Three months into an usual school year, Quanah Traviss has a lot on his plate. The Loyalist Collegiate and Vocational Institute (LCVI) year five student is adjusting to the octomester system, is missing his high school band, and looking ahead to graduation.
He has also taken on the unique challenge of serving as Limestone District School Board (LDSB)’s first ever Indigenous Student Trustee. Traviss said he arrived at the position after previously participating in his school’s leadership club, planning events such as semi-formals and spirit days.
“Jessica Crook, the previous Student Trustee, told me the Board was planning on bringing in an Indigenous Student Trustee. And everyone around the circle just kind of looked at me when she said that. It was kind of in that moment I knew this is what I was going to be doing for the next year,” he said.
“I think the school board is here for the students, and the student families first. Student voice — no matter who it comes from — is the most important voice.” Traviss said. “For far, far too long the Indigenous voice has been missing from everything, until these last few years… I’m glad that our school board was one of the first in the province to do this. I’m glad it was me. It’s something I have a lot of interest in.”
A way to be involved
Traviss was elected in June, while LDSB had halted their classes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He represents a newly-formed InterSchool council of Indigenous Student Representatives at LDSB’s monthly board meetings. He takes the responsibility to speak for his peers seriously.
“I do have a lot of personal goals coming into this, and I can achieve some of them from where I am. Some I won’t. I don’t represent just myself,” he said. “I bring my ideas to [the Indigenous Student Representatives], but if I don’t get their overwhelming support, I never say another word of it.”
Traviss said he comes from a family and a community that have long been involved in Indigenous advocacy. “My grandmother is very active in the community,” he said. “I grew up around people who were very die-hard activists, standing up for Indigenous rights.”
Personally, Traviss is deeply involved in the arts, playing the flute, bass guitar, alto saxophone and piano. After graduation, he hopes to pursue teaching, specifically music and English. He said his family has been supportive of him taking up this Trustee role, though sometimes he questions it himself.
“When you look at Indigenous people’s past, with institutions and what they have done to us, a few people might be a little skeptical of me working so closely with an institution,” he said.
Ongoing campaigns for Indigenous rights across the country — the Wet’suwet’en in BC, the Mi’kmaq on the east coast, and at the Six Nations reserve near Brampton, Ont. — have his attention, he said.
“There is the ongoing land reclamation — or protest or whatever you want to call it — at Landback Lane, out at Six Nations,” he said. “I’m not going to name any names or connections, but there are people I know who are close to me that are there. I want to support them,” he said, noting that part of him sometimes feels drawn to travel there, too. “But I feel like there are other things I’m doing that here not everybody would do, so I’m here doing this instead.”
Raising critical questions
Traviss said he tries to bring a critical voice and perspective to the LDSB meetings, when necessary.
“The reason I chose to go forward is I saw a lot of things that I felt needed to change at the Board. I really didn’t want somebody coming in to say ‘yes’ to everything that was happening,” he said. “Sometimes you need somebody to come in and say ‘No — you shouldn’t do this.’ I have done that, and I will continue to do that.”
He gave this year’s Orange Shirt Day commemoration as an example. The national day of recognition on September 30th honours residential school survivors and their families across Canada.
“I talked to some students from my school and a few others from across the board… about not playing the national anthem on Orange Shirt Day. For some reasons of sensitivity, not everyone wanted to hear that,” he said.
Of the 60 schools on the board, Traviss knows that his own, LCVI, as well as LaSalle Secondary School, skipped O Canada on Orange Shirt Day. It’s possible that other schools also participated, but he’s not had confirmation. “Even if it’s just those two schools, I feel like that was something,” he said.
Traviss said one of his LCVI peers inspired the demonstration. This student sits every day during the Canadian national anthem, he said, in solidarity with Indigenous peoples and nations. Traviss said he has also done this in his life, though not as much lately.
“It was interesting to me, so I talked to them and the idea came up. What if that student didn’t have to be the only one sitting down that day? What if everyone else did too?”
