Visible Changes

Professor Allan Downey: The only tenure-track indigenous professor at McGill

By Jenna Stanwood

Walking through the Roddick Gates, one of the first things to draw the attention of passersby is the statue of a wind-blown James McGill clutching his hat and walking stick. Few students know that before reaching this statue, they've passed another monument honouring a completely different side of the university's history. In fact, lying beneath a line of trees facing Rue Sherbrooke is the Hochelaga Rock. A large stone, with a metal plate drilled to its front, is placed in a patch of dirt facing a bench. A tiny description inscribed on the plate explains that the rock is a memorial to an Iroquois village that once stood on the land now spotted with McGill's classrooms and libraries, all built on territory that was never ceded to the university to begin with.

"[The rock] really is symbolic of the way that the indigenous community is treated on a lot of campuses," Allan Downey, a professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies, said. "Sure, it's here, but it's pushed into a corner and most people don't know it exists."

This summer, after working for a year as an academic associate, Downey accepted a tenure-track position in the Department of History and Classical Studies. Upon accepting the job, Downey, who is Dakelh, a member of the Nak'azdli First Nation, located near Fort St. James, British Columbia, became the only tenure-track indigenous professor currently employed at McGill; a fact that was very publicly celebrated by the university.

Downey's road to the front of the classroom was somewhat serendipitous. Growing up in Waterloo, Ontario, he travelled on the pow wow circuit, helping with his mother's native arts and crafts business.

"When I was younger going through the educational system [...] I didn't see myself, or my family, or my history, in the books I was reading," Downey said. "As an indigenous person, you're almost [always] confronted with different versions of racism or just ignorance."

Professor Downey explores indigenous history in the classroom (Hayley Mortin / McGill Tribune)

Downey received his bachelor's degree at Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania, where he studied history and played lacrosse. He always knew he wanted to study history, but it was during his undergraduate career that he realized he could combine his studies with his love of lacrosse, by researching the sport's role in indigenous history. Despite his newfound passion, Downey's education was still lacking in relevant content, since traditional American history didn't incorporate Indigenous history. Thus, he had to take it onto himself to feed his curiosity.

Downey returned to his hometown for graduate studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he found a natural extension of these interests in working with youth in indigenous communities. He hosted lacrosse games, promoted healthy and active lifestyles to youth, encouraged indigenous children to reconnect with their identity and culture through the game, and lectured about his research on its history . Even today, when he's not in front of a class, Downey is working in communities.

"I didn't need to become a professor to realize I had a passion [for working] with indigenous communities; it's always been there," Downey said. "I never questioned it. I hope to go about it the right way, [and] to think critically about it every time, [so that I] make sure that what I'm doing is the right thing, and that I'm having a positive impact in the community."

Teaching was a natural step forward for Downey. The practice of oral history is integral to indigenous societies in North America. Community history is recorded through spoken stories and passed down through retellings. Entire histories of nations are spoken but not written, with story holders acting as living, breathing libraries. Downey loves stories, and for him, teaching is no different than telling a story to his students every day—his teaching style is unmistakingly a product of this. He often speaks throughout a full lecture period without once glancing at his notes (though he almost always brings them anyway)—pausing occasionally only for a drink of water. His teaching comes from the intersections of his passions, as do his words. He does not need to write down details or dates, because they come naturally to him—they are part of his personal story.

Downey designed INDG 200, Introduction to Indigenous Studies, to be a possible representation of how indigenous traditions could be blended with the academic precedent- the readings are all penned by indigenous authors and there are oral history recordings included among the articles each week. While students are graded on papers, each topic is an exercise designed to make them think critically about indigenous knowledge, perspective, and how to apply them to modern issues.

Though he would like to see these strategies adopted within every classroom in the university, Downey knows that positive change will not come in one form for all. It will not come from simply hiring more professors in the indigenous studies department, or accepting more indigenous students. Downey repeatedly affirms that change is a matter of creating positions for indigenous professors across every faculty, integrating indigenous knowledge into every department, and prioritizing the recruitment of faculty and students of indigenous background. Along with making more room for indigenous people on campus, the changes will hold benefits for students of all backgrounds, whose education is currently lacking without it.

In McGill's undergraduate population of approximately 23,000, only 170 are indigenous. Indigenous faculty and staff make up only a handful of McGill employees. Despite a vibrant indigenous community in Montreal, representation on campus is progressing at a snail's pace. It was only in Winter 2015, that, as the result of a long campaign led by students, the First People's House, the Social Equality and Diversity Education (SEDE) office, and the Institute for the Study of Canada—the new Indigenous Studies minor—was able to hold its first classes.

