Wearing traditional beaded mukluks he later explained were made of beaver, seal and moosehide, Mike Robertson greeted the audience in the native tongue of the Cheslatta. He stood before the gathered students, faculty and “fans of Canada,” poised to give a talk called “The man who went to the dump and never returned.”
Robertson, senior policy advisor for the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, an aboriginal band in British Columbia, Canada, was a speaker at the 13th annual Canada Days at MU held March 6-10. He joined MU faculty and fellow countrymen in presenting on and celebrating Canada, which turns 150 years old this year.
Canada Days was first started in 2004 as the brainchild of then-political science professor Patrick James. Co-presented by the Canadian studies program and the Consulate General of Canada, Canada Days recruits a variety of professors, government officials, artists and interest group representatives to speak to attendees. Canadian studies program director James Endersby tries to have new types of speakers each year.
“I think this year’s program was larger and fuller than we typically have,” he said.
In addition to Robertson, who gave two presentations, Canada Days 2017 included lectures by MU professors about Canadian politics and natural resources and a panel discussion on Canadian theater. There were two films shown, Hamlet and Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming, as well as a meet-and-greet with Consul General Steve Brereton.
The events are funded through a partnership with the Canadian consulate in Chicago. To Endersby’s knowledge, MU is the only university in the consulate’s district that puts on an event like Canada Days.
“Others may have a speaker here or there, but we’re the only one that has a vibrant Canadian studies program,” he said. “For us to be many hundreds of miles from Canada, I think we’re very unique, and I think it’s something that helps the university.”
Canada Days paved the way for the Canadian studies program, which was started in 2009. Its mission is “to promote awareness of Canada throughout the university, state, and region” through a Canadian studies minor, events like Canada Days and faculty research. Endersby, who took over as director in 2011, said the program is seeing less students get the minor but many take the offered courses.
In order to count as a Canadian studies course, a class must have at least one-third Canadian content. The program has courses in geography, agricultural economics, political science, anthropology, French and other departments, though none of them are labelled as Canadian studies in the course catalog. This can make it difficult for students to find classes that will count toward their minor.
Continuous cuts in funding have also contributed to fewer students pursuing the minor. Until 2012, Canada Days and other outreach efforts by the Canadian studies program were funded in part by the “Understanding Canada” grant program run by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The department reduced the scope of the program due to what it called “the current fiscal context,” leaving international Canadian studies programs all over the world without financial backing.
Endersby acknowledged it is expensive to do things such as study abroad or conduct research without support, but he said the consulate has helped fill gaps for those looking for opportunities to study Canada.
“Canada is just often overlooked,” Endersby said. “Canada is of critical importance to the United States and as well as to the state of Missouri, and we just don’t think about that. We just think about the problems and not the strengths of the relationships we have.”
He pointed out that Canada is Missouri’s largest international trade partner. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Missouri exported $5.2 billion worth of goods to Canada in 2016, more than twice as much as its next highest trading partner.
The Missouri-Canada relationship is fostered at MU through research and outreach. Endersby’s own interests focus on elections and the voting process in Canada, while his colleagues’ covers evolutionary theory in rural fishing villages, infectious diseases and francophone literature among other topics. In addition to research, students can participate in fellowships, studies abroad and events; Canada Days itself provides many opportunities for learning about critical Canadian issues.
Robertson used his presentation as just that on behalf of the Cheslatta people. He explained that in 1952, the Aluminum Company of Canada built a dam and redirected the Nechako River’s flow so that it flooded Cheslatta land, forcing them to evacuate. The members individually bought land nearby; there are now eight reserves that make up the nation. Determined to stay independent, the Cheslatta have since been awarded a community forest license, built a sawmill with the local non-native community and established a premium paddle-making company to generate their own income.
With Robertson’s help, they have also been negotiating with the provincial government for reparation.
“They don’t walk up to government or industry and punch ’em in the nose,” Robertson said. “They sit down with them and work it out. It’s pretty unique. There’s a lot of activism in Indian country.”
Robertson himself was born in America and emigrated to Canada in the ’70s. He first volunteered to help record Cheslatta history after finding photographs, maps and records during a trip to the dump and presenting them to the chief. Later, he sold his meat shop in Grassy Plains, British Columbia, and began advising for the Cheslatta full time. He said First Nations-government relationships have come a long way since he started working with the band.
“In 2017, there’s a lot bigger ears to listen and a lot bigger minds to understand these issues,” Robertson said.
While Canada Days has had aboriginal interest group representatives come speak in the past, Endersby said this is the first time they’ve had someone so connected on the ground come speak, and he was excited for the outreach possibilities with students.
“The Cheslatta are a small aboriginal band, a small First Nations band, but there are hundreds others like them, so there is plenty of opportunity for making the world a better place,” he said.
William Bloss, a freshman history major whose girlfriend convinced him to attend Robertson’s talk, enjoyed the presentation, though he acknowledged being a history major makes him more apt to.
“I never really think about the First Nations stuff in Canada because we have our own issues,” Bloss said. “I wish I knew more about this history up there.”
Pleasantly surprised by the undergraduate response, Endersby is already looking forward to Canada Days 2018.
“There’s a lot of things we can do in terms of research and teaching and serving that relates to Canada,” Endersby said. “We have a neighbor to the north and that northern neighbor is important.”
Edited by Emily Gallion | email@example.com