous peoples, such as social, cultural and political questions” (para. 3). For me, Indigenous as an identity is not a cop-out to the discussion of what it means to be Indigenous in academia. Rather, employing Indigenous as an identity is to attend to the social, cultural, and political questions that come with being Indigenous in academia, as a site for ongoing colonization, as suggested by Raza, and as a site for knowledge production. Historically, legislation dictated that Indians, as defined by the Indian Act (like myself), had to give up their legal and political identity in order to attend university, this informs me that I am not supposed to be here. My (re)clamation of Indigenous as an identity speaks back to this historical reality.

My reaction to my professor, who referred to the Indigenous label as cop-out, is revealing. It was the last day of class, and I was set to present on Indigenous identity, multiculturalism, and racism. Specifically, the presentation sought to answer whether Canada’s multiculturalism policy was racist. This was a question that my group and I were assigned and we were most likely given this topic because of the forms we filled in on the first day of classes. I did not respond to the professor’s naming the use of Indigenous as a label to discuss Indigenous issues as a cop-out. I remained silent. Silence, as Tsalach (2013) describes “is more complex than merely a form of avoidance” (p. 78). My decision to remain silent was premised on the fact that I was the only visibly Indigenous person (from Canada) in the room, and knowing that if I spoke up, that I may be the only one to attend to my professor’s comments as a visibly Indigenous student, taking up this particular Indigenous identity. When employing an autoethnography, and similar to Tsalach (2013), the silences employed by marginalized groups are “pushing what was private to the public eye, as an act of resistance to oppression” (p. 78). This is not to say that professor was oppressing me with his statement that we were “cop-outs.” Rather, I utilize this discussion of my silence as a site of resistance and opposition to constructions of what it means to be Indigenous in academia, especially when being told that the label Indigenous is a cop-out. It is not a cop-out. Utilizing Indigenous as a label calls to the political, social, and cultural contexts that it presents especially within the discussion of racism and colonialism, such as occurred in this class.

Sometimes being the only visibly Indigenous person in all of my classes or seminars, my professors call on me to answer questions relating to “Indians” or “Aboriginals.” As one Indigenous professor outlines the dual role of Indigenous people in the classroom, we are expected to be both students and teachers (Fehr, in personal communication, November 28, 2012). At the beginning of my undergraduate experience at Western University, I used to grow enthusiastic and excited when the lessons and discussions for the week, in both my online and offline courses, were centered on Indigenous issues. Yet, these feelings quickly changed to feelings of anxiety and stress.

During my first online course experience, one professor asked students to discuss why Aboriginals in Canada face high rates of poverty, with no historical context to the experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada. One student put it plainly that maybe Aboriginals have smaller brains than the rest of the Canadians. Another student suggested that Aboriginals were lazy and did not work as hard as other Canadians. The rest of my peers agreed wholeheartedly. It is not without accident, as I stated earlier, that many of my peers do not know about the complex history of colonialism and racism in Canada, specifically for Indigenous peoples. To answer Raza’s question, anti-racist theorizing in academia must begin to question why people who attend university do not know about these historical realities, but are still expected to comment on them from an educational or critical perspective.

This was not the only course who failed to include a historical context of Indigenous peoples in Canada as to why they experience higher instances of poverty or higher crime rates. In fact, the only time I encountered a partial history lesson was in high school. The discussion of residential schools only went as a far as to describe these schools a sites of education, not sites of forced assimilation or the forms of abuse that occurred. If Canadian, or white, history tells students that residential schools were meant to educate Indian children, and Indigenous peoples today experience higher poverty rates, then it is only logical (from the uncritical mind) that we must have smaller brains or that we are lazier—we just didn’t work hard enough. Sa’ar’s discussion on liberal epistemology is omnipresent within these experiences of what it means to be Canadian, but more importantly, what it means to not be Canadian, and Indigeneity is always the latter. Yet, these discourses and discussions which lack any sort of context that tell my peers I have a smaller brain, that I am lazy, and ultimately that I am stupid, serve to sustain these dominant discourses—I am not supposed to be here, let alone be present in academia. Colonialism, like Raza postulates, is an ongoing project.

When it comes to this anti-Indigenous racism within education, autoethnography calls attention to the (re)claiming that Indigenous students engage in to resist the hegemonic discourses designed to marginalize and segregate them to particular spaces. During my first year at Western University, I was continuously asked two to three questions in succession of one another, “Are you Native?” followed by, “Oh you must be taking First Nations Studies?” or “Do you get free education?” I am set to graduate this year from the honours specialization in criminology program (my main module) with a minor in women’s studies. Looking back onto my experiences in classroom discussions, both online and offline, within my main module, there were plenty of discussions and lectures on the plight of Aboriginals in Canada. However, there was no context given for Indigenous communities and peoples. Lawrence and Dua (2005) argue that to achieve antiracism education, it must be centered on lives and experiences of Indigenous peoples. They also critique antiracism theorizing in academia to highlight the point that Indigenous issues are only taken up during one week—a token recognition (Lawrence & Dua, 2005, p. 133). I recall my first year political science class spending no more than twenty minutes on the discussion of the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada and this was lumped into the same topic of animal rights—Indians and animals, they are practically one in the same. In the tutorial for this same class, my peers continuously argued that Indigenous peoples need to stop receiving “hand outs” from the government. I sometimes left class early and in tears.

