Feb. 5, 2024Print | PDF
Wilfrid Laurier University community members joined academics from across Ontario and the U.S. to examine critical institutional histories research during the virtual symposium Institutional Histories: Reckoning with the Past – Reimagining the Future, held Jan. 15.
The symposium was held as part of the Laurier Legacy Project, a multi-faceted public history initiative exploring the times and legacy of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
Multidisciplinary scholars from Laurier, the University of Toronto, McMaster University, Queen’s University, York University, Toronto Metropolitan University, and the University at Buffalo shared research from different campus contexts to aid in a better understanding of critical institutional histories. The symposium also included a discussion about how research findings can be mobilized to advance equity, diversity and inclusion.
The day-long event included three sessions, “University Histories of Exclusion, Inclusion, and Resistance,” “Reckoning with University Origins, Namesakes, and Land” and the roundtable “Beyond Evidence: Implementing Change.”
The symposium's first session, University Histories of Exclusion, Inclusion, and Resistance, focused on topics including past instances of anti-Black racism, land history and inclusion at Laurier and other universities, the history of eugenics in Ontario universities, and the 1969 Sir George Williams University Protest at Concordia University.
Tedla Desta, a postdoctoral fellow at Laurier researching the university’s institutional history as part of the Laurier Legacy Project; Ronald Cummings, associate professor of Caribbean Literature and Black Diaspora Studies at McMaster University; and Evadne Kelly, an adjunct professor at the University of Guelph and contract faculty member at York University, were featured as part of the discussion.
In addition to past instances of anti-Black racism, Desta outlined some of his Laurier Legacy Project findings regarding the historic experiences of women, Indigenous peoples and racialized students at Laurier, as well as a history of the land the university is located on. Desta reviewed the length of time it took the institution to admit students of colour and women, as well as to start Indigenous Initiatives.
“So far, there have been many ways of responding to such kinds of institutional revelations i.e. reparative justice. However, the question is how are these types of 'tokenistic,' trendy, and 'face-saving' solutions that Derrek Bell (1980) calls 'interest convergence' going to offer stable, systemic, and institutional changes and equity?” Desta asked.
Cummings discussed research into the 1969 Sir George Williams University Protest at Concordia University, when students occupied a computer lab in protest of how complaints of racism by Black and Caribbean students had been mishandled or dismissed. The protest a landmark moment in Canadian history, leading Cummings to raise the question: “How might we continue to talk about transformation in the spirit and legacy of the protestors in 1969?”
Also during the session, Kelly shared her work as part of the research project and exhibit, Into the Light, which investigated histories of eugenics education at the University of Guelph and other Southern Ontario universities. She described her work as “a community engaged, collective creation approach to countering the ongoing legacy of British colonialism and eugenics in post-secondary education by centring the stories of impacted communities.”
University Histories of Exclusion, Inclusion, and Resistance was hosted by Heena Mistry, director of equity, diversity and inclusion at Laurier.
Katelyn Arac, a postdoctoral fellow studying the legacy of former Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier as part of the Laurier Legacy Project; Theresa McCarthy, associate professor of Indigenous Studies and associate dean for inclusive excellence at the University at Buffalo; Mariana Valverde, professor emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto; and Brian Gettler, associate professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto, were featured speakers during the symposium’s second session, Reckoning with University Origins, Namesakes and Land, hosted by Laurier Associate Professor Tarah Brookfield.
Arac spoke about the life, times, and legacy of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, including his role in building Canada and his complex legacy pertaining to immigration policy, Indigenous treaty lands and the residential school system.
“In adopting this namesake, the institution took on the historical legacy of its namesake, thereby entangling the institution with the complexity of the historical figure,” Arac said. “While much of the literature focuses on Laurier’s successes as prime minister – his conciliation between French and English Canada, expanding trade with the United States, among other things – there is little mention of the damages inflicted by some of his policies. Through my work with the Laurier Legacy Project, I work to reckon with imbalances in this record to discuss the ways in which his policies affected real people and to provide an equitable understanding of the legacy that Laurier left behind.”
Also during the session, McCarthy discussed the history of U.S. land grant universities, institutions that benefited from historic grants of federally controlled land, illustrating that questions about institutional histories are being grappled with across North America. She noted how histories of university land grabs that were recovered in journalist Tristan Ahtone and Professor Robert Lee’s study of U.S. land grab universities were familiar to histories that were already public knowledge in her own community, Six Nations of the Grand River. These histories include the relationship between expropriation of land and resources in building higher education institutions in Canada. Valverde added to the discussion by sharing some of the history of the University of Toronto.
Gettler’s discussed fiduciary colonialism, the use of Indigenous resources to fund settler organizations.
The symposium’s final session, the roundtable Beyond Evidence: Implementing Change, moved the discussion from history and evidence toward action and solutions. Hosted by Laurier’s Interim Associate Vice President, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Professor Vanessa Oliver, it included Darren Thomas, associate vice-president: Indigenous Initiatives at Laurier; Edward Thomas, PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University; Catherine Ellis, associate professor in the Department of History at Toronto Metropolitan University; and Tomas Jirousek, graduate of McGill University, who as an undergraduate student in 2018 led a successful campaign to change the offensive name of the university's sports teams.
Darren Thomas noted that the roundtable session served to address an important question.
“This is a big question: what can we do about this history, this legacy? How do we undo it?” Thomas said. “Trying to transform these systems is a tremendously challenging task. It really takes a critical examination of what these institutions are, why they were created and their histories.”
“We need to have a space where we can talk, discuss and have discourse, not to cause harm but to create understanding. That is what we need to have before we can start working toward transformative change.”
He noted the significance of initiatives outlined in Laurier’s Indigenous Strategic Plan and stressed the importance of universities embracing “other ways of knowing” outside of western scientific traditions.
“We’ve got some huge vision in what we are trying to accomplish here and we are willing to step up and move beyond these very token exercises, but it is going to take time,” Thomas said. “This is not going to be done easily. It means time, energy and effort to have these kinds of critical conversations.”
Also during the session, Edward Thomas shared research into historic events surrounding the expulsion of Black students from Queen’s University’s medical school, while Jirousek, a member of the Kainai First Nation in southern Alberta, recounted his experience as an undergraduate working to convince McGill to rename its sports teams from the “Redmen,” an effort that proved successful.
“It was jarring every time you had to put that name and logo on your shoulders to represent the university, which is why I decided to launch the campaign,” said Jirousek. “It hurt so deeply to know that the name Redmen was so exclusionary that Indigenous students would rather just avoid going to sports games or McGill athletic facilities.”
Ellis, who served as co-chair of the Standing Strong Task Force that recommended renaming the former Ryerson University, shared her experience on the task force and details about the Next Chapter action plan for the future of the school, today known as Toronto Metropolitan University.
The Laurier Legacy Project is a multi-faceted public history initiative exploring the times and legacy of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the history of the institution named after him The university’s namesake and former Canadian prime minister was a political leader acknowledged as a nation-builder whose policy decisions related to immigration and relations with Indigenous peoples resulted in a complex legacy. The Laurier Legacy Project includes a scholarly examination of Laurier’s life and times that aims to create a better understanding of his legacy, and the ways that the past continues to influence the present day, through public education.