After 10 years as manager of health and social services at Kahnawá:ke, Mohawk Nation territory, Terry David Young needed a change and struck out on his own as an Indigenous consultant. He had contracts lined up to do strategic planning and give cultural presentations in Indigenous communities in his native New Brunswick.
Bad timing. That was in February, just as COVID-19 gathered momentum. The contracts lapsed as the travel ban was instituted.
Serendipity intervened in the form of a job posting at McGill’s First Peoples’ House. Young jumped at the opportunity, and on July 13 he started his new position as Indigenous Student Advisor.
The First Peoples’ House mission is to help and promote Indigenous students and student services at McGill, to increase their admission and retention rates and to meet the concerns and raise awareness within the university and beyond of First Nations, Inuit and Métis issues. The House also hosts events, such as the annual McGill Pow Wow, and normally offers residences for Indigenous Undergraduate and Graduate students.
Young, a Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) from Kingsclear First Nation near Fredericton, may be new to campus, but he’s no stranger to McGill: He met his husband, Justin Mahoney, at a powwow at McGill in 2006 and they got engaged on campus in 2013.
His career’s sudden swerve was also fortuitous for McGill, said Dicki Chhoyang, interim director of the Office of the Provost’s Indigenous Initiatives, which supervises the First Peoples’ House.
“Terry has a lot of experience as a counselor in community organization,” Chhoyang said. “We thought his skills would be put to good use. He’s also very grounded in Indigenous culture, so that’s really wonderful for students when they’re away from home. The First Peoples’ House is a home away from home.”
Support and teaching roles
One of Young’s main roles to help Indigenous students navigate university life, which for many of them marks their first time away from their parents, their friends and their community. He will support students in various capacities, from issues as prosaic as obtaining a parking permit, or pointing them to the nearest CLSC, to making sure they register for the right classes or that they stay on top of their work, and informing them of resources available to them.
The other component to his job is teaching, and sharing the knowledge he’s accumulated over the years.
“I’ve learned a lot from a holistic model,” he said, “and I’m going to look at how we can incorporate ceremonial thinking, Indigenous ways of thinking, into their lives.” Young himself is
a pipe carrier, having earned the right to conduct pipe ceremonies by fasting for four days and nights “many years ago.” He is also an ash basket-maker, a tradition of fashioning sturdy baskets from strips of brown and black ash trees that was passed on from Native peoples to European settlers.
“But this is not just about ceremonies,” he said of his new role, “but also about facing some of the issues and challenges around what it’s like to live in an urban centre as an Indigenous person.”
Young added that “It’s really eye-opening now, especially in these times of COVID-19” to see how values cherished by First Nations for centuries – modest consumption, use resources on a need-only basis and leave the rest, do not contaminate the land, respect for the environment and species, communion with nature, among others – are now commonly embraced as if they are new principles.
“It’s interesting to see people [coping with the pandemic] having to change the way they look at their life, what they do with their life.”
Curb cultural alienation
Young will also connect with all the McGill faculties to determine how best to “collaborate with them around the notion of ‘indigenization’ of McGill.”
Many young Indigenous people are alienated from their own culture and traditions – most are taught English or French before or instead of their own language – and did not benefit from the traditional transfer of knowledge from their elders. Young said that part of his mandate will be to fill in that knowledge for students.
His own parents were the product of “Indian day schools” – forced uprooting of children from their own parents, communities and culture. They were forbidden to speak their language, “could not leave the reserve because the gate went down at sunset, couldn’t get a haircut, go to a restaurant or the liquor store, etc.”
As a result, the language – and hence culture – of his own Wolastoqiyik is on the brink of extinction. “I think right now there are seven or eight first speakers of my language in my community, my mother being one of them.”
He still despairs at Montreal radio and TV reports that pronounce Kahnawá:ke as “canawacky” – it’s more like “cog-nawauga” – and rue Atateken, formerly rue Amherst, as “at-a-tayken” rather than “adadega.”
“I’m saying to myself ‘you live here, you should be able to say that’.”
McGill’s Indigenous initiatives
Young has immersed himself in reading about McGill’s role in implementing Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations in 2015 and the McGill Provost’s Taskforce on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education.
“Dicki (Chhoyang) has been working with me over the last few weeks and she’s really been educating me on what McGill’s been doing.”
“We’re working with the Provost’s office on updating their Indigenous Initiatives website. It’s my job as advisor to provide some cultural context, looking at documents through the eyes of an Indigenous person. But also from an academic perspective, ensuring that the info is accurate.”
Moving the Hochelaga Rock to a prominent place on the downtown campus in 2016 and raising the Haudenausaunee flag above McGill in 2018 were promising steps, said Young.
“Looking at Indigenous initiatives that are coming is exciting.”
Young’s immediate supervisor is Thomasina Phillips, a Mohawk from Kahnawá:ke who was recently named the First Peoples’ House interim manager. The two new hires are joining FPH administrative coordinator Dana-Marie Williams, who is half Mi’gmaq from Listuguj and half Pottawatami from Moose Deer Point, Ontario, but who grew up in Kahnawá:ke.
“With the three of us on the main team all being Indigenous,” said Young, “we can bring that knowledge to make sure what we’re doing at McGill is really connected to an Indigenous perspective.”