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Meet Marie Laing, a new OISE grad who is challenging racism against Indigenous people with education

November 6, 2018
 

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(Photo courtesy of Marie Laing)
 

It was a deep-seated desire to study gender and sexuality through an anti-colonial lens that drove Marie Laing to pursue graduate studies at OISE.

“I was hungry for language to describe settler-colonialism and how it relates to my queer, two-spirit, and trans Indigenous community,” said Laing. “I was also eager to see how leading scholars were applying anti-racist education in a variety of contexts to create positive change. OISE’s Department of Social Justice Education was one of few places I found where I could engage in all of these intellectual projects at once.

Since starting her Master of Arts in 2016, the Kanyenkehá:ka (Mohawk) scholar has extended her commitment to anti-colonial and anti-racist education far beyond the classroom, playing a leading role in advancing anti-racism on campus. 
 

Highlighting Indigenous resistance

A large part of Laing’s work is focused on highlighting examples of Indigenous resistance to colonialism and racism. Earlier this year, she led the planning of the State Violence and Indigenous Resistance film festival at U of T, which brought many of these stories to the forefront.

“The screenings created an important space for students, staff, faculty and community members to come together and have conversations about how they could support resistance on campus and in their own lives,” she said.

Highlighting Indigenous resistance is an important part of combating racism, Laing explained. “By focusing on the leadership demonstrated by Indigenous communities in our various acts of resistance to ongoing settler-colonialism, we can ourselves resist the racist narratives about our communities which are offered by dominant society – while at the same time learning new strategies for collective resistance.”

Laing, who will be graduating from OISE on November 8, is motivated by a deep sense of responsibility to the past and the future.

“All of my work is inspired by the legacy of strength and resistance that Indigenous activists, scholars, aunties, and grandmothers of previous generations have left us,” she said. “Our current generation has a responsibility to continue this work – both to honour those who have come before us, and to lay the groundwork for the generations to come.”


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In March 2018, Laing (second from the left) received U of T’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Award. “Being recognized alongside phenomenal leaders in anti-racist organizing – like fellow OISE student Roy Strebel (third from the left), who has been doing incredible work with the Native Students Association medicine garden for many years – was very humbling,” she said. (Photo by Noreen Ahmed-Ullah)
 

‘A phenomenal scholar and organizer’

Laing’s many contributions culminated in her receiving U of T’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Award last spring. The award recognizes students, staff and faculty who are advancing anti-racism on campus while contributing to the University’s commitment to creating diverse, equitable and inclusive teaching, learning and working environments.

For professor Eve Tuck, Laing’s thesis supervisor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Methodologies with Youth and Communities, the recognition was richly deserved.

“Marie is a phenomenal scholar and organizer who brings much to our thought-worlds, and to our futures,” said Tuck. “She embodies a commitment to ending racism by setting the place and tone for needed conversations, and then participating in those conversations ethically and reflexively.”

As she gets ready to cross the stage at Convocation Hall this Thursday, Marie sat down with OISE News to reflect on her time at U of T and offer advice for incoming students. 


One-on-one with Marie Laing


Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

My name is Marie Laing. I’m Kanyenkehá:ka, and I belong to the turtle clan. My family is from Six Nations of the Grand River, and I grew up in Kingston, Ontario. I also carry Irish, Scottish and South African settler ancestry. I am graduating with a Master of Arts from OISE’s Social Justice Education department.


Can you tell us about your graduate research?

My thesis research examined how young trans, queer, and two-spirit Indigenous people living in Toronto use and understand the term two-spirit. As a queer Indigenous person, I often see the term two-spirit being tacked on to the end of the LGBTQ acronym without much thought about what the word means.
 

Though the project started as a bid to create a document that could help dispel some of the misunderstandings that many people (especially non-Indigenous people) have about the term two-spirit, many participants actually refused the idea that defining two-spirit so that people who are not part of our community can better understand it was a worthwhile undertaking. Instead, they emphasized the importance of creating opportunities to share knowledge within our own two-spirit, trans and queer Indigenous community – because it is our Indigenous communities who hold the power to create change.

I’m currently working on turning my thesis into a zine – a more accessible format than an academic paper — so that I can share the research back to community members.


What extracurricular activities did you participate in on campus?

I was involved with the Indigenous Education Network (IEN) at OISE, as well as the Onkwehonwe-Anishinaabe Graduate Student Collective (OAGSC), an informal support network of Indigenous graduate students. It was really important to me to connect with fellow Indigenous students, faculty and staff, and being involved with the IEN and OAGSC allowed me opportunities to learn from peers and mentors and also share some of the knowledge I collected about how to survive graduate school!


What does completing this degree mean to you?

For me, completing this degree is an opportunity to give thanks for all of the support I had during my time at OISE. I’m profoundly grateful for the support of my fellow Indigenous graduate students, the staff of the IEN (especially the ever-generous Julie Blair), and for all of the two-spirit, trans and queer Indigenous scholars who paved the way for me to do my work.


Where do you see yourself in five years?

In 5 years, I hope to be working on my doctorate!
 

What advice would you give to incoming students?

My advice to all new OISE students is to take care of your bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits! Graduate school can feel like a whirlwind of deadlines, reading, writing, and meetings (not to mention work and family commitments), so I would encourage all incoming students to utilize all of the resources at their disposal to take care of themselves – and to rest when you need to! Your health is more important than school.
 

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Laing (second from the right) with fellow members of the Indigenous Education Network (IEN) at OISE. While reflecting on Laing, IEN coordinator Julie Blair (second from the left) said, “Marie is a strong leader who is dedicated to her work in the Indigenous community both personally and professionally. As both a teacher and a learner, Marie engages in relationship building and collaboration from a place of kindness and cultural knowledge, while inspiring others to do the same.”