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Sheila Cote-Meek

A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements

for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Graduate Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

University of Toronto

© Copyright by Sheila Cote-Meek 2010



Doctor of Philosophy, 2010 Sheila Cote-Meek Graduate Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education University of Toronto Abstract Framed within an Anishnaabe method and an anti-colonial discursive framework, this thesis explores how Aboriginal students confront narratives of colonial violence in the postsecondary classroom while at the same time living and experiencing colonial violence on a daily basis. In order to garner an understanding of what pedagogies might be useful in postsecondary classrooms that cover such curricula, I explored these questions by interviewing 8 Aboriginal students and 5 Aboriginal professors who were taking or teaching courses on Aboriginal peoples and colonial history. I also engaged two Aboriginal Elders in conversations on pedagogy because they are recognized as carriers of Aboriginal traditional knowledge.

Drawing on the literature I theorize colonization as violent, ongoing and traumatic. Specifically, I trace how education for Aboriginal peoples has always been and continues to be part of the colonial regime—one that is marked by violence, abuse and a regime that has had devastating consequences for Aboriginal peoples. This thesis confirms that despite some changes to the educational system Aboriginal students and professors interviewed in this research still confront significant challenges when they enter sites such as the postsecondary classroom. The most profound finding in this thesis was the extent of racism that Aboriginal students confront and negotiate in postsecondary classrooms. These negotiations are especially profound and painful in mixed classrooms where the narrative of ongoing colonial violence is discussed. Aboriginal ii students also employ a number of strategies to resist ongoing colonialism and racism. The narrative of racism is not new but it does reaffirm that colonialism continues to have devastating effects on Aboriginal peoples. It also reaffirms the pervasiveness of violence in our society despite the fact that many would rather ignore or downplay the level of violence that exists.

There is no doubt that the Aboriginal students interviewed in this research describe a significant psychological toll in an environment of ongoing colonialism and is especially difficult when revisiting historical and ongoing accounts of violence of their own colonial history. The thesis offers some suggestions for mitigating this impact in the classroom.

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Chi-Miigwech to the Creator for setting me on this path of learning. While the journey to complete this dissertation has been longer than I expected I am most grateful for the many experiences and profound learning along the way.

There are a number of people who I would like to acknowledge and say Chi-Miigwech (a big thank you). First my sincere and heartfelt thanks to Dr. Sherene Razack, who provided me with supervision which assisted me to grow, learn and understand more deeply. Your insightful feedback on drafts and rich conversations greatly assisted me in my learning. I am deeply appreciative of the time you spent in providing me with ongoing guidance and support. ChiMiigwech to my committee members Dr. Laara Fitznor, Dr. Martin Cannon and Professor Lee Maracle for their support and encouragement. Laara Chi-Miigwech for sharing your passion for Aboriginal education and your unwavering beliefs in Anishnaabe ways of being. I truly valued your contribution to this work. Dr. Martin Cannon I extend a Chi-Miigwech for assisting me in the end stages of my doctorate. Your insightful comments were most appreciated. Professor Lee Maracle, Chi-Miigwech for sharing your assistance and insightful comments on the usage of words. I valued the learning in the short time we spent together. Miigwech to Dr. Verna St.

Denis and Dr. Bonita Lawrence who provided feedback and comment on early versions of my work. Finally, Chi-Miigwech to the external examiner, Dr. Emma LaRocque, who provided thoughtful and critical comments that, pushed me to consider the implications of my work.

I would also like to acknowledge the members of Dr. Razack’s doctoral thesis group during my time at OISE. This group was instrumental in keeping me connected to my work and was also a great source of inspiration and learning. Thank you to Leda Culliford, Christine

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doctoral work.

I would also like to acknowledge the support I received from Dr. George Burns who was my first contact at OISE and who encouraged me to take that leap to apply. While he has moved on to the spirit world, his partner, Barbara Stevens-Burns, has also been supportive, and quietly reminds me that he is still around providing us with support to carry on working to facilitate change. Miigwech to friends who have supported along the way including Glenys Lafrance, Renee Shilling, Jean Paul Restoule, Moneca Sinclaire, David Anderson, Peter Cole, Pat O’Riley, Eileen Antone, Kathy Absolon, Leigh MacEwan and Sylvia Maracle. Miigwech to colleagues at Laurentian University especially those in the School of Native Human Services, who have provided encouragement and supportive words along the way. I have been fortunate to have two special friends who have provided me with support, ongoing inspiration and who have stood alongside me on this journey from the beginnings. Miigwech to Anne-Marie Mawhiney and Richard Groulx for your ongoing friendship and support.

My sincere thanks to everyone I have met along the journey, I acknowledge the support and contributions from many Elders, the Waabshki Mukwaa drum group, teachers, colleagues and students along the way.

A very special Chi-Miigwech to my parents, William and Lucienne Meek. Your unconditional love and support has been a source of strength. While my mother is not here to see the completion of this she was extremely instrumental in setting me on this path before she passed on to the spirit world. Miigwech to my three daughters, Sherri, Amanda, and Christine.

Your support and periodic check-ins were appreciated. To my grandchildren, Halley, Kendra,

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inspired by this work. To my brothers, cousins, aunties and uncles Miigwech for being there. To my partner, Taima Moeke-Pickering, Chi-Miigwech for your ongoing support and our deep conversations. I laugh when I hear ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ Yes, we are nearly there!


