Mount Royal faculty and students find 'novel' way to connect with nearby First Nation

Indigenous book club supports relationship-building

Indigenous book club

Members of the book club gather to discuss their first book, Indian Horse by the late Richard Wagamese.

A group of faculty and students at Mount Royal has formed a book club with elders of a nearby First Nation as a way to build relationships between the University and the community.

The book club is part of Mount Royal's ongoing efforts to indigenize the University and strengthen ties with nearby Indigenous communities. The goal was "to bring together elders and faculty to read the same book and create space for discussion and to compare perspectives," explains Indigenous studies professor Liam Haggarty, book club facilitator. The idea originally came from Cowboy Smithx, an Indigenous advisor to Mount Royal.

The book club started last December with a group of about 10 faculty members who met with the Elders' Lodge of the Piikani First Nation in Brocket, Alta. The faculty were invited to the nation to have lunch together and choose the first book the club would read. The club soon doubled the number of faculty members participating and added 12 students.

Latasha Calf Robe, who has just graduated with a degree in business administration and who also works in the Iniskim Centre, led the student side of the initiative. "It was really important that we include both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and to increase awareness of nearby Indigenous communities," she says. "Being part of the book club gave students a chance to engage with these communities in a positive way and be a part of the indigenization and community-building initiatives at MRU."

The book club met again in April to share their reactions to their first book, Indian Horse by the late Richard Wagamese. Published in 2012, the novel tells the story of Saul Indian Horse, an Ojibway man who as a young boy was removed from his family and sent to residential school.

MRU librarian Jessie Loyer helped choose the first book. "It was selected in consultation with one of the elders at Piikani, Floyd Smith, who's a big bookworm, and his grandson Cowboy Smithx," she explains. "We chose one that would be interesting for both the elders and faculty. It touches on difficult topics like abuse and racism but also has broad appeal because it revolves around hockey. We wanted them to focus less on the differences between Indigenous elders and non-Indigenous faculty, and more on the shared experience of reading the same book," she says.

One of the goals of the Indigenous Strategic Plan (2016 - 2021) is to build bridges with Indigenous education stakeholders, and the book club was seen as one way to do that. The first faculty members to become involved in the book club included the Academic Indigenous Advisory Committee (AIAC), which is a group of faculty members from across campus. Working in partnership with Indigenous knowledge holders and educators from the Treaty 7 area, the AIAC advises the Office of the Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President of Teaching and Learning on the implementation of the academic goals of the Indigenous Strategic Plan, especially curriculum development.

The plan is to extend the book club into a different community in the fall, with new faculty and student members, according to Haggarty, and of course a new book.

"We've talked about a theme closer to home, such as a novel that's rooted in the history of southern Alberta or a biography," Loyer says, adding the next book hasn't been chosen yet.

"The book club a good way to engage the community in a different way," Haggarty explains. "There is no agenda ― it is purely about building relationships."

Learn more about Mount Royal's Indigenous Strategic Plan.

June 22, 2017
― Melissa Rolfe

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