In 2005, years before my first day at Western University, our campus prized student newspaper published an article entitled, “Canada has done enough for its Aboriginals” and the author of this article outlined how Aboriginals receive too much assistance from the government, and argued that our problems are personal, rather than systemic or institutional (Mathieu, 2006). My friend, who is also Indigenous, responded to this article by describing his experiences, eerily similar to my own, as demoralizing to the point of wanting to drop out (Mathieu, 2006). The decision to remain enrolled and to attend classes may seem trivial to some. But for Indigenous students at the receiving end of direct and indirect anti-Indigenous racism, it is an act of resistance. While Raza (2014) argues that education is a site of ongoing colonization, she also states that it can be used to disrupt the colonial process. Indigenous students in academia are doing just that—resisting and reclaiming what it means to be Indigenous in academia.

Throughout this discussion on belonging and Indigenous identity in academia, I have described situations where I choose to remain silent. However, this was not always the case. For Massaquoi and Tsalach, the way the politics of silence is taken up diverges for both scholars. On one hand, Massaquoi (2007) states that for black feminist theorists, they “must, however, acknowledge, that it is both our silence and the act of silencing us that talks us out of place” (p. 88). On the other hand, Tsalach outlines how autoethnographies are critical to “breaking the dichotomy between those who are silent and those who silence them” (p. 78) especially for people of colour in predominantly white institutions, like academia. But what happens when it is another person of colour engages in silencing another racialized person’s experiences? When Lawrence and Dua (2005) argue that Indigeneity sometimes “receives only token recognition” (p. 133), I can relate especially throughout my experiences working on a research team one summer.

During my second summer at Western University, I reached out to a researcher on campus after I read about his work in the local newspaper. He was doing research on Aboriginal communities in northern Ontario. I emailed him and set up a time to talk about his research. Within that meeting, he discussed the opportunity for me to work part time with the team on a new project recruiting southern Ontario First Nation communities. I was unsure how to interpret my first day in the office—I was the only Indigenous person on the “Indigenous Research Team.” That summer, I gained experience in learning how to write proposals and grants, and how to abide by research policies and protocols set out by Indigenous communities. However, I also learned how to (re)act to efforts to silence me.

The first time the racist comments from one my co-workers happened, I brushed them off as, what Tsalach (2013) describes, as background noise (p. 74). Tsalach writes, “ignoring something does not mean just not paying attention to it” (p. 74). Rather, ignoring something could translate to what “we conventionally perceive as worthy of our attention and what should be ignored and dismissed as background noise” (p. 74). This silence, or choosing to ignore something, is an exhibition of “asymmetrical power relations” (Tsalach, 2013, p. 75). I was new to the team, and I was only a part-time worker, so the racist and ignorant comments made by my phenotypically (god forbid I homogenize this group) Asian Canadian co-worker could not be obviously racist. When I complained to my supervisor about her comments towards me and the Nations we were attempting to recruit, my complaints were brushed off as nothing more than a misunderstanding on my part (of course). Tsalach (2013) outlines how “the dominant social rules in multicultural societies perceive it is inappropriate or tactless to engage with differences in public spaces” (p. 78). When individuals do engage with differences in public spaces and experience moments of otherness, they are usually “accused of exaggerating, being too sensitive, making a fuss about nothing, or simply misunderstanding the situation” (Tsalach, 2013, p. 78). I disrupted this social order by not remaining silent and not remaining in my token position as the only Indigenous person on the so-called Indigenous research team.

My supervisor continued on by specifically stating that because both she and the co-worker in question were visible minorities, just like me (her words), that these comments could not have been understood in the way I interpreted them. This idea that visible minorities are the same as Indigenous peoples ignores the history of colonization in a Canadian context. This dismissal of my experiences was also an attempt to silence me, put me back in my place, as the Indigenous token on the Indigenous research team attempting to recruit new Indigenous communities. As I look back on these experiences and these comments, I am reminded of Sa’ar’s liberal bargain, and question what visible minorities, especially those who are women like my supervisor and my co-worker, dismiss as background noise or simple misunderstandings in order to belong within academia. My decision to bring these comments to the human rights and equity department on campus, and then to communicate directly with the principal investigator was a direct resistance to the attempts to silence me, and an act of (re)claiming my Indigenous identity as something more than a token in academia. I was not willing to give up my Indigeneity in exchange for a part-time summer job as the token Indian. Reclaiming Indigenous as an identity, for me, means to speak back to those who silence me and those discourses that seek to relegate Indigenous bodies to specific positions within academia, like the token Indian.

