McGill welcomes new Indigenous profs

The new hires are part of McGill’s commitment to grow the University’s tenure-track or tenured academic staff.
Recent Indigenous academic staff hires (top row l to r): Yann Allard-Tremblay, Richard Budgell, Leslie Sabiston and Chadwick Cowie. Bottom row (l to r): James Crippen, Noelani Arista and Alex McComber

The third edition of the Indigenous Welcoming Ceremony, held on October 27, honoured seven Indigenous academic staff from a wide range of disciplines, including history, political science, linguistics, anthropology and medicine. The two-hour-plus virtual ceremony welcomed six new academic hires, as well as a relatively recent hire who was not able to attend previous ceremonies.

The six new McGillians are:

  • Yann Allard-Tremblay, Assistant Professor, Political Science
  • Noelani Arista, Associate Professor, History and Classical Studies, and Director of Indigenous Studies; the Hawaii resident will begin work at McGill after COVID-19-related travel restrictions are lifted.
  • Richard Budgell, Professor of Practice, Faculty of Medicine;
  • Chadwick Cowie, a Faculty Lecturer, Political Science;
  • James Crippen, Assistant Professor, Linguistics; the B.C. resident will begin work at McGill in January.
  • Leslie Sabiston, Assistant Professor, Anthropology; the Manitoba resident will begin work at McGill in the fall of 2021.

The ceremony also welcomed Alex McComber, Assistant Professor of Family Medicine, who started in 2017.

In welcoming the seven professors, Provost Christopher Manfredi said that “This is one of our largest [Indigenous] groups that we’ve welcomed at McGill at any single time.” In its 2017 Final Report, the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education called upon the University to set a target of appointing at least 35 Indigenous tenure-track or tenured professors by 2032.

Kahnawake elder Charlie Otsitsakenra Patton opened the ceremony with the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. He said that “everything comes from roots, everything needs strong roots to survive – even us. Our language, our culture – those are the roots that will keep us strong, surviving.”

“I really believe that when our people were not really respected [and were met by closed doors], McGill opened a large crack in that doorway and now people are going through that door. McGill was at the forefront of that.”

“We’re fortunate to have this McGill village emerge,” added “Mama Bear” Louise Wakerakatste McDonald, Bear Clan Matron of the Mohawk Nation, who presented the Edge of the Woods Protocol, a ritual that forms the relationship with guests.

Creating new pathways

“The integration of Indigenous people into the McGill fabric is a really good thing,” said Kakwiranó:ron Cook, special advisor for Indigenous Initiatives in the Office of the Provost & Vice-Principal (Academic). “It’s fulfilling some of the Provost’s call out to the faculties for proposals for specifically Indigenous hires.”

He says McGill is “creating additional pathways, with the flexibility to carve out more ways in” to the University.

Richard Budgell, for instance, started in June in the Faculty of Medicine as a Professor of Practice, a title accorded to someone who comes to McGill from “a broad background outside academe,” he said – in his case, 30 years in the federal public service, half of that time in the health field.

“My last job was running a federal government health organization for First Nations and Inuit communities throughout Quebec,” said Budgell, who hails from Labrador (Nunatsiavut) and has been told that he is McGill’s first Inuk faculty member.

He and fellow honouree Prof. Alex McComber recently conducted a workshop centred on cultural safety and how family medicine can improve treatment of Indigenous peoples and concepts.

McComber, who specializes in diabetes prevention and health promotion, said that “Indigenous voices, most certainly from a Faculty position, are critical in bringing in Indigenous knowledge and ways of life into teaching and research.”

“We are bringing a different perspective in disease prevention and health promotion through an Indigenous lens that focuses on a wholistic perspective [involving body, mind and spirit] of understanding the human being and the life journey.”

More Indigenous scholarship

New linguistics Assistant Professor James Crippen said that Indigenous knowledge tends to be downplayed in Western culture because it stems from an oral tradition – even though that tradition incorporates hundreds, even thousands, of years of experience.

Crippen is a native Tlingit, whose people are scattered across northern British Columbia, south-central Yukon and southeast Alaska. His specialty is syntax, particularly the documentation and revitalization of the Tlingit community language.

“There’s not enough scholarship on Indigenous languages,” he said. “My linguistic research focuses on what needs to be documented for language survival.”

“European languages tend to have small words and sentences with a lot of words,” Crippen noted. “Most Indigenous languages in North America have fairly large words and sentences without a lot of words – some of the sentence structure has moved into the word. Part of my work is to see how the theory [of syntax] needs to change to fit the properties we see in a lot of languages in North America.”

Crippen will split his time between Montreal and the Yukon Tlingit community, the focus of his research.

New justice concepts

When Yann Allard-Tremblay was an undergrad in philosophy and political science, there were no Indigenous voices in the curriculum. At McGill, he wants to provide those voices to his poli-sci students.

“I try to illustrate the ways in which Indigenous political thoughts and practices can transform the ways in which mainstream political theory has been conducted,” said Allard-Tremblay, who was a post-doc at McGill from 2014-16 and taught at York University’s Glendon College for three years before arriving at McGill in August.

A Huron-Wendat, Allard-Tremblay noted that “at the beginning of all meetings for some First Nations, elders present the [Haudenosaunee] Words that Come Before All Else, the Thanksgiving Address, in which you acknowledge all your relatives, human and other than human, and the creator. This allows us to think about justice in different ways. The starting point is one where you acknowledge all these things that you have sustaining life. That’s totally different from all other perspectives.”

The Provost Office’s Kakwiranó:ron Cook added that “when we prioritize Indigenous knowledge holders who are willing to respectfully and reciprocally share with knowledge dissemination and production at McGill, that’s all really good.”

“So there’s a lot of good momentum. That’s fantastic. What we need now is to build community, and support for that community. That’s what this whole ceremony is about. We feel like we have enough of a critical mass at McGill to have a sphere of influence – a voice.”

Michael Loft, a Mohawk from Kahnawake who retired from McGill’s School of Social Work in 2016, said at the ceremony that when he was a McGill student in the early 1970s, the only other Indigenous student that he knew of was a Mi’kmaq.

“Today there’s over 100 students – plus profs now. That’s unreal. I’d never thought I’d see that.”

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3 years ago

Wow this is absolutely amazing. McGill has such a great variety of cultures through staff and students.