How did the Chanie Wenjack School of Indigenous Studies come about? How long has its formation been in the works?

It’s taken us about two years to bring the school to fruition. We began in December 2016. The university decided it was going to allow the creation of new organizational units called ‘schools.’ The School for the Study of Canada began to emerge; the School for the Environment also emerged. Previous to that, the School for Teacher Education, the School of Nursing and the School of Business had all been approved. So, we decided as an Indigenous Studies Department, that we also wanted to become a school because it allowed us to bring together a number of different elements and allowed us to have a different presence than just the department.

How did you decide on the Chanie Wenjack name?

We were searching around for a name and we realized that we had a Chanie Wenjack theatre which was named in 1972. At that point, the students wanted Otonabee College to be named ‘Wenjack College.’ That was defeated by the administration at that time. People wondered why they would name a college after someone who was running away from a school. That was the image of Chanie Wenjack back then. Not much was known about the Indian Residential Schools back in the 60s and early 70s. So we decided we wanted to try – if we could – honour what the students were doing back in ’72. We contacted Chanie’s sisters to see if they would allow for his name to be used for the school and they agreed.

What we’ve done is we’ve tried to focus on what Chanie was running towards. He was running from a place in which he felt extremely unloved, in which his culture and traditions and history was not respected. And over the last half century, we’ve tried to create a space here at Trent that respects Indigenous culture and honours Indigenous knowledge. The school is intended to work towards creating a world that Chanie would have imagined he was running towards—what I call a place of dignity and respect for Indigenous people in Canada, and hopefully in other places around the world that take some example from us.

Recently at Trent we’ve seen student politics interact with racial injustice, particularly in terms of the reactions to the TCSA’s “It’s Okay to be (Against) Whiteness” talk which discussed racial injustice in Canada and the issues Indigenous people in Canada face. How do you see the role of the Chanie Wenjack School in ameliorating racial tensions at Trent?

The school is located in a building called ‘Enweying’ which talks about how we speak together. Our focus is upon the ethics of speech. How we speak to each other? How do we learn from each other? How do we begin to learn what each other are thinking? Can we find some common ground? Can we find a way to initially understand each other and then try to find a way to work together? So, that’s what we’re trying to do. Our first-year course, Indigenous Studies 1001/1002, is based on this idea of dialogue. It’s a very important concept in Indigenous thought. We learn from each other through talking and working together. So, we’re trying to create opportunities where people can speak with each other and try to learn from each other and hopefully in that way, improve the relationship and make a contribution to creating these places of dignity and respect, not just for Indigenous people, but for all of us. All of the research indicates that when people know about Indigenous people, have encountered Indigenous people, and know the history, relationships improve. So, that’s our contribution — the ethics of speech.

Moving into the 2018/2019 academic year, what are some of the goals of the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies?

Starting in this coming academic year, incoming students will have to take a half Indigenous Studies credit. We’re trying to make sure that we create something that students want to take. Other schools have tried to implement mandatory diversity course and mandatory humanities courses and have been met with a great deal of resistance. We’re hoping that we can create something that will be different. So, we’re reviewing our courses, paying particular attention to the first-year course. Hopefully in 2019, we’ll have a new first year course that will be, to some extent, experiential and interdisciplinary.

Another one of our goals is to try to ensure that we are meeting the needs of local communities, particularly around language. We’ve created this new Institute called the Boodweh Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Languages. Starting this summer, we’re going to be offering some Nishnaabemowiin Ojibwe courses on the land. We’re hoping to take that model and develop a series of two or three-day weekend courses that people can take as well. There is a great desire to learn the language but not everyone wants to take a full year course, so this is the way that we are going to give back to the communities that have supported Trent for over half a century.

Pearl Achneepineskum, brother of the late Chanie Wenjack, sends her blessings to David Newhouse of Trent University’s Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies. Image courtesy of David Newhouse.