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Decolonizing, Indigenizing, and Making Space for Indigenous Girls visiting York University

Decolonizing, Indigenizing, and Making Space for Indigenous Girls visiting York University

Sarah Flicker, Amanda Galusha, L. Anders Sandberg, Jennifer Altenberg and The Young Indigenous Women's Utopia in Girlhood Studies (2023)

We examine the possibilities for Indigenization afforded by a visit from the girls’ group, Young Indigenous Women's Utopia (YIWU), to York University. Through classroom presentations, workshops, and a book launch, the girls shared their knowledge, perspectives, culture, and art, challenged stereotypes, and inspired university community members. The visit encouraged local students and faculty to find innovative ways to disrupt prevailing colonial norms by employing strategies such as public workshops, the Alternative Campus Tour and curating exhibits so as to integrate Indigenous knowledge, histories, and epistemologies. In this article, we explore the transformative potential of such encounters and emphasize the imperative to prioritize Indigenous knowledge systems and empower Indigenous girls in educational realms.

Young Indigenous Women’s Utopia


In this article, we ask:
What does it mean to invite Indigenous girls into colonial university and urban spaces that have historically been hostile sites?
How can we create welcoming, affirming opportunities for reciprocal learning? How can their presence, teachings and knowledge systems open new possibilities for both decolonizing and Indigenizing classrooms and campuses? What can we all learn from these sorts of encounters?

To consider these questions, we reflect on a recent visit that the Young Indigenous Women's Utopia (YIWU) girls’ group made to York University in Toronto, Canada.

Campuses as colonial spaces

Like many campuses across North America, York University finds itself in a moment of racial justice reckonings. Inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (2015) calls to action and the resurgence of efforts to combat anti-Black racism following the very public murder of George Floyd and others at the hands of police officers, York University has made several public moves to signal its commitment to decolonizing its campus and pedagogical approaches. From the implementation of “The Indigenous Framework for York University” (York University 2015) to the newer “Framework to address anti-black racism,” (York University 2020) and “Decolonizing, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion strategy 2023–2028” (York University 2023), the university has been working to redress nearly 65 years of institutionalized racism by investing in new hires, resources, programs and offices that support the recruitment and retention of Indigenous and racialized students, faculty, administrators and staff.

York University is one of North America's largest schools, serving approximately 55,000 students. Situated at the edge of Canada's largest urban centre, York prides itself on opening “the doors of higher education to traditionally under-represented groups—first-generation students, students with disabilities, mature students and individuals from marginalized groups” (York University 2020: 3). Despite all this, vestiges of colonialism and white supremacy remain marked on the institution.

In photo: Professors Sarah Flicker and Anders Sandberg

From its very name referencing the Duke of York, a title granted to the second son of British Monarchs (Sandberg, 2020) to general curricular offerings that overwhelmingly privilege Western thinkers, to inequitable rates of degree completion, the University remains a complicated and contested arena for Indigenous and racialized students and community members. On the one hand, as Blair Stonechild (2006) argues in The New Buffalo, while, historically, the buffalo provided food, shelter, and clothing for Cree people, today Indigenous youth often need to pursue an education to access these necessities. On the other, universities have been critiqued as sites of assimilation that regularly uphold and reinscribe settler colonialism and white supremacy (Daigle 2019).

While we applaud these overdue (and hard fought) moves to equity, diversity, and inclusion, we also acknowledge the challenges associated with bringing diverse voices and perspectives into places that may not be ready to appreciate them. As white settler York University professors who have a long history of deep, respectful partnership relationships with Indigenous communities (Flicker 2018Sandberg et al., 2016), Flicker and Sandberg are keenly aware of the importance of trust building, reciprocity, and care that are foundational to reconciliation work and to supporting Indigenous rights to self-determination.

When York made resources available as part of a university-wide call for proposals to Indigenize teaching and learning and a local faculty-wide call for bringing in diverse visiting artists and scholars to enrich curricular offerings, Flicker pursued these opportunities cautiously.

How can we accelerate Decolonization and Indigenization?

Flicker wanted to find ways to bridge her research and teaching interests and welcome more diverse ways of knowing into her classrooms and university community. As part of her ongoing participatory research with youth, she has been working with Indigenous youth on various health promotion initiatives for almost 20 years. For the last eight, she has partnered with YIWU from Saskatoon or Treaty 6 territories, the traditional homeland of the Métis, Cree, Saulteaux, Blackfoot, Dene, and Nakota Sioux. The name of the group suggests their mission of creating a society devoid of gender-based and colonial violence in which young girls can pursue their dreams. By infusing artistic activism with cultural practices, they cultivate a sense of belonging, empowerment, and strength in the community (Altenberg et al. 2018; The Young Indigenous Women's Utopia et al. 20202021; The Young Indigenous Women's Utopia Girls Group et al. forthcoming; Wuttunee et al. 2019). This group of girls, who range in age between 12 and 18, has enjoyed a steady modest funding stream through participation in a series of large international and national research collaborations headed up by Professor Claudia Mitchell at McGill University.1 These funds cover honoraria for girls and mentors, food, travel subsidies, and art supplies.