Finally this work would not have been possible without those who agreed to participate in this research. To the students, professors and Elders Chi-Miigwech. I am most grateful that each of you so willingly shared your time and knowledge with me. I truly hope that I have reflected the essence of your stories.

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Chapter One: Entering the Sacred Circle: Setting the Context


Research Focus

Situating Self in the Research

Methodology: Why an Aboriginal Approach to Research?

A Note on Terminology

The Chapters Ahead

Chapter Two: My Search for an Appropriate Methodology

Explorations of Aboriginal Knowledges As They Relate to Research

Indigenous Research: Conceptualizations of Anti-Colonial and Decolonizing Research........ 34 Principles of a Decolonizing Approach to Research

Invoking an Appropriate Methodology

Chapter Three: Research Methods

Establishing a Vision

Methods and Data Collection Tools


Anishnaabe Protocols and Ethical Considerations

Accounting for Participant Risks

Researcher Positionality

Power in Research

My Approach to Data Analysis and Interpretation

Challenges and Limitations of Data Analysis

Participant Profiles

Who Are the Aboriginal Professors?

Who Are the Aboriginal Students?

Who Are the Elders?

Contextualizing the Classroom Space

Chapter Four: Conceptualizing the Impact of the Colonial Encounter

Part 1: Conceptualizing Colonization and its Impact

Defining Colonization

Conceptualizing the Impact of Ongoing Colonialism

Ongoing violence.


Historical trauma.

Part 2: Conceptualizations of Historical Witness and Narratives of Violence

Historical Witness

The Postsecondary Classroom as the Site of Pedagogy

Part 3: Conceptualizing Healing

vii How Healing Is Constructed in This Research

Part 4: Problematizing the Concepts

Working Definitions of Violence and Trauma

The Efficacy of Using Violence and Trauma Concepts

Normalization of violence

The space of violence: Private or public.

Notions of Healing

Medicalization of Violence, Trauma, and Healing

Chapter Five: Negotiating the Culture / Colonial Divide in the Classroom

Part 1: Education for Aboriginal Peoples as Part of the Colonial Project

Contemporary Moments in Aboriginal Education

Specific Themes Emerging From Colonial Education

Part 2: Aboriginal Academics in the Classroom

Negotiations in the Classroom: What the Aboriginal Professors Say

Negotiating culture: The only real Indian is the spiritual / cultural Indian


You’re not really an academic.

Negotiating the role of the Indian expert.

Concluding Comments

Chapter Six: How Do Students Negotiate the Culture / Colonial Divide?

Part 1: What Constraints / Conditions Do Aboriginal Students Face?

How Do Aboriginal Students Negotiate Race in the Classroom?

Part 2: What Are the Negotiations From the Aboriginal Student’s Point of View?............... 207 Who Are The Students and What Did They Come Expecting?

Negotiating Racism

Naming racism.

Denial of racism.

Being silenced.

You’re not intelligent enough.

Native studies courses are not real academic courses.

Called to be the Native expert.

Called to be the cultural Indian.

Everyday racism.

Emotive responses to racism / Colonization talk in the classroom.

Sadness and anger.

Shame and embarrassment.


Under a microscope.

Aha moments and feeling validated.

Resisting ongoing colonialism and racism.

Not self-identifying as Native.

Safe places to express feelings.

Education and raising critical consciousness.

Available Aboriginal student supports.

viii Available traditional supports.

Active resistance.

Being acknowledged in the class.

Debriefing in the class.

Warning students ahead of time of the emotion the material may cause.


Professors that are knowledgeable.

Concluding Comments

Chapter Seven: Closing the Circle: Invoking an Appropriate Pedagogical Response in the Classroom

Part 1: Summary of Key Findings

Strategies of Negotiating Difficult Terrain

Part 2: Teaching Difficult Knowledge and Pedagogy

Difficult Knowledge

The Possibilities of Transformational Pedagogy

Pedagogical Considerations for Difficult Learning

Closing the Circle: Final Reflections


–  –  –

Appendix A Invitation to Participate

Appendix B Interview Schedules

Appendix C Consent Form

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This thesis grew out of my own experiences as a professor teaching Aboriginal students in postsecondary classrooms and my personal experiences as an Anishnaabe 1 student. In my work as an Anishnaabe educator at the postsecondary level, I have been struck by the strong emotions of Aboriginal students attempting to understand the history of colonial violence against their people in Canada and Indigenous peoples around the world. For most, exploring the history of colonization is a difficult task. They experience waves of emotion that range from sadness and shame to anger, both at the systems of oppression and the people who represent the oppressors.

These students repeatedly express difficulty with hearing accounts in their classes of how Aboriginal cultures, traditions, and languages of their respective ancestors have been devalued.

For example, for many, it is the first time they have heard and read historical narratives of the violence, brutalities and multiple abuses that Aboriginal children experienced attending residential schools as well as the loss of generations of children to the child welfare system.

The pain these students feel hearing, viewing and reading these violent and traumatic narratives is certainly evident. These reactions are further compounded by the fact that many Aboriginal peoples continue to be subjected to such violence and oppression as a lived daily experience. In researching the links between violence, literacy and learning, Horsman (1999) notes that unless educational systems at all levels begin to acknowledge the violence in the lives of Aboriginal peoples of both genders, many students may fail at learning.

Anishnaabe is an Ojibway word, which translates into the people.

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