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New think tank will promote Indigenous voices on policy and governance

Hayden King will serve as advisor to the dean of arts on Indigenous education and director for the Centre of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. RYERSON.

A think tank launching in Toronto this week hopes to give Indigenous researchers the opportunity to provide greater input on policy issues relevant to their peoples.

Hayden King, an Anishinaabe writer and academic from Beau Soleil First Nation on Georgian Bay, will be leading the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University and sees it adding to the growing presence of Indigenous voices in Canada’s conversations on governance.

“We’re hoping to reverse the very long history of excluding Indigenous people from policy decisions and legal decisions that affect our communities,” King said. “It should be Indigenous people themselves that make decisions about their future.”

The institute, named after William Yellowhead, an early-to-mid 19th century Anishinaabe chief who promoted unity amongst Indigenous nations and resisted heavy-handed colonial policies in Southern Ontario, will launch Tuesday with a research paper analysing the Indigenous-related policies that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has enacted or planned since taking power.

The paper, co-authored by King, involved the work of about 30 mostly Indigenous leaders, activists, community members and policy experts.

“We’re hoping the Yellowhead Institute becomes a source for media, to amplify the voices of Indigenous communities and Indigenous policy and legal experts,” King said.

From the Idle No More movement for Indigenous rights and sovereignty, to demands for government to address the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, Indigenous leaders and activists have in recent years become more aggressive and assertive in their calls to action, King said.

Nevertheless, the voices of non-Indigenous scholars are more prevalent, and more accepted, in media and research reports on Indigenous issues, he added.

“The non-Indigenous experts … often say things that are palatable to Canadians, Canadian institutions and, governments, and they’re not offensive or threatening,” King added.

“Indigenous analysts, on the other hand will, in fact, say there are fundamental problems with institutions, there is systemic racism, there is chronic neglect, and really demand fundamental transformation.”

The new institute will have two research associate positions filled by Indigenous faculty members at Ryerson and, this summer, will add about a dozen research fellows, from different Indigenous nations and areas of expertise. The think tank plans to solicit policy analysis papers from community-based researchers who can offer on-the-ground perspectives on the effects of Indigenous policies.

“We’re also hoping to work with students at Ryerson and across Toronto to do mentorship as we go forward and build the institution,” said Shiri Pasternak, the institute’s research director and a Ryerson criminology professor, whose work has concentrated on Indigenous rights for over a decade.

Pasternak is not Indigenous and the institute’s goal is for her to eventually be replaced by an Indigenous research director, she said.

“In the meantime … I think we can model something important about how, when non-Indigenous people get involved in these kinds of initiatives, the important thing is not to have our (non-Indigenous) voices determine the content or agenda but rather to really learn how to listen and work hard to create spaces for Indigenous peoples to have a platform,” she said.

The addition of Indigenous experts to policy discussion was welcomed by Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

“There is a pressing need for our own First Nations experts, First Nations academics, and First Nations voices to be a larger part of the national conversation as we work towards real, tangible, and actionable solutions to issues that we have been grappling with for decades,” Bellegarde said.

Ryerson has pledged to provide startup capital, but the institute will look to donations from non-profits to sustain itself in the long term. Unlike other think tanks, Yellowhead does not want to accept money from government or corporations, in the interest of remaining independent, Pasternak said.

Ontario Coalition of Indigenous Peoples secretary Ron Swain said he hopes the institute is able to attract the resources it needs to be successful.

“We as an organization would support and participate with them,” he said. “I really like the … whole concept of developing the capacity of Indigenous scholars and Indigenous experts in this field.”

Trudeau has put a greater emphasis on Indigenous issues than any other Canadian government has in decades, making it more important than ever to have accessible, reliable information, he added.

“These are actually very exciting times, and we drastically need a think tank to assist leaders and communities and community members (decide) which policy issues to follow,” Swain said.