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Head Of The Trent Overshadows National Day for Truth and Reconciliation Sparking Outrage From Students

Written by
Abbigale Kernya
and
and
October 3, 2023
Head Of The Trent Overshadows National Day for Truth and Reconciliation Sparking Outrage From Students
Photos: Kiki Paterson, Rishab Joshi. Graphic: Evan Robins

September 30th marks the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. On this same date, Trent University—an institution that famously promotes and profits off of their purported Indigenous inclusivity and education—hosted its annual Head of The Trent Homecoming celebration. 

It began with the annual rowing regatta and an acknowledgement on X (formerly Twitter) that Head of the Trent (HOTT) and National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (NDTR) overlap this year, with a moment of silence to be held in recognition of the day, in addition to varsity athletes wearing orange warm-up jerseys, an option to sport orange lapel pins, and the university’s flag to fly at half-mast. Immediately following this thread was a lengthier thread detailing where to find all of the events in celebration of homecoming. 

To say this is shocking would be an understatement, to say this is surprising from an institution with deep colonial ties is unfortunately not the case. Trent University has never pretended to be anything more than a cash grab off of the backs of Indigenous students with their continuous false promises of reconciliation. September 30th is just another example of the institution as a whole blatantly displaying their priorities to the masses and capitalizing through its performative activism.

The obvious course of action would be to reschedule HOTT so as not to haphazardly acknowledge NDTR and instead give it the full recognition it deserves. This, however, seemed to slip the minds of Trent Executives, as it was announced on September 28th that Trent University’s Symons Campus would be marking NDTR on October 2nd. The implications of this decision cannot be taken lightly and implies only one thing: Trent University does not give a shit about reconciliation. 

Arthur reached out to Trent's First People's House of Learning (FPHL) on Monday evening for a statement and heard back late Tuesday and was told they could not provide a statement on this matter.

Photo by Kiki Paterson

In the same vein, the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA)—who had been actively advertising their community clean-up event following HOTT, proving that they were very aware of the conflicting weekend, posted an Instagram story stating the personal opinion dubbed “HOTT-Take” of TCSA president, Aimee Anctil, on the overlapping events on October 1st—a day after the main HOTT events on Saturday had unfolded. It is worth noting that the student association at a university with a large body of Indigenous students refused to use their voice to speak up on an abhorrent event for more than 24 hours, as at the time of writing, there has been no official letter or statement posted on their website calling for betterment on behalf of the university. Even further, the TCSA as a whole did not use their considerable influence on the student body and instead resorted to reposting the personal words of their president, not even the union as a whole.

It is equally as disparaging that the self-identifying “voice of the students” could not, or would not, rally those voices to speak up against a known injustice within the university that had unquestionable harmful impacts on a large number of students. It would seem then, that advocacy at Trent University is a convenient pastime and not a pillar in the TCSA’s promise of “solidarity”.

Screenshot taken at 12:51 AM on October 1st

In short, there was no calling for action from the student union, and no second thought as to the prioritization of HOTT—an unofficial homecoming that is primarily celebrated through unruly drinking in the streets of Peterborough, including a beer tent hosted on Trent’s Symons Campus outside Lady Eaton College—over a day to recognize the genocide and continuous colonial violence that plagues this land.

September 30th was another nail in the coffin for any hopes of meaningful reconciliation within Nogojiwanong/Peterborough at the blackened hands of this institution. 

This, however, does not prove true for a portion of the student body who voiced their frustrations with Trent and decided their concerns would not go unnoticed. Kiki Paterson, a first-year Indigenous student reached out to Arthur to raise awareness of the importance of NDTR and helped organize a non-permanent display on Fayron Bridge. 

The Faryon Bridge. Photo by Kiki Paterson

Paterson, along with Indigenous students Cassidy and Elle deHaas, spoke to me about their experience with organizing the bridge painting and voiced their frustrations with Trent to Arthur.  Elle relayed to me how she came to this school in hopes of finding and building community, only to be shocked at the social environment enacted upon the student body during HOTT. 

