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Sharing circle: Our learnings from organizing an anti-colonial intercultural dialogue program

The goal was to create a safe space that helped international students recognize their entanglement with settler colonialism as uninvited visitors to this land.

BY ABU ARIF & VALERI PILGRIM | JUN 05 2024

International students are both invited and uninvited to Canada. Universities and colleges invite international students as temporary visitors; while from a decolonial perspective, international students are also uninvited visitors on Indigenous lands like any other settler. Despite their temporary status in Canada, international students have a role to play in reconciliation, which includes learning about ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous peoples (ex. see 100 Ways: Indigenizing & Decolonizing Academic Programs by Shauneen Pete). This knowledge not only provides  better understanding of the genocide, ecocide and epistemicide that took place on this land, but could also help them  realize their entanglement with settler colonialism.

Like many other Canadian universities, Memorial University is prioritizing internationalization and Indigenization as an institutional strategic priority. Since many scholars have expressed their concern about how a campus internationalization strategy can be viewed as a colonial project,  practitioners in the field have started to think about how to untangle colonialism from internationalization efforts.

In this column, we highlight an initiative that we took to engage international and Indigenous students in dialogue on colonization, Indigeneity, cultural diversity and reconciliation. We will share the lessons we have learned.

The program: Sharing Circle

The initiative we created is called the Sharing Circle. At its core, it is an anti-colonial intercultural dialogue program. We theorized this program by utilizing renowned Indigenous scholars, Verna J. Kirkness and Ray Barnhardt’s four R’s of Indigenous education (Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility). The work of Kakali Bhattacharya (Gesturing towards decolonial futures collective) and CLEAR lab also helped to shape our thinking about de/colonization, entanglement, and gesturing towards decolonial possibilities.

Using the four R’s, the Sharing Circle program engaged students who identify as Indigenous and/or international students in cultural activities to listen to and establish a respectful and reciprocal relationship with each other. Participants also reflected upon their role in maintaining good land relationships, to recognize the importance of land acknowledgment beyond “thank you for the real estate.” We hoped that in doing so, students can start to unlearn the dominant global systems of colonization.

Throughout the two-day event, students went on an excursion, learned about Indigenous games, talked about the history of International Mother Language Day, had in-depth conversations about colonization as a global struggle and the extinction of various languages, connected over shared food and participated in a talking circle with an Indigenous community leader and a cultural elder about their learnings. We created an environment where all meals were prepared on-site by the staff of the internationalization office and the Indigenous student resource centre – creating a space where the fragrance of food and witnessing the caring labour of advisors helped students to process difficult conversation in a relational way.

Students participate in the event. Photo courtesy of Valeri Pilgrim.

The impact: Beyond expectation

We decided at the start that we would not take a traditional eurocentric assessment approach to understand the impact of the program. It is a long-standing tradition in Indigenous cultures to share their learnings through oral stories. We created a talking circle led by an Indigenous community member, Dan Pottle and cultural Elder Lloydetta Quaicoe for students to share their experiences. While each of the stories were profoundly meaningful to us, we would like to share two of the student experiences:

One Indigenous student wrote:

“I was raised far from my native home in a disjointed family. My heritage having been ripped from my family’s hands generations before, leaving tattered memories and broken homes. This beautiful event proved to me that our culture was not truly gone. The damage can never truly be undone but I refuse to let my history end with me. I never felt like I could call myself Indigenous before; I always felt I wasn’t born close enough, wasn’t exposed enough, wasn’t enough… But now I know I am enough.”

Another international student wrote:

“The Sharing Circle … was the first experience of it’s kind for me. It was also one of the richest experiences I have had at MUN. Having lived in St. John’s for over three years now, I have not had enough exposure to or awareness about indigenous cultures and the history of the island. However, this knowledge and awareness is essential, for both international students (immigrants), and the residents of Newfoundland as well so they may honour and appreciate the history, the culture and the sacrifices of the original people of this land.”

Lessons learned

The Sharing Circle program has taught/reaffirmed quite a few lessons. Firstly, creating a program that includes Indigenous teachings and learning requires putting relationship-building above all else. It is not about what is at the end of the path or what pace we take. It is about how we greet and treat each other along the path. If you are thinking about developing a program like the one we did, the first step should be to give up your desire to build a similar program. You must start with building your own relationships and stay focused on the path that got you there. When you have established a strong relationship based on respect, relevance, reciprocity and responsibility, you will collectively come up with initiatives that are meaningful to you, your colleagues and the learners.

Secondly, we learned that international and Indigenous students are not in binary opposition. International students can be Indigenous and Indigenous students can have international experience. Many international students have a deeper understanding of colonization from their historical and contemporary experiences. As a space that helps them to recognize their entanglement with settler colonialism as an uninvited visitor to this land, the program served as a new path for them to start thinking about their role in the reconciliation process.

Finally, there is no space of purity; it is about taking a departure from one colonial habit at a time while envisioning a different and more just world. Just like encouraging any relationship to flourish, we cannot start from a space of fear and/or sense of self-righteousness. If you are struggling with the fear of making a mistake or have a sense of purity, then the first step is to work on yourself.

As educators and practitioners in the field of internationalization and Indigenization of higher education, we understand that our work is not complete after one event. Rather it is an ongoing process involving shuttling between envisioning a de/colonized educational space where diversity of onto-epistemologies is celebrated and negotiating with the current conditions by building our capacities to do deeper work. We had hoped to generate a conversation that would bring together the special population we care for in a circle. The student testimonials told us that not only did we bring the participants in a circle, but we also helped them build their stamina in their long journey to create different possibilities for themselves and in the lands where they live. We are humbled by the support we have received from the university and grateful to our students for all these life-altering lessons.

This column is coordinated through the Internationalization of Student Affairs Community of Practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact [email protected].

ABOUT ABU ARIF & VALERI PILGRIM
Abu Arif is an uninvited, racialized and queer settler in the ancestral homeland of Beothuk and Mi’kmaq. They are a doctoral candidate and an international student advisor – immigration and inclusion at Memorial. Valeri Pilgrim is the manager of the Indigenous student resource centre at Memorial University. She was born in North West River, Labrador to parents of Inuit and settler families, and raised in Nain, Nunatsiavut from the age of two years old, a remote sub-Arctic Inuit community.
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