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Concordia University’s new Cree culture class seeks to create allies

BY Patrick Quinn Aug 30, 2019

“In my opinion, First Nations peoples of this country need committed non-Indigenous allies more than ever”

Professor Emanuel Lowi

Concordia was the first university in Quebec to offer a First Peoples Studies program, which includes one course called “Algonquian Peoples”, not to be confused with the Algonquin people. Professor Emanuel Lowi was assigned to teach the course this semester, focus- ing on the Crees of Eeyou Istchee that he hopes will inspire students to become active allies.

“I want the students first of all to have a basic understanding of how the lives of the people of Eeyou Istchee came to be as they are today and to appreciate the ways in which the Crees have managed the pace of change,” Lowi told the Nation. “I think they are not only the largest First Nation in Quebec but also to me the most significant because of the very dramatic developments they’ve lived through in the last 50 years.”

Lowi acknowledged the weirdness of both the course name “based on a white man’s assessment of linguistic links” and the very act of studying a First Nations people “who live very vibrant lives on the land” in an office building in downtown Montreal.

“We can’t go up north so we watch a lot of films instead so people can see the traditional lifestyle,” he said. “We’re going to look at traditions, we’re going to look at history, but basically I want to get then as quickly as possible up to speed about how things are today.”

A little over two years ago, Lowi began teaching at Concordia about the Inuit of Nunavik. Although not himself Inuk, he said he has Inuit family through marriage and children and has spent many years living and working in northern communities. However, his first experiences in the north were as a young activist during the time of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) negotiations.

“They were taking on the biggest monster in the world, Hydro-Québec and the Quebec government in the 1970s, and they have come out a very successful group of people,” said Lowi. “Successful in terms of their pride and identity, their language and culture, in terms of their ability to work within an outsider economic system and get benefits from that. That’s what I want my students to appreciate by the end.”

From demonstrations and letter writing, Lowi moved on to work with various Nunavik institutions before beginning a long career as an Indigenous affairs reporter for APTN. He became heavily involved in the successful fight against the Great Whale River hydro project, even moving to New York City to work with activists on the inside, which he described as one of his life’s great privileges.

“I teach from a very personal perspective of that background,” Lowi explained. “My goal is that students really appreciate the truly amazing story of how the Crees have tackled colonialism and come out on top. Colonialism is not possible to stop completely. But the Crees have been able to take the reins and make it work as best as possible for their people. It’s an incredible achievement.”

Lowi considers the JBNQA the “pivotal point,” when life changed most dramatically in Eeyou Istchee and will have students analyze its scope and language. He consulted contacts at the Grand Council of the Crees on course materials to ensure they are appropriate and hopes to bring in guest speakers to share their first-hand experience in various realms of Cree life.

He has noticed an increasing Indigenous presence in his classes and believes their interaction with non-Indigenous students is a valuable forum for building intercultural understanding. With the course open to anyone, he hopes students become empathetic allies or at least avoid being the “typical white idiot” he often encountered in the north.

“In my opinion, First Nations peoples of this country need committed non-Indigenous allies more than ever to vote correctly with Indigenous issues at heart, to act in their personal lives for the benefit of First Nations people,” Lowi asserted. “I can’t require them to become allies but that’s sort of my sneaky little motive behind all of this.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.