In November 2019, Tee Duke was appointed as UTM’s first assistant director of Indigenous initiatives. For this issue, The Medium sat down with her to discuss her background, her new role’s responsibilities, and her plans for the future.
Duke grew up at the Niisaachewan Anishinaabe First Nation Reserve, also known as Treaty 3 territory. When she was 12, her family moved to Kenora, a small town in Northwestern Ontario. There, she experienced what it meant to be urban Indigenous for the first time. In 2004, she made a much larger move to Toronto, a city she calls “the big smoke.” Despite the huge population in Toronto, Duke describes the initial transition as being lonely since she constantly wondered “where [her] people [were].” She had moved across the province to Toronto to pursue education and employment opportunities which were limited in her community. Thus, breaking the common misconception that reserves are large government giveaways. Duke explains that her “story is not necessarily different from other Indigenous folks that want to come to [large cities].” Eventually, she learned how to build a community through networking. By attending social events and interacting with the few Indigenous people she knew, she created a circle of fellow Indigenous individuals.
It was through community building that Duke built her career. Her main motivation was to ensure that her fellow Indigenous people did not feel the way she had felt during her move to Toronto. Prior to becoming the assistant director of Indigenous initiatives at UTM, Duke was at the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC) for nine years. She worked as a trainer and educator who provided program support to children and youth programs at the 28 friendship centers in Ontario. Her work at OFIFC was entrenched in supporting Indigenous families by tackling issues such as trauma and resiliency, Indigenous gender and family roles, and governance and leadership from an Indigenous perspective.
As an Indigenous woman in the urban career force, Duke believes she has a responsibility to keep Indigenous communities connected and lively. Despite the extra weight on her shoulder, Duke finds fulfilling the responsibility through her work to be “very rewarding.”
As assistant director, Duke’s main role is to support the Indigenous community and promote allyship among non-Indigenous students and staff. One of her most important responsibilities is facilitating the university’s response to the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2018, the University of Toronto drafted a report titled the Wecheehetowin report. ‘Wecheehetowin’ means ‘working together’ in Cree and the report outlines U of T’s commitments to reconciliation on paper. Duke’s work is ensuring that the standards outlined in the report are being met.
Duke’s assessment of UTM’s reconciliation efforts is optimistic. “It’s growing and going in a really positive direction,” she comments. Duke also says that there are opportunities to strengthen relationships both internally and externally. One of the external efforts has been through relationship building with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, a Mississauga Ojibwa First Nation, who will be receiving an office on campus. The office is in the final stages of being made.
When asked about her advice for Indigenous students studying or planning to study at UTM, Duke says, “I think it’s really important that they are connecting with us…and [they] know that we are here.” The Indigenous centre provides a place for Indigenous staff and students to connect with one another and with external sources of support. It facilitates programming and hosts lunches that are open to all students.
In the future, Duke hopes to see an increased Indigenous presence at UTM and an increased awareness of UTM’s Indigenous Centre, even though the centre is pretty small relative to other UTM offices. Duke is also excited to relate that a group of Indigenous students have been talking about wanting to start the very first Indigenous Student Association at UTM.
Reconciliation at UTM and in Canada at large is a work in progress. To Duke, reconciliation means “building a relationship” with Indigenous people, with an emphasis on the word “relationship.” This means making sure Indigenous people are at the table when discussing matters that impact their communities and their land. Moreover, Duke wants to ensure that everyone is involved in the process of relationship building, as it is everyone’s responsibility. This starts with “having difficult conversations and asking difficult questions.” Essentially, as Duke puts it, “we need to listen to each other’s narrative and learn from each other.”