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For those of you who don’t know, today, June 21, is the 20th anniversary of National Aboriginal Day here in Canada. To honor York University’s long-standing connection to Indigenous heritage, we decided to pay a visit to York’s Centre for Aboriginal Student Services (CASS) and have a chat with Kayla Webber and Sofi Rostampour, two Work/Study students with the Centre, about what CASS has to offer, as well as to hear their personal insights into the topic of Indigeneity.
Our conversation was filled to the brim with helpful information and answers to questions that have surely crossed people’s minds — all from a student perspective. Check out the interview to learn about the topic of self-identification, how to respectfully approach Indigeneity as a non-Aboriginal person, the first steps in getting involved with CASS, various Indigenous events happening throughout Toronto during the summer and much more. The post is a little longer than our usual content, but I recommend you stick around until the end — it’ll be well worth your while.
Enter Kayla and Sofi.
Would you mind introducing yourselves?
My name is Kayla Webber. I am in my third year of Human Rights & Equity Studies, and I am doing a minor in Multiculturalism & Indigenous Studies. I am Métis and Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia, and I’ll be graduating next year.
I’m Sofi Rostampour. I’m in Human Rights & Equity Studies, I’m taking the Indigenous Studies certificate, and I’m going into my fourth year. I’m still trying to discover my precise identity, so that’s my own kind of personal journey.
What sorts of services does CASS offer Aboriginal students here at York?
Kayla: CASS offers a diverse number of services for students. We have our resource room, computers and elders on campus. We have a traditional counsellor that students can sign up for and talk to because some students hail from northern communities and prefer more Indigenous counselling, rather than just going to regular [academic] counselling at York. Also, we hold many workshops like moccasin and bead making. We provide a really good community. For most of the students that come here, it’s like a second family. We have a lot of lunches together, we provide Work/Study positions. We also have an orientation every year for first-year Indigenous students in early September.
In addition, CASS is a space where identity is important. Because of colonization, some students don’t know their nationhood and where they come from. This space allows for people to be open and find their identity. One of my professors once told me that you need to know who you are and where you come from to move forward in life, so it’s important to provide this for our students.
We also do events outside of campus. We take them [students] off campus to show them other services besides CASS. There is also Brenda Blondeau, who is Métis from Saskatchewan. She’s a faculty member here who comes in once a week to help students with writing skills. We have our Pow Wow every year in collaboration with the Aboriginal Students Association at York as well, which usually happens around February, not to mention National Aboriginal Day.
What exactly goes into a powwow?
Kayla: My first powwow didn’t happen until I was in my first year of university. I’m still in the learning process, but we have a lot of dances: the smoke trail dance, the fancy shawl dance, the grass dance. It’s just a place for everyone to come together. There are competition powwows, but some are non-competitive. Every nation does it differently. A powwow in Nova Scotia may be different than a powwow in Ontario.
How about for non-Aboriginal students looking to learn more about the topic of Indigeneity?
Sofi: There’s things that, as non-Indigenous allies, you have to look at your roles and responsibilities. It’s not going to be the exact same. Coming here to learn and coming here to be part of the community is different. We have the same resources as you (Indigenous scholars, internet), so instead of coming to Indigenous students and putting the responsibility on their shoulders, like “you have to teach me,” it’s better to participate and contribute to community instead. You have to have a reciprocal relation with community to be part of community. Are you going to come out to rallies? Are you not just seeking something for yourself, like “spiritual enlightenment”? What can you give back? We also need to look at how Indigenous people can be empowered and take progressive action.
Kayla: In terms of learning, there are courses offered: “Introduction to Indigenous Studies,” 1050/1100, taught by the Department of Equity Studies, for example. If people want to learn more, they can do an Indigenous Studies certificate. If they’re really passionate about it, they can even major in Indigenous Studies. I think in becoming a part of community you have to have boundaries and come in a good mind. In Aboriginal communities everyone is the same. No one is better than anyone else. We all treat everyone with respect and that’s how we learn from each other. We do have non-Aboriginal students come to CASS, because maybe they’re married to an Aboriginal person and/or their kids are mixed, and they’d like to learn more. You just have to always step back and understand your place as an ally. Basically, you can’t just “sign up.” It’s more inclusive.