During Covid-19, YIWU girls worked with Zachary Mandamin to gather and archive their photographs, essays, reflections, project learnings, and conversations. Mandamin, who worked with Flicker, is an Anishinaabe two-spirit youth from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. They curated these offerings into an edited volume that also features letters, stories, and teachings from supporting Indigenous elders and aunties. It formed the basis for their undergraduate honour's thesis (Mandamin 2022) and was subsequently beautifully graphically designed by Dene artist, Gabrielle Giroux. The final collection, KÎYÂNAW OCÊPIHK, meaning “we root” in Cree (Young Indigenous Women's Utopia et al. 2022), was launched in Saskatoon at a large community celebration. Flicker arranged to bring some YIWU members to Toronto for a second book launch and a few days of reciprocal teaching and learning.

Based on past experiences of bringing Indigenous girls into unwelcoming academic contexts (Moccasin et al. 2021), Flicker knew to tread carefully. On a previous trip to Notre Dame to present their work at a conference, some YIWU members had felt very lonely and alienated as the only Indigenous people and as girls in an adult environment that was very white and unwelcoming. Despite several new institutional equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives proliferating across Canadian campuses, Indigenous students continue to report feeling the impacts of pervasive microaggressions and everyday racism and anti-Indigenous sentiments (Bailey 2016Canel-Çınarbaş and Yohani 2019), as well as elevated rates of sexual violence and harassment (Dion et al. 2022). While it would be presumptuous to imagine that the girls could be entirely shielded from these assaults, it was important to the planning team that the stage be set for the experience to feel as safe and enriching as possible rather than merely tokenizing, or, worse, alienating for the Indigenous girls and the university students involved in welcoming them. We sought to take up Natalie Clark's (2016) call for a politic of Red Intersectionality that is “anticolonial, activist, and focused on the goals of transformation … [and that] attends to the many intersecting factors including gender, sexuality, and a commitment to activism and Indigenous sovereignty” (50–51). Here, and throughout the planning Flicker, Altenberg, and YIWU found ways to honour and balance what it means to visit unfamiliar contexts as young, Indigenous, and female.

Planning and methods

Originally, Flicker had applied for York University funds to support travel for two youth representatives from the group and Jennifer Altenberg, their adult auntie mentor. Altenberg felt strongly that the opportunity to travel and present their work be offered to all YIWU members. She believed that there might be additional safety and comfort in numbers. Ultimately, the group was able to tap into several funding sources, including the More than Words project to support bringing seven girls and two chaperones to Toronto from Treaty 6. Given the superb organizing efforts and creativity of Leann Brown, project coordinator at McGill's Participatory Cultures Lab, we also managed to bring in project investigators and youth from other research sites to join the programme.

Over many Facebook and Zoom calls, the team planned an ambitious schedule that would balance work and play. For most of the girls, this was their first time on an aeroplane, being out of province, visiting Toronto, riding on a subway, being on a university campus, presenting to strangers, and so on. The team wanted to plan a trip that would recognize and celebrate their bravery and creative contributions and acknowledge their role as Indigenous knowledge producers. It was also important that the trip adhere to some of the specialized funding requirements. This included the girls leading classroom presentations and public workshops and launching their book on campus. It was also important that the experience be fun and memorable. So, we needed to leave time for shopping, site seeing, touring art galleries, and playing. After hearing about all the sites that the girls wanted to visit, like the CN Tower, the aquarium, and museums, we decided that in addition to honoraria, they would receive CityPasses (admission ticket packages) to facilitate easy access to the city's main attractions. Given the varied socio-economic backgrounds of participating girls, planners wanted to ensure that everyone could participate in all activities. This meant not only budgeting for appropriate honoraria that compensated the girls for their labour and valuable expertise, but also for funds to make sure that there were opportunities to access the unique features of the city and have a good time.

To ensure that the girls had support navigating both the campus and its urban environment, Flicker engaged two students including second author Amanda Galusha to act as tour guides. Galusha ensured that the girls were safe, and she got to know them well.

Flicker also asked Sandberg to lead the Alternative Campus Tour that he had first developed about twenty years ago. The tour is an embodied learning experience that helps students understand the impact of disconnections that have occurred through colonialism and environmental injustice and grasp how social and environmental concerns are inseparable (Bardekjian et al. 2012Sandberg 2015). For this iteration of the tour, he dug deeper and spoke about the presence and absence of Indigenous representation on campus and explored the connections between Indigenous communities and their long-standing ties to land and stories. It was also a way for the girls to be introduced to the campus and celebrate its potential without our erasing its problematic history.

Other preparatory activities included inviting two-spirit Elder Blu Waters and past co-chair of the Indigenous Council at York University/ Special Advisor to the President on Indigenous Initiatives, Professor Ruth Green, to provide opening remarks at the book launch. We wanted the girls to be welcomed in traditional ways to Treaty 13 territories and for them to see Indigenous women in strong leadership positions on campus. In addition, we approached several Indigenous student groups, research centres, and support services across campus to attend and co-sponsor the book launch and public events.

