Open Your Mind: A Q&A with Indigenous histories researcher Jon Johnson

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Jon Johnson, a professor and researcher in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies.

Johnson’s research focus is on Indigenous knowledge and land-based storytelling traditions in Toronto. He is a critical interdisciplinary researcher that works within Toronto’s Indigenous community.

Q. Please describe your field of current research.

Jon Johnson
Jon Johnson

A. I’m currently focusing on the Indigenous histories of the Greater Toronto Area and how those are expressed through Indigenous land-based Indigenous storytelling traditions. I’m interested in the ways that telling and hearing these stories promotes stronger connections to the land, Indigenous culture, and ultimately, health and healing.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. When I first started my doctoral research in 2003, I became involved with what was then known as the ‘Toronto Native Community History Project’ at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. While volunteering there, I learned about the Great ‘Indian’ Bus Tour of Toronto, which was this really interesting tour of Toronto’s Indigenous heritage led by Anishnabe scholar and activist Rodney Bobiwash.

Unfortunately, Rodney Bobiwash passed away in 2002, so I never did get to take a tour with him. But, I did hear an audio recording of one of the tours he led, and I also attended many of the bus tours that were led by Indigenous playwright Alanis King, who continued to lead the tours after Rodney Bobiwash’s passing. What struck me about this tour was that it was an example of an urban Indigenous land-based storytelling tradition. At the time, very little had been written about Indigenous storytelling traditions in or about urban environments. There was this big gap in the research that no one seemed to be addressing, and yet here was this really rich and vibrant community-based tour that seemed to me to be an obvious example of an Indigenous land-based storytelling tradition in and about Toronto.

I was asked to help out with the tours as an assistant to Alanis King, and so was able to learn many of the stories she told. I also began doing quite a bit of my own research on Toronto’s Indigenous heritage. In 2008, Alanis King moved away from Toronto and couldn’t continue doing the tours, but they were still popular and people kept requesting them. I was asked to continue doing the tours, initially on my own, but eventually with other Indigenous guides. I haven’t been counting, but I’ve probably done over 100 tours by now. The stories told on the bus tour and the ways Indigenous people in the city interpret the significance of those stories became a major focus of my doctoral research, and my current research very much stems from my ongoing work with the tours and Toronto’s Indigenous community.

Jon Johnson, along with Philip Cote, leading a First Story tour
Jon Johnson, along with Philip Cote, leading a First Story tour

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. There has long been this colonial assumption that Indigenous people and culture are in some ways at odds with urban life, and I think that assumption has caused researchers to overlook the contributions that Indigenous people make to cities and existence of urban Indigenous land-based traditions. There’s over 13,000 years of Indigenous history in Toronto and that history is still unfolding today.

The entire Toronto landscape is permeated with stories of Indigenous accomplishments. Yet when I first started doing the tours, people on the tours would often tell me how surprised they were by the richness of Indigenous history in Toronto, and that they had never heard those stories before. Since then, many more Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have become involved in researching, keeping and sharing these histories.

I think this work is really important because it counters the colonial erasure of Indigenous peoples in the city and reminds people that even places like Toronto are part of traditional Indigenous territories. Whether you’re Indigenous or not, hearing and telling these stories helps people see the long history of Indigenous peoples in the city and people feel often feel more meaningfully connected to the land and its heritage in ways that can be very health-promoting. I think the current popularity of the tours really attests to their value and importance in Toronto today.

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. The initial goal of my research was simply to show that urban Indigenous land-based storytelling traditions are currently being practiced in Toronto, that this storytelling tradition is comparable to non-urban land-based storytelling traditions, and that these urban stories are interesting and important to understand. I hope that my research inspires others to look more closely at the existence and character of urban Indigenous land-based traditions in Toronto and other cities. If these traditions exist in Toronto, where else are they being practiced and what can they tell us about the adaptability and resilience of Indigenous peoples and cultural traditions?

Jon Johnson, along with Philip Cote, performing a smudging ceremony for York students during a First Story bus tour
Jon Johnson, along with Philip Cote, performing a smudging ceremony for York students during a First Story bus tour

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. One of the most important things to acknowledge is that my research was inspired by work that was already being done by members of Toronto’s Indigenous community. My contribution to that work was only possible through my ongoing participation within Toronto’s Indigenous community. It took me over 10 years to complete my research and dissertation writing because it was important that I first get to know people, work within the community, and understand what was important and of value to people in the community.