Traviss said he received no pushback from any students or staff in response to the demonstration. “I sent an email out to all the Indigenous Student Representatives from each school. The ones I did get a response back from spoke to their families and their school leadership circles and they all got back to me and said they fully supported it.”
Traviss said the Indigenous Student Representatives also touched on mandated Indigenous land acknowledgements during their meeting and discussions.
“I don’t like one bit how every day during the morning announcements, it’s somebody just reading from the same script, over and over and over again. There’s no thought put into that, it’s meaningless. Its people going in to check the boxes, say the land acknowledgement,” he said.
Instead, Traviss said ideally a person would make a sincere statement of reflection about where they are and why. For the board’s purposes though, he said he would like to see Indigenous Student Trustees engaged and have a hand in drafting an appropriate land acknowledgement for the students at their school.
He said he is also happy to be on board to raise more general concerns and questions.
“At the end of the day, I’m just another high school student,” he added. “I have my opinions, obviously, on my culture and my background, but I also have my opinions on the octomester system, on music education, on the arts in general. Things that I’m considering for myself apart from the Indigenous part of who I am.”
Appointment process still under review
According to Suzanne Ruttan, Chair of the LDSB, the decision to include an Indigenous Student Trustee position at the board was reached at the end of 2019.
“In the fall of 2019, the Board asked for a report on Indigenous Trustees. We were given a report, there was legislation attached to that. It talked about the need to have an education agreement with a band,” she said. “The band that we have an agreement with is the Mowhawks of the Bay of Quinte. But they don’t have a lot of students that actually attend in Limestone.”
Ruttan said the Board decided to move towards the addition of an Indigenous Student Trustee because they felt it could be “more relevant.”
“The idea of a student trustee was raised. And our hearts swelled. We thought that’s what we need — the youth voice. That’s what we want at the table,” she said.
While Traviss values his role, he questions the lack of voting power.
“I talk a lot to the other student trustees, not just our board but, from all across Ontario. While we feel student voice is the most important one, its not necessarily always the one that’s heard. I’m not trying to throw any shade here,” he added. “At our table, there are nine trustees, 12 if you count the students. But the student votes aren’t counted. So at the end of the day, you might hear from that voice but it’s not included the same way.”
Traviss said he would also like to see a voting process in place to appoint the school’s Indigenous Student Representatives to InterSchool Council. He was approached directly by his principal and asked to consider the role, he said. From within that group of InterSchool representatives, he ran for and was elected to be the Indigenous Student Trustee.
“Back in 2019, we wanted things to happen quickly,” Ruttan said, calling it a pilot year. “I think the process now of electing through the Indigenous student group is going to become far more crisp.”
Limestone collecting new student data on cultural background, gender
Ruttan also noted that Limestone is about to embark on its first ever student census, ‘See Yourself in Limestone.’
“That census is going to identify students from all backgrounds and genders,” she said. “It’s going to be a gift of data.”
She noted that some students may not publicly identify as Indigenous, or as other cultures or genders, even if they do so privately.
“We know we have a large Indigenous population and it is quite varied. For students that have hesitated to self-identify, we’re hoping the census is going to open that up for them. And we’re hoping that having an Indigenous Student Trustee will open up that opportunity to self-identify, be super-proud, be a part of this council.
“What we are looking for now is to find that quiet Indigenous voice and let them speak a little bit louder,” she added.
Ruttan said that she is aware of the hard legacy of Canada’s ‘Status’ system, which robbed many people in Canada of their cultural identity by arbitrarily assigning or denying their federal Indigenous status and rights.
“There is a lot of history, and its negative history,” she said. “We’re not asking ‘How Indigenous are you?’ We are saying ‘Please! Identify and be proud so that you can be part of this.’”
Regarding Traviss’s participation, Ruttan said she and the Board can not express enough about how proud they are.
“When Quanah said the most important voice is the student voice, I couldn’t agree more. I couldn’t agree more,” she said.