What attracted you to York?
Kayla: I like York because it’s a very inclusive environment. If it wasn’t for CASS, though, I probably wouldn’t be here today. Jolene John, who is the Aboriginal recruitment officer/liaison, was incredibly helpful, assisting with such concerns as “here’s where you go for resources, here are the professors you need to talk to.” That’s what really stuck out to me — the Aboriginal centre and its student-based focus.
Sofi: For me, it was the Human Rights & Equity Studies program. Yeah, York just seemed more communal.
How did you first go about contacting CASS?
Kayla: When I found out I had Aboriginal lineage, I went online and wanted to learn more about my Aboriginal culture. I was a little nervous coming because I thought there would be students who maybe knew more about their culture and I would be judged for not being “native” enough or something like that. Once I came in and was introduced to the community, though, it was great. I literally checked the website every week because I was so excited. We all help each other out.
Sofi: It’s really just where my individual path has led me. I was doing a project on residential schools and I decided to come here for research instead of the library. I overheard a conversation that really related to my family’s experience with Indigeneity and thought this was a place where I could learn more and that I wanted to be a part of.
Not to dwell on existing stereotypes, but are there any misconceptions about CASS or Indigeneity in general that you would like to clear up?
Kayla: We’d obviously prefer not to further highlight stereotypes [thereby reinforcing their circulation], but people should remember that we don’t always look native, don’t all live on reserves, don’t hunt and gather, all this stuff. Aboriginal people are very diverse people; we’re just like every other person. Native people mostly don’t look as they’ve been portrayed in books.
Sofi: Also recognizing the diversity of different nations. Not seeing us as pan-Indigenous.
Kayla: There is also that talk that when you’re Indigenous you get things a little easier, you go to school for free. We have students that don’t get any funding. We have students that work two jobs and use OSAP. We’re like every other student out there trying to make something. Then you have students who don’t self-identify because they’re scared that they will get treated differently. I self-identify because I’m proud of who I am and where I come from, but my mother, I don’t think that she would self-identify, because some people still have a negative view toward Indigenous people.
Sofi: It also reminds people that we’re still around. People tend to historicize/romanticize. When you can put a face/voice to it, it helps.
Although, as you mentioned, it’s not good to generalize, is there a difference between the uses of the terms Aboriginal and Indigenous?
Kayla: I guess Indigenous is more accepted now. It kind of depends on your own politics. Some people may identify by their nation, but it depends on their own view. One day I’ll say Métis, and another day I’ll say Mi’kmaq. Although some Indigenous people may refer to themselves using seemingly dated terms — like how my aunt still refers to herself as an Indian — it’s important to understand that as an ally (non-Indigenous person) you are not necessarily entitled to this same right.
Sofi: Indigenous also infers that we have a land-based identity, which more accurately reflects our values.
Can you talk to us about National Aboriginal Day events?
Kayla: There are a few things going on this summer. Today, on National Aboriginal Day, the Native Canadian Centre is hosting at Yonge and Dundas from 12pm to 8pm. There will be performances, Indigenous art, beading work, crafts. In some places, June 21 actually a holiday, as in the Northwest Territories, but not here in Ontario.
What first steps would you recommend to Indigenous students looking to become involved with CASS?
Kayla: If you have time off in the summer, come by our office. Come by, talk to some staff members. Summer is great because it gives that peace before you start in September. Also, don’t stop coming. Come back and be part of our workshops and events. Meet new people. Aboriginal culture is a circle, which is what our medicine wheel represents; you just have to keep coming. It never ends. Whatever you need help with, we’re here to support you.
And as mentioned, allies are also welcome to respectfully participate.
There you have it. Thanks to Sofi and Kayla for their incredibly generous contributions, and if you’re interested in anything mentioned above, be sure to check out CASS on the second floor of York Lanes.