“We need a seat at the table”

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The George family mourned the loss of Pamela and the process undertaken by the university’s administration. Jean Hillabold

Nipîkiskwânân provides healing, and expects atonement, after the Woodrow Lloyd lecture

On Thursday, Jan. 24, at First Nations University of Canada, following a morning smudge walk that took place around the entire campus, an event was held in response to the events surrounding the Woodrow Lloyd lecture series. The lecture, as covered in a previous piece, was cancelled after the guest speaker, George Elliott Clarke, stepped down amidst public protest because of the nature of his proposed talk and his working relationship with the murderer of Pamela George. The event on Thursday was called “We Speak” or “Nipîkiskwânân,” and was organized and led by a newly-formed group called Matriarchs on Duty, composed of twenty-five “community activists, educators, academics, leadership and family members of the [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2-Spirit, or] MMIWG2S,” according to a statement

Matriarchs on Duty, which formed as a result of conversations about the Woodrow Lloyd lecture, highlights concerns about the way the public reaction was handled by University administration. Central to the conversation is the story of Pamela George and the ongoing epidemic of MMWIG2S. Matriarchs on Duty “hope[s] to bring better awareness to MMIWG2S to the City of Regina and the sensitivities surrounding this subject,” as described by member Chasity Delorme on the Facebook event page. She continues, “[o]ur goal is to bring a wider awareness to the community and provide healing opportunities to those affected by [the lecture].”

Nipîkiskwânân held this spirit of healing throughout the evening by providing counselors and elders at the event, paying attention to the sensitivity of the subjects discussed. Pamela George’s family was in attendance, including both her mother and her daughter, Chelsey George, who is also a member of Matriarchs on Duty. Those in the audience who had counseling ability or expertise were also asked to indicate themselves, and the audience was encouraged to seek out these people if they felt overwhelmed. There was trauma in the room; many of the Matriarchs on Duty wore shirts bearing Pamela George’s face, with a slogan on the back: “WE WILL NEVER STOP FIGHTING FOR THE JUSTICE YOU NEVER RECEIVED.” Opening speaker Dodie Lerat Ferguson expressed that for those who had been close to Pamela George, the lecture controversy bringing up the details of her death was like “having a scar ripped off again” after years of healing.

The evening ran long with many speakers, including Chasity Delorme, Dodie Ferguson, Randy Lundy, Jessica Gordon of Idle No More and Chelsey George – all from Matriarchs on Duty – as well as keynote speakers Dr. Jolee Sasakamoose and Wes George. There were performances in honor of MMWIG2S from Buffalo Lodge Drum Group, jingle dancers, and honor songs. Vianne Timmons also made a public statement and appearance, followed by one from the resident Elder at the U of R, . The Carillon could not cover the smudge walk earlier that morning, but received word from an attendee at the evening event that no university administration had made an appearance there. URSU, however, did attend.

Matriarchs on Duty established an environment that cared for the audience by providing emotional support, but the importance of healing was held just as highly as the importance of accountability for the University of Regina. Although the Carillon is unaware of the exact timeline of events in the administration, the event seemed to reference two main harmful actions by the University, besides the trauma in the room: first, the executive committee of the Woodrow Lloyd lecture were not heeding the communicated concerns of the Indigenous Advisory’s Circle (IAC) at the U of R when they stood by their invitation to Clarke. Clarke did withdraw from the talk, but this appeared to be his own decision. After that, the university neglected to apologize for the distress caused to the community, and instead focused on “academic freedom” in their public statement. The first to give a keynote lecture that evening, Dr. Jolee Sasakamoose, is an associate professor at the U of R in Educational Psychology and Counselling, and comes from the M’Chigeeng First Nation in Ontario. She began by saying this was “one of the most important talks she [had] ever done,” and emphasized the severity of the situation, noting that she was on a year’s leave from public speaking at the time due to a grieving period of her own, but that she had made an exception.

Dr. Sasakamoose directly outlined the university’s harmful actions above, and was firm about both healing and responsibility in her lecture:

“The people in this room . . . want to come here for healing, and they want to move forward . . . these are the people who are here because they are willing to take the message home that we are here to heal. But if you at the University of Regina fail to respond, again and again, they deserve to take that message back home as well. This is a story . . . about settler privilege and patriarchy . . . who gets to speak, where they get to speak . . . who gets heard? Who gets protected in the system – rather than who should we protect, or should have been protected?” Sasakamoose added that the reason the event took place at First Nations University, in a room where the persistent echo made these speeches difficult to fully record and transcribe, was because Matriarchs on Duty could not get a room on the main campus.

At one point, Dr. Sasakamoose asked everyone in the audience to stand if they had ever been “hurt by actions or inactions taken by the University of Regina.” Of the substantial crowd in the room at that time, well over half of the people there stood, and Dr. Sasakamoose indicated herself as included in that group. She wanted a physical representation of “the pain in the room [that] night,” and it was in fact striking. Addressing an elephant in the room, that the head of HR, Kelly Kummerfield at the university is a relative of Pamela George’s murderer, she said: “even if she stays there – just talk to us. Ask us how we feel working under those conditions.” Randy Lundy followed with a similar note of disappointment: “[o]ddly enough [the university administration] haven’t taken the opportunity to issue a public apology to the broader community, in the same way that they publicly defended their actions.”

Vianne Timmons’ statement followed. In it, she went over her perspective of the events surrounding the lecture and explained the decisions she made. “When I came back from my holiday . . . I asked staff to talk to the speaker and ask him to withdraw. That happened,” she said. She continued to say that she then had a “three-hour meeting with a number of chiefs, with a number of people on our campus who represent First Nations University. I was thinking of making a public statement, but [the Elder in residence] advised that I do not at this time, that I do a private consultation instead, and that’s what I did.” Timmons said that she met with the Indigenous Advisory’s Circle as well as the George family, who she did, she says, personally issue an apology to. The Elder in residence, Lorna Standingready, confirmed that she facilitated this meeting. Vianne finished her statement by saying that her “focus is on going forward and listening to the community,” and that she personally is “committed, and I will stand shoulder to shoulder with you.” As Vianne walked from the podium, she was thanked for making an appearance and giving a statement. Emcee Jessica Gordon also added: “You’ve heard a lot of recommendations here tonight . . . and you say you’ll do something, that’s good, but do something, and do it swiftly. Thank you.”

Dr. Sasakamoose in her talk spoke about how she worked professionally to reach “common ground” in colonial institutions, and remarked that she is “tired” of hearing that we need to choose between academia and Indigenization when such professionally developed approaches exist. “We need a seat at the table,” she says, calling attention to the multiple gaps that will be left in administration with an outgoing President and Research Chair. She also thanked Matriarchs on Duty for arranging the event and bringing healing, “because it wasn’t going to happen if you didn’t do this.”

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