An interview with Jason Mercredi
Jason Mercredi details the challenges he experienced during Queen’s Law’s growing awareness of Indigenous issues, as well as where we need to go next
Jason Mercredi has been a formidable force over his three years at Queen’s Law. He has been a steadfast advocate for Indigenous rights and awareness within and without the Faculty of Law, and he has been at the head of the significant growth witnessed in the Queen’s Law community. I sat down with Jason for an interview about his challenges and experiences, and the Queen’s Law he’d like to see in the future.
Right off the bat, Jason listed funding, housing, and education as three major issues that need to be addressed. Because Queen’s does not provide bursaries in the first term, the start of school is already a struggle for those who rely on bursaries and scholarships for funding. Jason is exercising his treaty rights by receiving funding from his First Nation band and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s Post-Secondary Education Program. Treaty promises to the Indigenous people were that the government would provide for education. But the combined funding from his band and the government only goes part of the way, leaving First Nations students to rely heavily on bursaries and scholarships. When his Queen’s housing rent increased, Jason used his position as student senator to contact the right people, and now there is movement to open bursaries in the first term to students in need. With regard to housing, the reality at Queen’s is that we are years behind other universities in their First Nation housing policies. Now, in tandem with Janice Hill (Queen’s Indigenous Initiatives Director), Queen’s is looking into those First Nations housing programs at other universities to see how they work, and how to implement them here.
At the more social level, Jason had to readjust how much he thought other students knew about Indigenous culture after the smudging pushback in his first year. He said he went in assuming other students could meet him at 80%, that they knew 80% of what smudging was about. After the significant pushback, he had to come in with a much lower expectation of what people knew.
When it came to education, Jason said he had to do a lot of independent study on what he wanted to learn. Every class has the opportunity to address Indigenous issues in the context of the law they were studying, but only some of them did. And of those that did, some did not make the content that touched on Indigenous issues examinable. Which is an open invitation for students to either skip the class, or consider the material less important. The important piece of the education puzzle is how it fits in to the larger picture. “If we’re not learning it, we’re not doing anything about it,” Jason said.
As chair of the LSS Truth and Reconciliation Committee, one of Jason’s goals is to make Indigenous content not just a one-day class, but threaded throughout the content of our courses. The aim is to provide a toolkit for professors to bring more awareness into their classes, not to condemn the Western system as wrong. This is a long-term goal of course, so while the community works to bring professors up to speed, in the interim Indigenous educators need to be brought into those classes.
Jason made it clear that he is not shaming Queen’s, and acknowledged that this is a long process. Indigenous content is still young in terms of how long it’s been included in curriculums. Inclusion and change moves at a slow pace, and when the general population relies on the current state of the media and their education to inform them, it’s no wonder they are ignorant about these issues. As Jason noted, what we’re discussing essentially is respect, against 150+ years of segregation and exclusion. “Sometimes felt like I was trying to undue that in my three years at Queen’s,” he said.
Jason said that Queen’s has changed a lot in three years. He emphasized that the administration has been great, supportive and welcoming. At every opportunity he was able to approach the Dean and the faculty, and had agreeable responses. There are faculty at the school that he can turn to, and now Ann Deer as the Indigenous Recruitment and Support Coordinator of Law, Business, and Medicine. And while not all initiatives result in the way he would like, Jason recognizes that because the exclusion we’re talking about is centuries old, first there has to be the creation of the opening for change, which the faculty is doing.
If he were to list all the successes that are now in place or in motion at Queen’s, it would look something like this: the creation of the Aboriginal student representative position on the LSS; the first student-funded Aboriginal entrance scholarship; the Aboriginal art installation project; the First Nation housing policy; first-term bursaries for students; the David Sharpe Indigenous Law Student Award; the First Nations Negotiations course; the Indigenous Legal Traditions course; the institution of the Kairos Blanket Exercise as a mandatory Orientation activity; and the wheels are in motion to institute an Indigenous Law Students’ Society, reflective of the individual identity of Indigenous students. Next, Jason would like to see an Indigenous Treaties and Agreements course follow from the increase in Indigenous courses Queen’s Law now offers.
There is simple concept to allyship in Jason’s eyes: learn, share, and make space. It’s not just up to other people to educate you. If you are living on this land, you are a treaty member too, Jason reminds me. Go to the events, hear from people, pick up a book, go outside the prescribed readings of law, he says. Ask your professors if there’s any Indigenous considerations in what you’re learning.
And then, share that knowledge. If you hear someone saying something in ignorance or being racist, say something. As an ally, don’t perpetuate fallacies about Indigenous people. Jason’s goal is to one day be able to speak about “what is” instead of “what should be.” Allies are part of that, because if people’s perspectives change, then maybe the country will change.
To make space, understand that the perspectives aren’t opposing, they’re just different. Making space is acknowledging and learning someone else’s story. But when that space is made, it can feel like a demand on people who already have a lot of pressure on them, Jason notes. Law school teaches a lot of anxiety; and when you’re part of a marginalized group, you’re taught that anxiety belongs to you. It is a tokenizing form of pressure to demand marginalized students to educate you. Jason’s call to allies is to demand more from your institution than you do from your marginalized students. So if you’re in a position to recognize Indigenous oppression, fix it. But fix it in the way the Indigenous perspective teaches you to. Privilege is not a bad thing when used to right wrongs. The goal is that when you’re the government lawyer sitting across from Jason in a negotiation, the terms are going to be that much more agreeable because you understand the other side.
A future Queen’s Law
The ideal, in Jason’s view, would be not needing to explain the art hanging in the atrium to people. A future where traditional teachings are a static component at the school. Where a discussion of the law of this land includes Indigenous law. Where indigenization exists without justification, rationalization or explanation. Otherwise, we’re just carrying on in the spirit of assimilation.
Liz Guilbault is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Juris Diction.