Over the course of their visit, we all took many photos and conducted brief interviews with the girls to solicit their feedback on the trip and their experiences to date. These interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. Following their visit, Sandberg, Galusha, and Flicker all engaged in reflective writing to document their experiences. We looked for Indigenizing and decolonizing moments in our encounters with the girls. We also all kept in touch via social media and instant messaging apps to share pictures and ongoing reflections.

Our Collective Narrative

The girls in front of the University Teepee at Skennen'ko:wa Gamig

YIWU's presence not only spoke to us directly, but also forced us to rethink our activities and schedules to meet with the girls and adjust our ways of thinking and acting. We draw on ethnographic (Fetterman 1998) and Indigenous methodologies of storytelling (Drawson et al 2017Smith 1999Kovach 2009) to relate our experience. We share several anecdotes from the visit to explore the challenges and opportunities associated with celebrating Indigenous girlhood (generally) and YIWU girls (specifically) in places that have long been hostile to their presence. Flicker wove our collective writings and reflections together into a first draft that was circulated as a Google doc to all authors for revision and feedback and our collective narrative was born when we all agreed that the article was ready to be shared. (Detailed account of YIWU activities on and off university campus is described in Girlhood Studies, 2023).


When it was time to say goodbye, the girls headed off to the airport full of confidence and great memories. They felt proud of their accomplishments and the ways in which they had presented themselves and their community in Toronto. They took home souvenirs and stories that they wanted to tell. In addition to many social media posts, they decided to display the materials they had gathered at Oskāyak, Saskatoon's only Indigenous-focused public high school. They created a table to share York paraphernalia. Next to York University pens, tote bags, and promotional materials they created handwritten signs that read “Take some Toronto SWAG. It's never too soon to start dreaming of post-secondary” and “We are coming for everything our ancestors were denied. The world is ours.”

Traces of their visit lingered in Toronto. Beyond the gift of their stories and teachings, the girls also offered Michif scarves as thanks to Flicker, Sandberg, and Galusha. Across York's campus their books can be found on bookshelves, their mini ribbon skirt exhibit hangs in the faculty gallery, their teachings are refracted in many student reflection papers, and photographs of their presence remain online on social media accounts and campus newsletters. These echoes reverberate and create new possibilities for ongoing curricular and campus change. The girls also left Sandberg with a revised campus tour that can be replicated and built on for other occasions, perhaps even given to the York Indigenous community and guided by Indigenous students. Inspired by the model, scholars visiting the launch from McGill picked up the practice and created their own Indigenous Alternative Campus tour, so this concrete micro strategy for Indigenizing campuses has already spread.

Through the process of welcoming and celebrating the presence of Indigenous girls, we offer opportunities in our classrooms and communities to speak back to racism, sexism, homophobia, and colonialism. We pursue the projects of inclusion, decolonization, and Indigenization based on the very real needs of young people experiencing injustice today. While rooted in conversations about history and legacy, the presence of these girls in the here and now grounds us urgently in the present and reminds us of the importance of beginning reconciliation work at home, in our classrooms and communities. Together, we begin the slow process of change.

About the authors

Sarah Flicker (ORCID: 0000-0001-6202-5519), settler-Canadian of European Jewish ancestry, is a professor in the Faculty of Environmental
and Urban Change and Research Chair in Participatory Methods at York University.
Amanda Galusha is a settler-Canadian from Treaty 3 and recent honours graduate in Environmental Management.
L. Anders Sandberg (ORCID: 0000-0002-5966-3031), a Swedish settler-Canadian, is an Environmental and Urban Change professor.
Jennifer Altenberg (she/her) is a Michif woman, educator, and community scholar.
The Young Indigenous Women’s Utopia is an award-winning girl group that challenges gender-based and colonial violence using Indigenous and arts-based methods.


This project benefitted from funding from Networks for Change and Well-being: Girl-led ‘From the Ground Up’ Policy Making to Address Sexual Violence in Canada and South Africa, supported by International Partnerships for Sustainable Societies, a joint initiative between the International Development Research Centre and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Mitchell & Moletsane (2014–2022) and from More than Words: Studying the Impact of Arts-based Survivor Engagement on Families and Communities, supported through the Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE) project number GV18084-01, Gender-Based Violence Program Promising Practices to Support Survivors and their Families (Mitchell (2019–2023), and from the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University. We appreciate all the girls and aunties in Treaty 6 who make the work happen, the entire More than Words Team (especially Claudia Mitchell, Leann Brown, and Hannah Battiste) and the York team of supporters (including Lily Piccone, Brian Ginther, Hana Ali, Denise McLeod, and Thereza Eric). We are also grateful to Ann Smith, the managing editor of Girlhood Studies, and the anonymous reviewers who provided excellent feedback.