York alum takes a special path to professorship

Shirley Williams (Nishnaabe-kwe), a York alumna (MES ’96), has become the first person in Canada to be promoted to full professor based on her traditional knowledge of Aboriginal cultures, customs, language and rituals. Williams received the rank one year ago at Trent University in Peterborough. Professor Joe Sheridan of York’s Faculties of Environmental Studies (FES) and Education sent this story to YFile:

Left: Shirley Williams

Participants at Trent’s recent annual Elders Conference rose to a standing ovation in honour of Williams’ distinction, with native studies Professor David Newhouse describing her contributions to the intellectual life of the university as a “singular and enduring legacy”.

Williams chose the categorization of “dual tradition scholar” during her academic appointment, and exceptionally exemplified the qualities of scholarship in this category of conventional and indigenous ways of knowing.

Traditional knowledge is defined at Trent University as knowledge of language and traditional customs, rites, rituals, and teachings of a particular group of Aboriginal people or peoples. Williams’ cross-cultural work at the university and beyond has been to engage Anishinaabeg intellectual traditions in dialogues with the disciplinary knowledge of western traditions. Her many publications include Ojibway language education texts, interactive Ojibway language instruction CD-ROMs and a legacy of Aboriginal language instruction methodologies.

Born on Manitoulin Island, Williams was home schooled in traditional knowledge before attending St. Joseph’s Residential School in Spanish, Ontario, near Sault Ste. Marie, at the age of 10. The transition from such traditional activities as harvesting medicines to tree and plant biology grounded her in environmental studies, while her cultural life blossomed as a precocious speaker of the Nishinaabe language. She learned English in an environment that punished use of traditional languages and substituted traditional ecological and cultural knowledge for vocational training.

Williams, the second youngest daughter of the Pheasant family, was taught by her grandmother to be a tradition bearer of Anishinaabe heritage. She finished her education at St. Joseph’s Residential School and resumed her traditional education at Wikwemikong First Nation. She finished high school after a brief career as a nursing assistant and went on to accomplish a Bachelor of Arts (Trent), Native Language Instructors Program Diploma (Lakehead) and an MES (York). She began her teaching career at Niagara College before joining Native Studies at Trent and teaching Ojibway language at Lakehead University.

Internationally renowned as an indigenous language instructor and linguistic authority, Williams survived and persevered in a system of cultural assimilation. A survivor of residential schooling and an authority on healing the legacy of residential schooling, she has accomplished an international reputation and achieved a Canadian first.