Teaching immigration and Indigenous self-determination relationally

Undergraduate social work students interested in both the immigrant experience and Indigenous issues had an opportunity this summer to enrol in an elective that combined the two.

Soma Chatterjee, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, re-designed an existing course titled Social Work with Immigrants and Refugees to foster a deeper understanding of immigration and immigrant/refugee protection, settlement and integration, and how, in Canada, they relate to Indigenous self-determination.

Professor Soma Chatterjee (second from the left) with students during a visit to the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto
Professor Soma Chatterjee (second from the left) with students during a class visit to the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto

“Typically, immigration and Indigenous history are studied in isolation, but following the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s report and the celebrations and introspection surrounding the 150th year of the Confederation, the significance of thinking about these two important issues together is dawning upon many,” Chatterjee said.

“The course was planned to facilitate students’ understanding of themselves as practitioners in immigration and refugee protection at a time when questions of Indigenous self-determination and those of unprecedented displacement of communities worldwide are challenging critical practitioners to re-think their political and ethical responsibilities.”

Chatterjee’s own research focuses on immigration and nation building, so the intersection of these two topics is of interest to her personally.

The Native Canadian Centre of Toronto was one stop on the experiential education bus tour that Professor Soma Chatterjee arranged for students

“It’s something I’m working out for myself,” she said, “so I taught the course to challenge myself as a teacher and a researcher. I aimed to offer an understanding of Canada’s immigrant-Indigenous relations and foster understanding of shared yet distinct histories. It is by studying immigration and Indigenous self-determination relationally that, I suggest, we can expose the operations of white supremacist colonial capitalism.

“It wasn’t, for instance, a random accident that Indigenous people were not systematically incorporated into the systems of infrastructural and industrial wage labour that built the country we know now” Chatterjee said. “It was designed that way.”

To provide additional depth to the course, Chatterjee brought in eight guest speakers to share their experiences, advocacy and research. The roster included Chatterjee’s colleague, Professor Ruth Koleszar-Green, who explained her understanding of the responsibilities of a guest (i.e., immigrant) who “has taken from the dish” and shared her vision of a collective future for immigrants and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Social Work students and faculty on location at High Park in Toronto. Professor Jon Johnson, fifth from the right, spoke to students about the urban Indigenous experience in Toronto

The course also included experiential components, supported by the Office of the Vice President Academic & Provost’s Indigeneity in Teaching and Learning Fund. Chatterjee arranged a bus tour of Toronto narrated by Jon Johnson, a faculty member from York’s Health and Society program on behalf of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, and he talked to the students about the urban Indigenous experience in Toronto, both historically and today.

As a contrast, Chatterjee encouraged the students to ride the 501 streetcar, which crosses Toronto from east to west, to observe the things that are showcased about Canadian history and those that are ignored or obscured.

Although Chatterjee received positive feedback from her students, she hopes to reshape the course into a graduate offering.

“I had so much to talk about that we really packed in a lot,” Chatterjee said, “and a graduate course might allow me to discuss some of the topics in more depth, since the students will probably have more exposure to the concerns of labour, capital and nations that are so central to this subject.

Professor Jon Johnson (centre) talks to students and faculty about the traditional medicinal plants that grow in High Park

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus