‘Hey, Can I Call You Quick?’ Navigating the Academic Swells as Young Indigenous Women

in Girlhood Studies
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  • 1 University of Toronto Reneemonchalin@gmail.com
  • | 2 Kwantlen Polytechnic University Lisa.Monchalin@kpu.ca

We are two sisters of three, born on the same day, exactly eight years apart. We are also both proud Indigenous sisters of Algonquin, Métis, Huron, and Scottish ancestry. A Cayuga Elder and seer told us that our spirits are in fact twins, and that the eight years between us—symbolized by the figure 8—represents our continuing and unending connection.

Learning this brought back a memory of a similar dream we had both had. In the same week our Grandfather, who had recently passed on into the spirit world, visited us both. He came to tell us that he was now in a good place, he was at peace, and that we are on the right path. While communicating this, he also revealed to us the vastness of the universe, showing us the beauty and answers that remain within it. This was a strong message communicated to us both and it is this message that we keep in mind as we navigate the academic swells. This is especially true when things like the demands of deadlines, publishing, grading, and presenting become overwhelming. We remind ourselves and each other of the teaching shared with us by our Grandfather.

Growing up, we never thought we would both find ourselves in academia. In fact, while we were in high school, neither of us even knew what academia was. As we went through our lives, making it to post-secondary, we both came to identify our similar yet different desires. We both feel strongly that it is important for us to make a positive difference in the lives of future generations of Indigenous peoples. Driven by our family and personal histories, Renée1 is determined to make a difference in decreasing health inequities facing our communities, while Lisa is determined to reduce the victimization and crime that affect our communities. Renée’s drive stems from the health inequities our family members face. She chose the area of public health as a way of understanding and combating these realities so as to make a difference in our community. What got her going was coming across a call, while working at Aboriginal Student Services at Brock University, for Indigenous youth leaders from across Canada to take part in a three-year digital storytelling project called Taking Action II: Art and Aboriginal Youth Leadership for HIV Prevention. Taking Action II invited eighteen Indigenous youth leaders from across Canada to a week-long workshop in Toronto to create digital stories about our interest and involvement in HIV prevention. The goal was to allow youth leaders to share their own digital stories about HIV leadership, activism, and engagement. In developing her digital story, Renee was able to explore her identity and come to understand why our family is burdened with so many health inequities, and how the two are connected. This project steered her into pursuing graduate school in order to explore these topics further; she was driven to end the cycle of preventable health disparities in our family and in our communities.

For Lisa, criminology was initially the field of study she chose because a high school rowing coach to whom she looked up was a Customs Officer at the border. Once she started learning more about the field of criminology, her interests really resonated with those of critical criminology and the prospect of examining answers to crime from a wider perspective. This included, in particular, her interest in the role that state institutions play in the perpetuation of crime because this provided legitimacy to family realities. For instance, experiences our Father and uncle underwent at the hands of criminal justice officials became intelligible. Critical criminological scholarship legitimized the fact that our family is not part of what is known as the problem. Instead, the criminal justice system itself is part of the real problem because this system is not actually in place to eliminate crime but is set up, rather, to benefit and advance state institutions and their agendas. When Lisa made it to PhD level she was not set initially on which topic she wanted to pursue. But the more she learned from our Grandmother about who we were and where we come from, the clearer it all became. In fact, she realized that she had known all along, but just did not see it before, and that she was on this path of criminology for a reason. Lisa knew that her purpose in life was to reduce victimization and crime affecting Indigenous peoples. This passion and life purpose arises from individual and family history. Not only did Lisa herself experience trauma and victimization as a child, but our Great Grandmother and our Grandmother experienced violence in their lives as well. This was a cycle she was determined to stop. While at the University of Ottawa, she was introduced to Dr. Irvin Waller, who is the leading expert on how to stop the cycle of victimization through crime prevention. From the moment she met him, she knew that she wanted to explore preventative solutions to reducing crime and violence affecting Indigenous peoples.

Through this academic route that we have chosen, our hope is to effect change through research, writing, and teaching. Our hope is that our academic work will influence policies that will close the gaps in health inequities and the criminalization and victimization of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Navigating the academy has come with its challenges. Academic institutions do not always align with Indigenous histories, realities, cultures, and knowledges. An added challenge is our being Indigenous, and our being women, so attempting to effect change in an inherently colonial and patriarchal institution has not been easy. Reaching out to each other for support has been key to our perseverance, and to keeping our spirits up during times where it has sometimes felt impossible not to despair. Our cell phones record many text messages asking each other: “Hey, can I call you quick?” Throughout our week we ask each other for advice, we provide support for each other, and sometimes give each other a reminder that “you can do this.”

