Explanatory Note: The below was written by the Head of Academics, Marc Brims, with input and advice from UTS Elder-in-Residence, Cat Criger.
Last year as part of my professional development with Cohort 21 (a CIS Professional Learning Community of Educators) I was inspired to begin to integrate a school community focused truth and reconciliation journey into our programming for grades 7-12 at UTS. After internalizing that this undertaking would take much time to even begin to realize, my baseline hope was for reconciliation processes to positively evolve one conversation at a time. It became apparent that a “school wide plan” may not be the correct approach to use for this type of endeavour, but rather a series of well intended pathways with a cautious awareness of anticipated impact. This year, many impactful conversations have occurred within our school community, and this is in large part due to the guidance and presence of Cat Criger. Cat works locally and nationally within corporations, financial institutions, government ministries, ethically based research projects, interfaith projects and initiatives, and not-for-profit organisations.
Cat has helped out (intermittently) at our school for years, currently has the role of Indigenous Advisor at the University Toronto Mississauga Campus, and recently also joined UTS in September of 2019 in an official capacity as the school’s Elder-In Residence. Cat liaises with students and staff every Friday afternoon, and also throughout the school year as often as his busy schedule allows. Perpetually, Cat can be seen speaking and laughing with students, teachers, and support staff in the hallways, and he also regularly meets with members of the school community in a space that he along with fellow teacher Negar Shayan have designed and decorated to reflect Indigenous perspectives. This space acts as a student collaboration room, and a regular meeting space for Cat and members of our Indigenous Solidarity Committee (ISC). Reconciliation pledges (an initiative of our ISC) also line the hallway near the school academic office, providing a visual testament to our individual and collective school community commitment to truth and reconciliation.
Holistically, Cat’s presence brings calm to a school environment that is often frenetic and fast moving. Cat’s background in spheres of education, medicine, business, aeronautics, and many many other areas is mind boggling. His multiplicity of experiences allow for natural connections to form with our varied and unique learners. Likewise, Cat is able to deliver diverse context specific Land Acknowledgments. He opened the events at Nathan Phillips Square to ring in the new year for 2020, and more recently spoke at the Ontario Bar Association to open the reception for their Annual Learning Institute. He brings this know-how to our UTS community to lead us into professional development days, school assemblies, and even to introduce guest speakers or begin school community events (ex: Remembrance Day, Regenerative Medicine Expos, etc.). Each time Cat opens an event for us, he makes connections between the past, the present context for which the event is suited, and elements of nature that give both space and cause for each person in attendance to internally reflect and feel a sense of purpose in their present state and place. This helps build a pathway of understanding as students are more aware of other trends and a broadband understanding of truth and reconciliation beyond the classroom walls.
Moreover, students now have the courage to open assemblies by performing personalized Land Acknowledgements. Through Cat’s modeling and guidance, students in our school now feel they have the confidence to speak to their own family histories of connection to the land, how they came to be on Turtle Island, and what they see as prescient for mutual and flourishing coexistence in our shared space moving forward. These student-led personalized Land Acknowledgements are a genuine evolution in reconciliation realities that have been made possible by having Elder presence in the UTS school community.
Cat’s presence also adds authenticity to the learning experiences of our school community members. Earlier in the year, Cat joined our grade 7 students in attending a production of “The Mush Hole” - a performance depicting the experience of Residential School students at the infamous Mohawk Institute. Cat’s family line traces back to this reserve and contains inductees to this Residential School, and to say there was emotion felt in the audience would be an understatement. After the performance, the directors and actors did not have time to field the flurry of questions from UTS attendees. This was a great sign that curiosity and inquiry was sparked within our students, and it was reassuring to know that Cat would be on hand to help make deeper meaning of the learning experience back at school. Cat has been holding “Cat Chats” with students to facilitate reflections of learning to date throughout the school year. Indeed, we are learning to use an Indigenous perspective as a complimentary pedagogy in classes, and beginning to see the benefits of doing so. Curricularly, toward the end of the school year, our grade 7 students are coached in developing mentorship skills, enabling them to write welcome letters to new students to UTS vis-a-vis their own journey of self discovery and value formation with respect to reconciliation. It is hoped that this will continue to create a path where new grade 7 students can learn and benefit from the previous years students’ experiences. The process promotes interactive dialogue and a sharing of unique learning perspectives. Furthermore, it assists with building new school community relationships, and provides a great opportunity as educators to learn through the students how we might best iterate our teaching and learning approaches with respect to truth and reconciliation for the next year. Needless to say, student and staff awareness of and respect for multiple perspectives is healthily growing within the school community.
Along our reconciliation journey, we still have a long way to go. Cat likens this journey to the Two Row Wampum Treaty - a journey of partnership, mutual respect, and openness to learning. Next steps include creating a central hub to coordinate Indigenous content, approaches to teaching and learning, and a place to celebrate our learning process. Recognizing the multiplicity of cultures that share our space, Cat is also keen to continue supporting individual students with connecting their own identity to the place, space, and time that they are navigating. UTS students are increasingly reaching out to Cat for advice and mentorship in this regard.
It is clear that Cat has been an invaluable resource for advising our teachers, students, and administrators in vetting approaches to teaching and learning, and it is comforting to know that Cat is available to listen to ideas as a critical friend. Indeed, we are beginning to create the conditions for an ever growing frame of thought and reference to consider when thinking about our thinking at UTS with respect to teaching and learning. We have begun to honour The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Calls to Action #62 & # 63 in earnest, and are grateful to Cat for continuing to share his time, knowledge, and presence with UTS as we begin to “learn, unlearn, and relearn” our way onward as a school community and as 21st Century learners.