It is commonly understood that any homecoming, not just specific for Trent, is a time of partying, drinking, and carefree behaviour—a celebration of independence and a showcase of school spirit. This is a fact Elle brought up when speaking to Arthur, saying it was extremely painful to listen to conversations about what to wear to homecoming only to be ridiculed and questioned by her response, “I’m wearing orange.” 

“We all came to the school looking for that community, you know, and looking for that respect and a representation and for that to be welcomed in open arms,” she said. “That doesn't happen in high school. So we were hoping university would be, you know, a safe space to express yourself. And it was made very clear right away in our first month here that that's not how it was gonna be…I couldn't stand for that, I've been through that enough, I don't want that anymore. You know?” 

Kiki also echoed her friend’s statement, saying she specifically chose Trent because it is promoted as a school for Indigenous students, but later shared the same disappointments with fellow students about the neglect they faced on such an important day which was further enhanced by the postponing of NDTR which helped inspire the bridge painting. 

“I knew it had to be a big statement because I didn’t want this to happen again, because it caused a lot of pain and it caused a lot of frustration, and I didn’t enjoy seeing that…I did not come this far to a school where they’re going to make me feel like I’m not seen,” said Kiki.

Kiki also shared that she, Cassidy, and Elle left campus grounds on September 30th in part due to a lack of events facilitated in support of Indigenous students, and because of the discouraging and harmful message that comes with placing a homecoming event on a national day of honouring the children who never returned from residential schools and recognizing the continuous violence Indigenous communities still face today. 

Trent also did not have a Sacred Fire on September 30th, which is a major reason Kiki felt the need to leave the campus in search of support elsewhere. “[The sacred fire] was such an important thing for me to do and there was nowhere to do that. So I had to leave,” she said. 

The spiritual harm the postponing of recognizing NDTR has caused Indigenous students cannot be understated. For Indigenous students to feel the need to leave a school that primarily promotes itself on their inclusivity in search of community elsewhere speaks volumes to the environment Trent has created through continuous demonstrations of casting Indigenous peoples to the sidelines. 

With continuous frustrations surrounding the lack of support provided to Indigenous students and the upcoming HOTT, Elle stated that after learning that upper-year students had tried and were unsuccessful in writing letters to Trent University President, Leo Groarke, the idea for painting the bridge came about. “The three of us kind of got together and were like ‘Okay, we need to do something’” she told Arthur

Cassidy echoed her friend and reinforced the peaceful nature of the bridge painting, ensuring that it was meant to be peaceful and not destructive so as to keep on the right track with the message they were trying to spread. When it came to the actual process of painting the bridge, Kiki said that the overall process “was actually quite lovely.” Around 50 people—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—showed up in support, including dons, international students, and some professors. 

“It was a really healing moment to do that and just kind of reflect while we were completing our display. It was really peaceful and nice.” Said Kiki, who also shared that only 13 out of 94 calls to action have been completed and if kept up this pace, all calls will be completed by 2096. 

“One of them is having a national day for truth and reconciliation and then recognizing it…Trent basically just removed that call to action because they wanted to have a rowing competition. They wanted to have homecoming that weekend, so they pushed it aside,” she said. 

Both Elle and Cassidy agreed that Trent could have easily chosen any other date for HOTT, but insisted on this overlap. “I understand that tradition is important to some people and that is very important. I think that if they had just kept the rowing that day and they hadn't had planned homecoming on the same day—the fact that they had included it all together made it that much worse,” said Kiki. 

Similarly, Cassidy said that because NDTR was pushed to a Monday, students were in class and busy, meaning not a lot of people were able to attend the ceremonies held on campus. “​​All three of us got up for the Sunrise Ceremony, but there weren't a lot of people there. And then crossing over the bridge to the fire in Champlain, there were like four people there.”

Trent University has a long history of surface-level “activism” to hide behind when accused of not adequately providing basic support and inclusion to the students they profit off of—something Kiki said she has noticed in only her short amount of time being here. 

“They [Trent] have a very, like, check-list mentality. They’re like ‘Oh, well, we're busy today. So we'll get it done on Monday. But don't worry! We're still going to have the sunrise ceremony. We're still gonna wear orange. Don't worry, it's gonna happen, we'll get it checked off. We'll post an Instagram post, don't worry!” 