"What indigenous studies offers is it's a new way for a lot of people to approach problems in the world from a new perspective: To get a new world view, a new lens to view different problems, different issues, different concerns that we have in the world and think critically of new ways of approaching things instead of the same old thing that we've been taught over and over and over again through this kind of western colonial educational structure," Downey explained.

Kathryn Tucker, recent graduate from McGill, echoed a similar sentiment.

"Fewer than one per cent of students at McGill self-identify as Indigenous, so it's easy to feel under-represented and erased both on campus and in the curriculum," she said. "The Indigenous Studies program will hopefully not only impact those students who take the courses or the minor, but inspire professors in other disciplines to take a critical look at their own pedagogies and syllabi from a decolonial perspective, and force McGill's administration to take concrete steps to support and foster Indigenous students."

A 2014 study performed at McGill and published by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education found that indigenous students experienced daily racial microaggressions—incidents of racially charged attacks that are often unintentional, and reflect ignorant conceptions from perpetrators. Whether they stem from ignorance or stereotypes, these incidents are alike in their consistency. The hostile experiences span five categories, the last of which is "living with day-to-day cultural and social isolation," or in other words, feeling as if the student is the only indigenous person on campus. This issue is an especially large hurdle for McGill.

The Hcchelaga Rock highlights McGill's origins with the Iroquois village that once stood on campus (Hayley Mortin / McGIll Tribune)

"Right now, indigenous students can't see themselves up at the front of the classroom," said Downey. "They're reminded at times that their knowledge systems, understanding of the world, where they come from, [and] their identity, [are not] respected in the way that it should be."

Creating a more welcoming campus isn't a unique issue to McGill. Colonialism is a word often used mistakenly in the past tense. In 2011, only 9.8 percent of indigenous peoples aged 25-64 had a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 26.5 percent of non-indigenous Canadians of the same age group. The last residential schools in Canada didn't close until 1996. This may have ended the government practice of removing indigenous children from their home communities, isolating them from their culture and languages, and often subjecting them to abuse and neglect, but it did not erase its impact.

In 2013, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—a section of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that aims to educate Canadians about the history of Indian Residential Schools (IRS)—released its recommendations to the Canadian public for making amends to the indigenous lives affected by the institutions—recommendations that spanned 94 separate points aimed to repair the damage from the forced cultural assimilation that was at the heart of the schools. Every university in Canada, including McGill, signed a pledge to support the recommendations.

When asked to reflect upon what it means to live as an indigenous person within a modern colonial context, Downey said that Kanesatake Mohawk elder John Cree summed it up best during a visit to one of Downey's classes.

"You know what's funny, is that I know everything about you: I know about your laws, about your culture, about your governance—and yet you know nothing about me," Downey quoted.

McGill's involvement in the Truth and Reconciliation process is a difficult subject. Despite recent support from faculty and ongoing lobbying by faculty and students, there is a persistent lack of representation of indigenous populations on campus.

"We're really far behind when it comes to the recruitment and retention of indigenous faculty," Downey said. "It's really difficult for [McGill] to be able to [support these recommendations] at this point in time where it stands with the faculty status."

However, Downey hopes that the program brings exposure to some of these positive things.

"These are positive changes that can take place at the university. It's really critical that we're starting to ask these questions," he said.

Nonetheless, Downey is unfailingly gracious, and when asked how he's gotten to be where he is, he always makes sure to say that his success is more of a reflection of the people around him. This includes students lobbying for programs at McGill, a supportive administration, organizations like the First Peoples House and communities like those he grew up in and has found in Montreal. It is clear that, to him, there is nothing more essential than community. At the end of the day, his goal is to give back and help build up the already rich communities around him. However, it is clear that Downey has earned where he has ended up- he is nothing if not dedicated to his subject.

In midst of discussing the lack of representation on campus, Downey stops the conversation to make sure it's clear that the indigenous predicament is not all doom and gloom. There are indigenous people doing great things all across the country, but they often get lost in the numbers. It's easy to get stuck on the bad instead of highlighting the good. When discussing the inequality at McGill, Downey also stops to point out that in the last year the administration has been quite supportive of the new program, and has even begun the process of recruiting another indigenous professor. It is not that change is meeting resistance, but that the road is long and the journey just beginning.

It is quite late—as Downey says, McGill is very publically behind the times—but as the saying goes, better late than never. There has been tremendous student support behind the various indigenous initiatives on campus—the student body is demanding indigenous content and attention for indigenous issues, and the administration is beginning to listen. Downey always refers to the "conversation" that he hopes will result from the inclusion of these indigenous issues—an open dialogue about a long ignored, yet essential part of North American history.

"It's long overdue, [that] is the best way to put it. We're just starting, and we have a ways to go, and really, if the interest continues like it is right now, I think not only will the university have to pay attention—and they are paying attention—[...] but it's going to have a larger effect on the communities in Montreal and the communities in Quebec which I think is important," Downey said.