Ceremony in the academy: Indigenous elder-in-residence, doctoral graduate reflects on their educational journey

By Perry King
June 15, 2022
Dr. Jacque/line Lavallee
Dr. Jacque/line Lavallee focused her studies on what it means to offer traditional Anishinaabe teachings in the university. She did so by telling her story of education. Photo by Lisa Sakulensky

By telling her story through her thoughtful dissertation, Dr. Jacque/line Lavallee’s scholarship will have tremendous impacts on how Indigenous doctoral candidates approach academia.

For 79-year old Dr. Lavallee, who successfully defended her Doctorate of Education earlier this spring, this meant studying what it means to offer traditional Anishinaabe teachings in the university. To do that, she centered her own story of education – one that weaves her experiences as a residential school survivor and school teacher, and teachings received as a person with specific roles with the Marten clan (the clan of her late father).

Video by Christina Andrews

In her doctoral research, Dr. Lavallee designed and delivered a series of medicine teachings, created a series of high-quality pedagogical audio recordings, and wrote a report on her findings of her inquiry into what it means to offer those teachings in a university setting.  The doctoral defense took place in a new lodge build near New College, on the St. George Campus. It was significant to Lavallee to do her defense from the lodge, with doctoral committee members participating virtually via zoom. For Dr. Lavallee engaging in her doctoral defense with smudge smoke and a feather was an important facet to this final component of her earned doctorate.

“Dr. Lavallee has been a trusted, respected leader within our Institute, as our principled elder-in-residence and now as a Doctor of Education,” says Professor Normand Labrie, Interim Dean of OISE. “It is an honour to have engaged with Jacque in both roles, as she guides as our community in better understanding how Indigenous students and faculty navigate the academy.

Labrie had the privilege during the pandemic to attend virtual events that Dr. Lavallee kindly opened with a very thoughtful Ceremony.

”I am very thankful of Dr. Lavallee, who accepted to serve, for the first time of OISE’s history, as Bearer of the Eagle Feather at Convocation on June 14. I was truly delighted to finally meet in-person this exceptional woman,“ Labrie added.

“We are proud of her achievements and grateful for her leadership. Congratulations, Dr. Lavallee!”

OISE Interim Dean Normand Labrie and Dr. Jacque/line Lavallee.
On June 14, Dr. Lavallee led the Convocation procession with OISE Interim Dean Normand Labrie. Photo by Sim Kapoor.

“Let's start at the same place, and ceremony allows that to happen,” said Dr. Lavallee, from the lodge where she defended her thesis. “No matter who is in the room or whether there is someone there in high regard. When ceremony happens, everybody is at the same level, even those little kids that are sitting there with their parents and being encouraged to pay attention.”

Professor Eve Tuck, who served as Lavallee’s doctoral supervisor, believes Dr. Lavallee’s accomplishment is beyond special. “At Jacque’s age, many universities would decide to give an elder who has made such notable contributions, an honorary degree. But that Jacque was compelled to pursue an earned doctoral degree says a lot to me about who she is, as both a teacher and a lifelong learner,” said Tuck, who is based in OISE’s department of social justice education. “For her, as a residential school survivor, to be a lifelong learner, it was really important for OISE as a faculty of education to do the work to provide that opportunity for her.”

Asked how this approach to ceremony can be taken into the institution, Lavallee says that it’s already there. “I needed to share that with other students who are following the same kind of road and they're being prevented by numerous roadblocks,” they said. “I want to disallow some of those roadblocks and speak up for the oral tradition.”

It is a tradition that Lavallee wants to evoke for Indigenous students looking to aspire for more.

“A person on this road really needs to have a methodology and how to proceed. What is it exactly they're looking for? What is it they want? Who's going to benefit from this story or this narrative?” she continued. “I want people to know that even with all the hurt, we still have that survivor instinct, even though lots people don't want to call it survival. You become very strong because you become a stronger warrior. And you don't have to say that you've reached a certain level, you become that person.”

Translating her experiences into an academic forum

After completing a Master’s degree in environmental studies at York University, Lavallee was invited by U of T Professor Suzanne Stewart, then as OISE faculty and director of then named Indigenous Education Initiative (IEI), to be part of the elder’s council – a role she previously filled at York. “It was only because I have this knowledge of ceremony,” she says. “They didn't have this knowledge of ceremony. I would not be an elder anywhere, anyplace, otherwise I would just be a grandma.”