It cannot be understated how Trent’s actions speak louder than their hollow words. It does not matter how many X threads or Instagram stories posted with an orange font if the institution continues to demonstrate a malicious self-centred, and colonial attitude toward truth and reconciliation. No amount of orange warm-up jerseys or moments of silence will ever outweigh the catastrophic damage Trent has caused in their decision to host HOTT over NDTR. 

This decision, frankly, will haunt Trent University.

Photo by Kiki Paterson

As stated before, this behaviour by Trent is a transparent display of their true priorities. Reconciliation to this institution has become a meaningless word and only exists as a cash grab they continue to profit off of through countless examples of performativity with no desire for real change. 

This all comes after their newly enacted Momentous Change campaign—a platform to increase donations based on their goal to “ensure the people, places, and initiatives of Trent University are limitless in their abilities to reach further, think more deeply, and bring truly momentous change to our world.” The irony, it would seem, is lost on this failing leadership. 

Moving forward, with the bridge display loudly declaring that the students of this university are tired, frustrated, and fed up with the continuous neglect and disparity of its leadership, Kiki, Elle, and Cassidy shared that their hopes for the future are for meaningful actions behind Truth and Reconciliation.

“I think Truth and Reconciliation cannot be a checklist mentality, you cannot be doing it because it is required of you, you have to be doing it because you believe in it and because you think that it is something that will move Canada forward. I think that is what Trent needs to get behind or get in their head. And they can't just say that that's how they're doing it, they actually have to show through actions that this is a message and what they're trying to get across. They can't continue to do these things, and then continue to say they are an Indigenous-supportive school,” Kiki told Arthur.

Elle seconded her friend and stated that she hopes to see better allyship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. “If you have more questions, feel free to ask, you know, it's creating that safe space for non-Indigenous people. And, you know, promoting that sort of allyship between everybody, whether between ages, between, genders, colours, whatever, it's just listening and respecting worldviews in order to create those safe spaces. But I think it starts in that people need to reflect and think,” she said, and shared that an Elder told her that “reconciliation is a team sport, everybody needs to play the game.”

A flyer for HOTT on the Faryon Bridge. Photo by Abbigale Kernya

On October 4th, after the publication of this article, Arthur received this anonymous statement from a concerned Indigenous staff member:

"As an Indigenous staff member at Trent, I often find myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. We are often the first line of defence for Indigenous students at this institution, for we share the same history and lived experiences that many students come with. We teach many of the courses that delve into that history and the subsequent apocalyptic landscape in which Indigenous people have found themselves. Colonialism is the apocalypse, and like the roaming groups of survivors that band together in every zombie-ridden story, Indigenous peoples, both staff and students, find ourselves leaning on one another as we navigate this apocalyptic world. When Indigenous students come to us feeling drained, hurt, or otherwise affected by the actions (or inactions) of Trent University, we are the ones left supporting and validating their experience. We are the ones who face the brunt of that emotional labour because we are safe, and we understand how deeply that history lives in our bones as Indigenous peoples living in a colonial world. Subsequently, we are the ones who must then advocate to the University at large to try and make that landscape easier to navigate for those Indigenous students. We are incredibly proud and willing to do this, and yet there is only so much we can do out of fear of retaliation from those who do not understand the Indigenous experience. They invite us to the table to share our voices, but they sift out the advocacy and the uncomfortable conversations and take only that which serves their colonial agenda. For a university that acts so proud of being the first to offer an academic department dedicated to the study of Indigenous peoples, how appalling is it that a national day of mourning becomes nothing more than a checkbox to tick? Do beer gardens take precedence over acknowledging the real pain carried by so many Indigenous people? It’s almost laughable that just a few days after September 30th we find that Trent has made no acknowledgement of October 4th and MMIWG2S+. Why would they? It’s not a national holiday, after all. There is no trust left between Indigenous students and the administration of this university. I hope, though do not expect, that Trent will make an effort to start building that trust."

This article has been updated to reflect the fact Arthur reached out to FPHL and was told they could not comment on the matter as of 7:30 on Tuesday October 2nd.

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