For Renée, the challenges faced have involved trying to meet deadlines while being engaged in community work and living up to the colonial expectations that invariably come with navigation through a colonial institution. This has included having to sit in classrooms dominated by white voices and experiencing feelings of alienation from other students and professors. In addition, many of our community members had ambivalent attitudes toward formal education and this caused Renee to feel guilty and to have doubts about the value of pursuing academia. We struggle with many challenges caused by conflicting agendas between our community and academia. For Lisa, challenges in the academy have included having to deal with a student stalker in the university itself. It has involved dealing with blatantly racist remarks and male dominance in the classroom, as well as having students hand in papers laced with content dominated by the voice of whiteness and colonialism.

In order to navigate academia we have had to retrace our steps and look to our ancestral teachings. During a conversation over the phone one evening, a particular teaching made our experiences in academia make sense. The teaching is the Anishnaabe Seven Fires Prophecy, which is composed of seven predictions about the future. It was predicted that in the time of the seventh fire, a “new people” will emerge who will retrace their steps. It is believed that the seventh fire is currently upon us, and that young Indigenous peoples are the new people. We are retracing our steps and reconnecting with our cultures and ancestral teachings to restore balance in our communities. This teaching is relevant to our experiences of navigating our way through academia. As proud young Indigenous women in this setting, this has been a great guiding force in our lives because we feel that we are part of this shift, that we are part of this generation of young people whose life purpose is aimed at making a difference for our peoples.

We realized that lessons on how to navigate such a system would not be found written in a book. Books are where colonial institutions instruct us to find answers. But by retracing our steps, we have now gathered that our ancestral teachings, and the knowledge found within us, is where answers lie. We have come to learn that while being caught up in trying to meet academic expectations, and navigate this inherently colonial system, the answers on how to do this have been inside us all along. We have come to know this as cellular memory. As Algonquin and Metis people, it has been passed down through oral teachings that we are traditional navigators of the waterways. Our Grandparents and Father have always had a special connection with the water. They taught us how to navigate the waterways where we grew up. This encompassed navigating through various depths, going against the current, and always using our instincts. We see the academic institution as a waterway. We can use our knowledge to navigate our way through the bureaucratic swells. As young Anishnaabe kwe, our relationship to water plays a vital role in passing down our knowledges. We remember that water is our first environment, constantly flowing through each generation, carrying down intergenerational knowledges and teachings. As our Father passed this down to us, we have the responsibility to pass knowledge on to younger generations, particularly those who are coming up behind us on the path of academia.

We remember the voice of our Grandfather who reminds us of the vastness of the universe; it prompts us to put things into a wider perspective. We have to remember to stay focused on the beauty that still exists in the world—such as our cultures, dances, songs, spiritual force, and ancestors—and not get hung up on the negative, but, rather, keep our focus on effecting change for the better. We know from the dream about our Grandfather that our ancestors remain with us. It is our belief that our ancestors led us to this path, and that they are walking with us every step of the way. Our ancestral teachings have been reminders to us that we are a strong people, motivated by a desire for peace, harmony, and balance among all of Mothers Earth’s creations. The water reminds us to follow the flow, and work with the current. We must steer past the rocks and obstacles of academia, keeping our focus on where we are heading, and on the reasons why we began this journey.

Our Elder teaching that told us that as sisters we have a continuing and unending connection has reinforced the knowledge that we can always rely on each other for support as we both navigate our way through the academy and move towards our goal of making a difference for our peoples. Indigenous young people have the answers. As women, we recognize the sacredness and powerfulness that we hold. These are in our ancestral teachings. Our life-giving ability is a reminder of this strength for we have the ability to carry two heartbeats. We have a boundless relationship to the water, and we carry the Earth within us. Indigenous women across Turtle Island are currently on the path of reclamation. We are reclaiming our positions of leadership and influence that we once assumed before the wrath of the colonial disease struck. As Indigenous women across the territory we are currently igniting our inner strengths, duties, and natural positions of leadership and influence. As young Indigenous sisters we find ourselves contributing to this path of reclamation through education. Although it is not easy, we draw on our ancestral teachings and inner strengths as we continue to confront the colonial walls of resistance. We refuse to let these walls dam our path—as strong Indigenous sisters we are ready to tackle the tides, navigate the colonial swells, and confront the bureaucratic waves. With support from our ancestors, siblings, guardians, friends, spirits—or whatever one may define as a motivator or assistant navigator—young Indigenous people are retracing their steps and this is enabling us to navigate these academic waterways.



We will use both third and first person narrative voices.

Contributor Notes

Renée Monchalin is Algonquin, Métis, Huron, and Scottish. She is completing her PhD in Public Health Science at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Social and Behavioural Health Sciences Division, University of Toronto.

Lisa Monchalin is Algonquin, Métis, Huron, and Scottish. She teaches in the Department of Criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia. She has published on topics related to Indigenous peoples and justice, reducing crime affecting Indigenous peoples through prevention, evidence-based crime prevention, and Indigenous social movements and collective action.