As a result, I ended up participating in the storytelling that I wanted to examine in my research. Among Indigenous people, relationship is key and needs to come before research. My research and my participation within Toronto’s Indigenous community are inseparable – not only because I’ve only been able to learn what I have by participating within the community, but also because most of the work I do goes directly back to the community via my work with First Story Toronto. It is reciprocal.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.)

A. I’ve been able to meet and learn from so many interesting people in Toronto’s Indigenous community that are so much more knowledgeable than I am about so many things. It’s very humbling, but also very exciting when people share even a bit of their considerable knowledge with you – you realize how much you still have to learn! One thing that surprised me is how learning and sharing stories of Toronto’s Indigenous history has changed how I understand and relate to places in the city. The more I learned of and shared these stories, the more connected I felt to the places in the city where those stories happened. Now, wherever I go, I’m thinking of the way the land used to look, the people that lived there, their contributions and struggles and it makes me think about my own actions and whether what I do is consistent with, and honours, those contributions.

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

The stone on the hill is a marker atop a Wendat burial mound in Scarborough called Tabor Hill
The stone on the hill is a marker atop a Wendat burial mound in Scarborough called Tabor Hill

A. I think an important challenge is the time that is needed to do research within Indigenous communities. Doctoral students are often pressured to finish their dissertation research in two or three years, but sometimes, especially when working within Indigenous communities, doing the research properly means that you might have to take significantly longer than this. This can create significant challenges for some students engaging in Indigenous research. I was lucky that my doctoral committee and the Communication and Culture program at York University were very understanding and accommodating of my need to take longer than usual to do my research, but students in other programs and universities may experience more difficulties. As universities collectively move toward indigenizing their programs and institutional approaches, I think it will be important to ensure that students engaging in community-based research are adequately supported at the institutional level if they need to extend beyond a few years.

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. One thing I’ve become more open to is the role of intuition, emotion and spirituality in research. Researchers are often taught to trust intellect and reasoning at the expense of these other avenues of learning, but there is also much to be gained from engagement with intuition and I am learning that the balance of these avenues for knowledge can make one a better researcher.

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. Absolutely. My research draws from insights and methods from history, Indigenous studies and philosophy, communication studies, environmental studies, geography, health studies and anthropology. I was lucky to be able to pursue this research through the Communication and Culture program at York University. The interdisciplinary nature of that program allowed me to forage across disciplinary landscapes to achieve a more holistic and complex understanding of the topic than I could have achieved in a more disciplinary program. I would say that my research is inherently interdisciplinary.

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. Yes. I teach courses within the Health & Society program in the Department of Social Sciences. Since 2007 I’ve taught SOSC 3921 6.0 Indigenous Health and Healing: Interdisciplinary and Traditional Dialogues. Next year I will likely be teaching a new course on health, storytelling and media. Both of these courses are informed by my engagement with storytelling within Toronto’s Indigenous community.

Tell us a bit about yourself:

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. I’ve been a researcher for about 15 years now, since the start of my doctoral research at York University.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. There really have been so many books that have influenced my life and thinking in different ways. When I think about it, the authors that have influenced me most are those that are exceptional storytellers. I’m thinking of Thomas King’s The Truth about Stories, Edward Benton-Benai’s The Mishomis Book, and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, for example. What strikes me about these storytellers is their ability to tell stories that are so entertaining and accessible, yet contain profound lessons which belie the simplicity of their wording. Along similar lines, Marshall McLuhan, although he wasn’t really a storyteller in a conventional sense, had a penchant for aphorisms that can really get you thinking in unexpected directions. To me, that is what is so fascinating about stories; diverse peoples of all ages and walks of life can listen to and be moved by a story, and yet the lessons they take from it might be very different, depending on who they are and where they are in life.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. I am usually reading several books simultaneously at any given time. Right now I’m reading Basil Johnston’s Honour Earth Mother, Centering Anishnabeg Studies by Doerfler et. al., Indigenous Healing: Exploring Traditional Paths by Rupert Ross, and Determinants of Indigenous People’s Health in Canada by Greenwood et. al.

I’m not currently reading anything ‘for fun’ right now, but I usually make time for fun reading over the summer. I usually gravitate toward fantasy, science fiction and horror genres, but my tastes are pretty eclectic.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. I like to spend time with friends and family. I also like to dabble in computer programming, web development and digital art. I find the opportunity to create something new, whether it’s a program, web page, image, or animation, to be highly rewarding.