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Barry CooperA ceremony at the University of Calgary a short while ago invited all faculty members of the Royal Society of Canada to welcome newly-elected fellows into the ranks. It was presided over by one of the university’s vice-presidents. Other members of the senior leadership team were also present.

The VP began the evening with the following words: “Welcome to the University of Calgary. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the traditional territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region in southern Alberta. The City of Calgary is also home to the Metis Nation of Alberta, Region III.”

One of my friends, at the time a member of the university board of governors, once asked me about this invocation but, never having heard of it, I didn’t know what to say. It turns out a university protocol recommends such words be repeated at “convocation, conferences, and other large public gatherings” hosted by the university. As just about everything else at the U of C nowadays, this invocation is somehow connected to “energizing” the school’s Eyes High strategy. Six pages of protocol guidelines regulate cultural engagement with aboriginals. Honoraria, for example, are not fees for service but a gift freely given “in exchange for knowledge, ceremonies, or blessings.”

An indigenous strategy task force reports to a vice-president and an indigenous framework promises to realize the indigenous strategy. The task force has an elder advisory council, a steering committee and a working group. The indigenous framework consists of a metaphorical journey that ends with “bringing stories together” and “empowering the spirit of indigenization.”

These initiatives seem as harmless as the nutrition workshop or the nap room. But when the Arts Faculty was instructed to “energize” itself with a strategic plan, it became more serious.

One of the priorities of this plan, to be enforced by two new associate deans, informs us: “We will devote our energies to decolonizing our faculty and building meaningful partnerships with indigenous communities” around Calgary. The goal: to “embark on the journey to decolonizing and indigenizing the Faculty of Arts through the inclusion of indigenous knowledge, voices, critiques, scholars, students and materials, to weave indigenous knowledge and practices into the Faculty of Arts.” A later version promised not to indigenize faculty but only faculty programs.

In keeping with the instruction to bring stories together, here’s one from the Treaty 7 region that constitutes part of the oral history of my family.

My great-grandmother – Mammy, we called her – was of aboriginal descent. One aunt said she was Blood; another said she was Cree. She married a settler from Ontario and lived in the Millarville area. During the annual spring roundup, while the men were away chasing cows, the women stayed home and, on occasion, fed First Nations persons who dropped by. By convention, the visitors remained outside.

One day, after having served several aboriginal men, one of them entered the cabin. Mammy was then about 18 and slight. She told him to leave. When he advanced on her, she took up the shotgun and insisted. He kept coming and she shot him. His friends were appalled at his behaviour and quickly removed the corpse.

As a kid, I heard Mammy tell the “story of the Indian” many times. Much later, I realized she had defended herself from assault.

I retell that story here to illustrate the point that in reality the relationship of aboriginal peoples and later immigrants was very complex. The desiccated and politically correct notion of indigenization beloved by university administrators captures none of it.

Barry Cooper teaches political science at the University of Calgary.

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