The statue of Egerton Ryerson on campus.

Why Diversity Self-ID is important in the middle of Canada’s 150th year: An Indigenous perspective

by Autumn Epple, 4th year History

Ask any First Nations, Inuit or Métis person and we’ll tell you that this land is more than 150 years old. So too are our traditions, our people and our beliefs. So, when celebrations broke out this Canada Day to commemorate 150 years of the country’s official status, not all natives were interested in participating. It poured rain in Toronto throughout the day, and my aunt lamented, “It’s our ancestors crying for what they lost on this day.”

You may be wondering exactly what we lost. My ancestors were at Queenston Heights in 1812 when General Brock was killed. Knowing they’d made a promise to protect the land, they fought on, staving off the Americans for hours. My mother expressed that had the Mohawks not been there, we would be in United States territory. We even have a War of 1812 traditional dance to remember those who fought and fell. For this, I was devastated to see there is but a small plaque acknowledging this feat, while Brock’s monument is literally sky high. Regardless, I still hold them in high esteem.

Loyalty came with a cost. Their territory, which had been solidified in treaties, began to shrink, and they were pushed onto undesirable land while new settlers were given theirs. Residential schools opened in the 1830s under Egerton Ryerson’s recommendation. These schools were rampant with verbal, sexual and physical abuse, with the results being many mysterious deaths of the pupils and intergenerational trauma for survivors. Years later, we natives came to Canada’s aid again, when the First World War broke out, and again during Hitler’s reign of terror. Indigenous peoples worked on the home and war fronts, both in factories and in the armed forces. Many returned with crippling PTSD and were still not considered equal citizens. For my grandfather, a Mohawk code talker who was also a D-Day paratrooper, this broke his heart, and that of his wife, who worked in a munitions factory while her husband was overseas.

But that’s the past, right? It happened years ago and does not affect the current generations, especially the youth, right? Forgive and forget, move on without a second thought.

Well, not quite.

In fact, that is one of the biggest misconceptions floating around Canada today. The Sixties Scoop children are now adults seeking justice. Intergenerational trauma, as I mentioned before, is alive and well. Many Indigenous peoples still face high rates of depression, suicide and overrepresentation in both the child care system and penitentiaries. The wound colonialism carved continues to fester.

However, not all hope is lost. This summer, the Ryerson Students’ Union expressed the importance of taking #Canada150 with a grain of salt, and instead promoted #Colonialism150, which highlighted many of the qualms I mentioned above. Though it was met with controversy and received a string of angry comments, a conversation about what colonialism really means was started.

Ryerson University itself is taking an initiative further by extending the Diversity Self-ID open to students. I initially did the Diversity Self-ID as an employee and was refreshed when I was not faced with the usual options a First Nations person meets when filling out identity: Indian or Aboriginal. Instead, I was able to write whatever I wanted! It was refreshing knowing I could choose to say I was Iroquois, Mohawk or even Haudenosaunee. There was a sense of pride in knowing I had control, for the first time, as an Indigenous woman, of declaring who I truly was.

It isn’t just stating one’s nation that comes as an option. Another First Nations student I spoke to expressed their excitement at being able to place Two-Spirit as an identifier. Before colonialism, such labels like gay, lesbian or transgender did not exist, simply because they were not needed. Having to choose between pansexual, genderfluid or a variety of other terms to describe themselves can be stressful for Indigenous students, especially when identifying as more than one. Two-Spirit is a term unique to us that covers all bases under the LGBT+ umbrella while also embracing any form of gender expression; best of all, it has roots in our cultures. It is authentically un-colonial.

The Diversity Self-ID for students initiative comes at a time when many Indigenous folks like myself feel we are at a fork in the road. It is almost common knowledge on our campus that Egerton Ryerson was the architect behind the residential school system, and some of us feel a sense of guilt. I say this in the midst of a protest against the presence of his statue at the university, standing tall in its place for years. A call to remove the statue altogether was issued by the RSU and met with an array of arguments. Knowing this, I ask myself: why attend a school named after someone who is responsible for the start of many Indigenous problems and pain? Members of my own family were subject to that pain. Surely, the dark mark that it left on Canadian history should be enough for me to switch schools.

But I have built a home for myself here, against those odds. I have made friends of different cultural and religious backgrounds from both Toronto and the surrounding areas. Ryerson chooses to market itself as inclusive, and with the Diversity Self ID, an opportunity presents itself to embrace that image. It is also a way of taking into account just who attends the school, and finding out how truly diverse we have become over the years. Perhaps one day that statue of ‘ol Egerton will be gone. Until then, I walk by Mr. Ryerson and silently feel a sense of pride in knowing my Indigeneity survived and will flourish. The school that bears his namesake is allowing me to do just that.

As I remember this I think of my aunt Pat. Pat, an incredibly wise, loving person who has served as a source of comfort and spiritual guidance to me for most of my life, once said, “You can walk in both paths, just don’t forget where you came from.” I know that we have a long way to go in terms of reconciliation, understanding and asserting our rights as Indigenous peoples of this land, but with the ability to declare who I am in my own words, I can walk in my path(s), knowing my ancestors are walking with me.

#DiversityCounts at Ryerson. Complete your Student Diversity Self-ID today and count yourself in. Learn more here:

Autumn Epple: I’m a fourth year history student focusing on the social histories of the two world wars. I am of Haudenosaunee and German/British heritage. My hobbies include visiting historical sites, learning German, fiction writing and watching old movies. I hope to one day become a practicing genealogist or heritage worker.