Aboriginal Students Gathering at Migizii Agamik

Students, experts, activists look at contemporary indigenous issues

The 2014 Aboriginal Students Gathering was held at the University of Manitoba’s Migizii Agamik building earlier this month. On Feb. 14 and 15, students discussed a range of issues relevant to Aboriginal politics and culture, and heard from experts and community leaders such as Nahanni Fontaine and Derek Nepinak.

The event was sponsored by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and supported by the students’ unions of the U of M and Brandon University, in addition to the U of M Aboriginal Students Association (UMASA) and others. According to CFS, the gathering hosted students from all three Manitoba universities.

The first day of the event included opening remarks and a welcome feast. The second day saw students and expert guests discuss, in turn, four issues considered by organizers to be priority topics for Aboriginal students.

In a roundtable format, the group discussed barriers to post-secondary education funding, and then missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Nahanni Fontaine, special advisor on Aboriginal women’s issues to the province of Manitoba, joined the group for the latter conversation.

The third topic of the day, environmental justice, focused mostly on criticism of the federal government’s Navigable Waters Protection Act, the closure of Ontario’s Experimental Lakes Area, and the perceived muzzling of scientists by the Conservative majority government.

Participant Shannon Bear noted the need for more Aboriginal students to pursue science at the university level in order to catalyze a shift towards evidence-based debates on environmental issues.

UMASA treasurer and UMSU Aboriginal students’ representative Clyford Sinclair commented on the connection between land base and Aboriginal culture, noting that industry-driven environmental degradation could pose a threat to the quality of life of future generations.

“The way things are progressing, we’re really quickly destroying our land [ . . . ] it goes back to that simple Cree proverb – you can’t eat money,” Sinclair said to the group.

The final key talking point for the gathering was Idle No More. Shifting from a roundtable format to a lecture-style presentation, Jerry Daniels, activist and former Aboriginal students’ representative on the CFS board of directors, discussed his role as an Idle No More organizer in Manitoba.

After Daniels’ formal discussion of Idle No More ended, Sylvia McAdam, lawyer and Idle No More co-founder, presented a lecture titled “Organizing Our Movement.”

McAdam’s talk traced the history of indigenous resistance in Canada leading up to and during Idle No More, touching upon the Oka Crisis, Unist’ot’en Camp in British Columbia, and the Grassy Narrows blockade. McAdam also addressed the misinterpretation of Canada-First Nations treaties, arguing that many individuals do not understand the benefits they are afforded under the agreements.

“If there is anything you get out of my presentation, I would like all of you to go back and read the treaty documents,” said McAdam.

“I’ve heard people criticize the treaty documents, but I’m here to tell you as a lawyer, I have read those documents, and they could not have been crafted any better had a lawyer been there at the time of treaty making, when our people were negotiating the terms and promises.”

The final speaker of the event was Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. After Nepinak’s closing remarks, students were invited to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, which ran from 6 p.m. until late in the evening.

Later reflecting on the event, Clyford Sinclair, who is currently running for vice-president internal at UMSU, told the Manitoban that the two-day summit led participants to organize into a group concerned with coordinating opposition to extended government control of First Nations education.

“Once we finished with all the speakers, the outcome was that we started a new movement. We decided, 30 students, to call it the Indigenous Students’ Movement (ISM),” said Sinclair.

“We’re going to focus on the education topic, because it affects us all as post-secondary students.”

Sinclair explained that ISM is concerned about the First Nations Education Act, and is considering organizing a sit-in outside Winnipeg’s Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development office later this year.