This article has been updated.
February 27, 2017 @ 6 a.m.

This article has been updated to include quotes from guest speaker Wendy Phillips.

Last Monday, the Centre for Student Engagement, in collaboration with Hart House and the Canadian Multicultural Inventors Museum, hosted the “Native Invent: Sharing Our Path” exhibit, to highlight Indigenous inventions and innovations. This event was one of the first to be held in celebration of UTM’s 50th Anniversary.

This event took place in the atrium of IB, and featured Cat Criger (an Aboriginal Elder), professor Ulli Krull (UTM’s Interim Vice-President and Principal), Francis Jeffers (exhibit founder and curator), John Monahan (Hart House representative) and Wendy Phillips (guest speaker). Phillips is a professor, based at the Loyalist College, where she teaches and supports students within Entrepreneurial studies – specifically the Business Launch program. She is also a ceremonial leader and a traditional Indigenous healer.

In his opening remarks, Krull explained the idea of innovation from his personal perspective.

“I work in an area of analytical chemistry – [where I] measure stuff and see how much there is in diagnostic technology – the sort of thing that you would run into an hospital. I have to ask myself: am I going to make something because in a sense, it is commercially viable, which is the routine to get funding – or do you do it because it’s something that is needed in society? Something that can make a difference.”

Krull further elaborated that with invention, you can create something new – but not necessarily meaningful.

“The idea of innovation is to not just create something new […] but something that’s new and that has positive benefit for the society,” said Krull.

Following Krull’s remarks, Monahan shared why Hart House was present at today’s event.

“Why [would Hart House] even be here? Because if you know about Hart House at all, you know that it’s kind of an iconic building on the campus – this gothic cathedral building. But we are also more than that. We have a tri-campus mandate. We are increasingly committed to not only doing programming at Hart House, but infusing, enhancing and supporting programming that is of interest to students and other stakeholders of the university across all the three campuses.”

Monahan emphasized that Hart House was taking their “unique approach to education” all around U of T, whether it was “through the exploration of arts and culture, recreation of wellness or deeply connected community engagement” activities.

“That is what Hart House is about. Wherever we can put our thumb on the scale to help other people in the university that are interested in promoting discovery in those areas– in both individual and group exploration in those areas– we’re there,” said Monahan.

However, Monahan acknowledged that Hart House has been lacking in inclusion – specifically “making sure that the work is as inclusive as it needs to be.”

“Traditionally, if you were to walk into that gothic cathedral, depending on your cultural, faith, gender or sexual identity, it may not have felt as welcoming as others. I wanted to say that upfront. We have been around for almost a hundred years – or many of the decades of those hundred years, there was been a silence with the respect to the recognition of the identities of many, many people on the University of Toronto campus […] and that includes Indigenous students, faculty and staff.”

“Historically, we did an appalling job of acknowledging, not only the Aboriginal land on which Hart House stands, but also the huge influence that Indigenous practice and tradition has had on a place like Hart House.”

Hart House largely has activities within arts and culture, debates and dialogue, and recreational wellness.

“All those areas have been infused with centuries – if not millennia – of innovation by Indigenous people. […] We can learn from the past. We are now committed to making sure that the Hart House of today and tomorrow is inclusive of, and benefits from, and welcomes all students, from all backgrounds, and all traditions – because it is to everyone’s benefit to do that.”

Jeffers then offered the story behind the exhibit – specifically how his own experiences shaped the ideas behind it.

“This is a very special time for me. I am celebrating my 60th year,” said Jeffers. “My dad passed away when he was 60. […] So it is a year that [I approach with] trepidation. […] But for the first time, I actually get to celebrate with the work I do – through celebrating Indigenous people. We are also celebrating Black History month through the country.”

“In 1628, a young, person of African descent came to Canada. It was the first known recorded black person of African descent. His name was Matthew Decosta. […] It is the tradition of Matthew Decosta that I am here today, to share with you,” said Jeffers.

“I am trying to decolonize myself. […] I grew up in the 1960s where there was an issue of liberation. One of my heroes was Malcolm ‘X’. He had an ‘X’ because his name was actually Malcolm little. […] You had to earn your ‘X’ before you’re given a name. So my name is Francis Jeffers – which makes no sense. I don’t look like Francis Jefferson – it doesn’t relate to me. But 900 years ago, coming to the West on his ship, where almost 50 million people died on the passage, I am here because of the suffering of all people. But the question is: as a young person, you can’t just decide [on a legacy]. What is going to be your legacy? How am I going to earn my ‘X’ in Canada? What is going to make me different?”

“I could change my name back to one of African descent. But [I could also] decide that through contributions and the work that I do, I could make a statement that validates my presence in this country,” he added.

Today, Jeffers is a member of the non-profit Canadian Multicultural Inventors Museum, which, according to their mission statement, aims to educate the wider public regarding “innovations and inventions by racialized people.” The “Native Invent: Sharing Our Path” exhibit focuses on Indigenous inventions, and includes the inventors who contributed to today’s common foods and tools, such as toboggans and maple syrup.

Following Jeffers’ insights into the exhibit, guest speaker Phillips began her talk by asking event attendees to approach the talk with an open, stress-free mind.

“Whatever stresses that you have – whether it is exams, teaching or whatever it may be – those things that stress you, you can leave them aside for the next few moments, so that you can have a clear mind to listen,” said Phillips.

She then went on to recount her roots, and how she has been fortunate enough to remain in teaching.

“I’ve had many years in the post-secondary education system – one, as a student, but two, as an administrator. So I’ve had a good opportunity to develop undergraduate programs, graduate programs for students – whether it’s been at university or college level.”

Phillips also recounted how the education system is different today.

“We didn’t know when our exam would take place,” laughs Phillips. For example, recently, her son had a math exam and was informed when he needed to know all the necessary materials by and when to “cram” by.

“We didn’t have that luxury. You had to know 100% [of the course material] and be able to do it on the spot, because if it didn’t show up at 6 a.m., it could show up at noon. […] It was very severe,” said Phillips.

Phillips also pointed out that in the Indigenous culture, “usually your teacher has to die in order for you to become [the teacher].”

The event concluded with a lunch and a closing ceremony, while the exhibit remained open for all to observe until the afternoon.

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