As Massaquoi highlights, Canadianess depends on the subjugation of Aboriginal people’s history. This Canadianness, like Smith states, erases Indigenous identity, both literally and figuratively. For Mohanty, in Towards an Anti-Imperialist Politics, she argues that we need to be asking the right questions when it comes to citizenship. If Massaquoi considered citizenship parallel to belonging and identity, then who remains complicit in this erasure of Indigenous identities from Canada’s history, and who benefits from the discourses that serve to maintain the systems that subjugate Aboriginal people’s history, like academia? Raza put forth the question, “how can we work with Aboriginal peoples so that we do not exclude from anti-racist, anti-colonial work?” Feminist theorizing needs to begin to include Indigenous peoples in anti-racist and anti-colonial work at the beginning and not something as a weak appendage to the discussions around race or colonialism, especially within courses that formulate feminist theorizing. As a graduating student at Western University, I would like to see mandatory courses on Indigenous history, similar to the course that I attended last term, which was centered on Indigenous political and legal systems and taught by an Indigenous professor. For women’s studies and feminist research on campus, I would like to see an entire course dedicated to understanding colonialism and racism, how it works within a present day context in academia, including feminist theorizing. So it isn’t a question of whether my story belongs within the larger political, social, and cultural context of Indigenous identities in academia, it is a question of whether these stories will stop from having to be re-told year after year.



Constitution Act. (1867). Retrieved from the Justice Laws website: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/CONST/page-1.html. 88278

Indian Act. (R.S.C, 1985, c. I-5). Retrieved from Justice Laws website: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/i-5/.

Lawrence, B., & Dua, E. (2005). Decolonizing antiracism. Social Justice, 32(4), 120-143.

Leslie, J. (1978). The Historical Development of the Indian Act, second edition). Ottawa, ON: Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

Massaquoi, N. (2007). “An Unsettled Feminist Discourse.” In N. Massaquoi and N.N. Wane (eds.), Theorizing Empowerment: Canadian Perspectives on Black Feminist Thought, pp. 75-94. Inanna Publications and Education Inc.

Matheiu, E. (2006). “Cultural insensitive?” The University of Western Ontario Graduate Program of Journalism: The Online Reporter. Retrieved from: http://www.fims.uwo.ca/olr/feb806/aboriginal.html.

Pathak, A. A. (2010). “Opening my voice, claiming my space: theorizing the possibilities of postcolonial approach to autoethnography.” Journal of Research Ethics, 6(1), 1-12.

Raza, A. (2014). “Multiculturalism: The Missing Bodies and Voices.” In G. Sefa Dei & M. McDermott (Eds). Politics of Anti-Racism Education: In Search of Strategies for Transformative Learning. (pp 135-148). Retrieved from http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/417/bok%253A978-94-007-7627-2.pdf?auth66=1396450215_69d4146237f51096e0e7a9e37351745c&ext=.pdf

Sa’ar, A. (2005). “Postcolonial Feminism, the Politics of Identification, and the Liberal Bargain.” Gender & Society, 19(5): 680-700.

Sarivaara, E., Maatta, K., & Uusiautti, S. (2013). Who is indigenous? Definitions of indigeneity. European Scientific Journal, 1 SE, 369+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA360994850&v=2.1&u=lond95336&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=a2fb4fb5ebf940700997daec1e07ff90v    

Sefa Dei, G. J., & McDermott, M. (2014). “Introduction to the Politics of Anti-Racism Education: In Search of Strategies for Transformative Learning.” In G. Sefa Dei & M. McDermott (Eds). Politics of Anti-Racism Education: In Search of Strategies for Transformative Learning. (pp 1-11). Retrieved from http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/417/bok%253A978-94-007-7627-2.pdf?auth66=1396450215_69d4146237f51096e0e7a9e37351745c&ext=.pdf.

Smith, T. (2014). “(Re)Turning Home: An Exploration in the (Re)Claiming of Identity and Belonging.” In G. Sefa Dei & M. McDermott (Eds). Politics of Anti-Racism Education: In Search of Strategies for Transformative Learning. (pp 191-210). Retrieved from http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/417/bok%253A978-94-007-7627-2.pdf?auth66=1396450215_69d4146237f51096e0e7a9e37351745c&ext=.pdf

Tsalach, C. (2013). “Between Silence and Speech: Autoethnography as an Otherness-Resisting Practice.” Qualitative Inquiry, 19(2): 71-80.


  1. This is BEAUTIFUL. Absolutely amazing. I completely agree – I love our (Women’s Studies) department, but I think in order to move forward we must institutionalize something like this as part of our Department’s academic requirements. Perhaps making several courses from First Nations’ Studies mandatory for degree completion? Anyways, you’re amazing and I’m so excited to see you continue to do great work. 🙂

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