A discussion with Caroline Gélinas, UdeM’s senior advisor for relations with the First Nations.
Her name is Caroline Gélinas, but in Mohawk she goes by Niioieren, which means “what she does.” And what this administrator does these days is act as senior advisor for relations with people of the First Nations at Université de Montréal.
Gélinas took up the post October 15 with a mandate to represent and promote the university's commitment to aboriginal communities. Hers is a "transversal" position, liaising with vice-rectorates, faculties and researchers.
“I'm there to advise them as needed — on how to integrate an aboriginal theme into courses, for example, or to verify the legitimacy of a resource person invited to a conference,” she explained.
Gélinas is also responsible for coordinating the university’s action plan for relations with people of the First Nations and seeing to its implementation. The plan was developed following calls to nationwide action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015; it grew out of a round of consultations and a joint aboriginal-allophone drafting committee set up by UdeM’s Vice-Rector's Office for Research, Discovery, Creation and Innovation.
“The plan aims to guide the university in its project of indigenization and decolonization," Gélinas said. “This means the inclusion of aboriginal perspectives and values in all spheres of the educational environment.”
Concretely, conscious efforts are being made to “increase the representativeness of aboriginal peoples, their philosophies, knowledge and cultures” in the university’s strategic plans and institutional practices. The move is in line with recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which raised awareness of the history of cultural genocide at so-called “residential schools” in Canada in the 19th century and up to the 1970s.
“You know, the first French settlers who arrived in the 17th century could never have survived without the transfer of knowledge from aboriginal peoples,” Gélinas noted. “The aboriginalization project emphasizes the proximity that was established through the sharing of knowledge, as well as the renewal of relationships in a spirit of equality and mutual respect.”
Six areas of action
At UdeM, six areas of action have been targeted in order to bring about significant change in aboriginal relations: recognition and governance; student recruitment, retention, support and success; staff recruitment and support; training; research and knowledge sharing; and partnerships and community services.
As outlined in the action plan, each of these areas includes actions, strategies and activities to be carried out over three years. These areas represent the university's main objectives, and Gélinas’ mandate is to help UdeM achieve them.
“The action plan is a framework that gives us a direction towards tangible initiatives to respond to the call of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission," Gélinas explained.
But the task is complex. Even today, aboriginal people do not participate in post-secondary education in the same proportion as other population groups in Canada.
“Post-secondary graduation rates among aboriginal students are improving, but they remain lower than those of non-aboriginal students," said Gélinas. “It is also very difficult, for socio-economic, geographic and historical reasons, to recruit aboriginal employees.”
In her view, for academic institutions to become accessible and welcoming places that promote aboriginal success, implementing appropriate support for aboriginal students must be seen as a long-term investment.
“It’s also about building trusting relationships, getting to know aboriginal community members better and allowing them to get to know us,” she said. Educating non-native people about aboriginal realities and culture is part of a collective process that is enriching, ongoing and necessary, she added, since it ensures that the effort is not just theoretical.
The rapprochement is intended to support efforts toward reconciliation, a term itself contested by many aboriginal people, said Gélinas. “First Nations people use the word ‘decolonization’ more often, because it recognizes the contribution of aboriginal cultures and helps to get rid of the idea that one culture is superior to the other.”
Several indigenization initiatives
Université de Montréal has several indigenization initiatives underway at the administrative, community, teaching and research levels. In 2018-2019, the university revised its master development plan to actively promote aboriginal cultures for the well-being and affirmation of members of the First Nations who study and work on its campuses.
The French-language Place aux Premiers Peuples website, launched June 21, 2019, on the occasion of the National Day of Aboriginal Peoples, expresses UdeM’s desire to “improve the representation, welcome and integration of First Peoples within the institution as part of its mission.”
Among its priorities is the participation of aboriginal resource persons in training activities. The creation of a First Nations garden on campus was also proposed and now under consideration.
Finally, it should be noted that UdeM is a member of the programming committee for the 2020 Building Reconciliation Forum to be held in Quebec in November.
“My desire is that there be an awareness of and respect for aboriginal cultures, their contributions and the history we share, because in the end, it's a plus for everyone,” concluded Gélinas.
A Mohawk at UdeM
Born to a Mohawk mother and a Québécois father, Caroline Gélinas grew up in Kanesatake, a Mohawk community next to the village of Oka, west of Montreal. At age 14 she moved with her family to the Quebec City suburb of Loretteville.
“My father graduated in 1958 from the Oka Agricultural Institute of Université de Montréal,” Gélinas recalled. “He was a consulting agronomist for the Mohawk farmers of Kanesatake. He then obtained a position with the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture in Quebec City.”
After studying translation and teaching English as a second language at Laval University, Gélinas worked as a coordinator and senior manager responsible for national aboriginal policies and programs.
She also served as director of education for the Kanesatake Band Council and was employed by TransCanada Pipelines, where her responsibilities included integrating aboriginal considerations into the design of the Eastern Energy Project.
Prior to that, she worked at the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa with national chiefs Phil Fontaine and Shawn Atleo.
“During my first term at the Assembly of First Nations, I went to the United Nations in Geneva to help draft the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Gélinas recalled. “It was a great experience to work with indigenous people from around the world.”
Before being hired by Université de Montréal, she worked as the coordinator of the Montreal Employment and Training Service Centre for Urban Aboriginal People.
Her résumé reflects her extensive experience in providing strategic policy and communications advice to senior managers in federal departments, aboriginal social and political organizations and the private sector on complex issues at the international, national and regional levels.
She now lives in Kanesatake, where she grew up.
“Even after we moved to Quebec City, my parents kept the farmhouse in Kanesatake where we’d lived with my older brother and younger sister. Today, my mother lives in a seniors' residence in the community.”
After their house was hit by a flood in 2017, Gélinas moved to Oka with her daughter Kaiatanoron (Mohawk for “a sacred spirit”), son Taiothoratie (“he marks the arrival of cold weather”) and the family dog, Lula.
It's a long drive every morning to get to UdeM, the administrator acknowledged, “but it's so rewarding to be able to work on such an important project. It makes up for the three hours of commuting every day.”
Gélinas is also an actor, having played in two films by Mohawk women directors with her children. In Rustic Oracle, directed by Sonia Bonspille Boileau and now showing at festivals, she plays a school principal. In Beans, directed by Tracey Deer and slated for theatrical release in the fall, she plays a a woman defending her land.