But, once she decided to take her ideas further with an EdD in 2019, her time at OISE became so much more.

In 2017, she approached Professor Eve Tuck, then the faculty co-chair of the Indigenous Education Network, about doctoral studies. “In that role, I worked much more closely with her to plan the schedule of teachings and to see if there are ways to enhance her role and enlarge her role as, as a traditional teacher at OISE,” said Tuck, of her pre-doctoral interactions with Lavallee. “She came to me in my office one day and offered me tobacco, and asked if I would be her teacher and guide her through the process of pursuing an earned doctorate.”

Tuck praised the crucial assistance of the department of social justice education and the Indigenous Education Network at OISE. “The entire department, from the very beginning, was supportive of this, they saw what an unusual honor and opportunity it would be to have an elder as part of our student cohort,” Tuck said. “Dean Glen Jones and the Dean’s Advisory Council on Indigenous Education DACIE) ensured that Jacque would have the tuition support that she would need,” Tuck said, giving further credance to the previous OISE Dean for his office’s support in that time.

For Tuck, she looked to Lavallee for learning and leadership – but to support her as a doctoral candidate added a new dimension to their relationship. “As an Indigenous person who is new to this territory, I took the opportunity to participate in her medicine teachings and other teachings that she offered because I believe it's important for me to learn the teachings of the territory that I moved to,” said Tuck, who lived in New York City as a young adult – earning a PhD in from The City University of New York in 2008.

“I was humbled and I would say the word would be challenged by the idea of thinking of myself, as a teacher of somebody who is a teacher to so many,” she added. “It’s not necessarily rare that I am a mentor to somebody who is older than me,  but that it would be somebody who has such a prominent teaching role in the institution,” added Tuck. “And what made it easier for me was that Jacque understood very much that she was asking me to be in her life in a particular way – that we would have that relationship at the same time, that we had other ways of working together.”

Lavallee’s doctoral journey culminates at a time when educational institutions like the University of Toronto are working to include more elders and Indigenous leaders into their mandates, and wondering how to honour their influence. “Jacque’s research considers what the role of an elder is in a university, and in some ways has implications for what an elder is not in the university,” said Tuck. “And I feel like that's something for universities to learn from and consider.”

Jacque’s impact

Professor Tuck’s most memorable experiences with Lavallee came while teaching a course in advanced Indigenous Feminist Research late 2017 – where she was a student, in her mid 70s at this time.

Fernanda Yanchapaxiwho's another Indigenous student was also in the class and she had her newborn with her,” Tuck recalls. “I just remember being so aware of the significance of teaching an Indigenous Feminist Research course with a baby and an elder in that space, and how I, when I was at the beginning of my career, could never have imagined that I would have the opportunity to teach a course like that with a group of students like that.”

It is a moment all three will remember for a long time, where the kinds of conversations that they could have were beyond the classroom. “In my own work, I am always thinking about what we learned in research with communities that is to be shared in public, and what should stay with the community,” Tuck added.

Watching Jacque as a learner and a person, who was learning to engage in scholarly inquiry, the question of what the academy deserves to know is something that will have a lasting impact.

“For us, as we think about Indigenous traditional knowledge in the university, how do we engage with Indigenous traditional knowledge in a way that does not expect that everything is simply available to everybody,” said Tuck, “when there are knowledge sharing protocols in place within indigenous knowledge systems, that run counter to the idea of every idea being able to circulate in the university.

“That is something that is both part of her scholarship and she also needed to negotiate and grapple with throughout her studies.”

For Lavallee, her contribution seeks to help people, to seek a decolonization of institutions – to provide a roadmap for Indigenous researchers who want to navigate this very difficult dynamic.

“In the beginning, it was all clear what I was going to do with this paper. It just mushroomed, and I wanted everyone to see the psychological benefit of that healing lodge or that life lodge,” she said. “And once they got an understanding of that, identify with how old you are, as you come along, it benchmarks your life.”

For now, Lavallee will continue to add to this conversation, including developing curriculum and Indigenous pedagogies but also continue as OISE’s elder in residence.

“I’m not going to quit my job,” she said.

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