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On its face, the Indigenous Voices Awards gala that took place in Regina this spring was a celebration of Indigenous writers. Part book launch, part musical performance and part pub night, the event offered a supportive platform – and $26,000 in prizes – to a group of exceptional emerging artists. Behind the scenes, the night was also a major accomplishment for the scholarly association that put the whole thing on.

The Indigenous Literary Studies Association , or ILSA, is a relatively new association in Canadian academia that traces its roots to a “visioning meeting” at the University of British Columbia in 2013. That fall, a council of Indigenous and settler scholars met to address the need for a network dedicated to discussing, promoting, celebrating, and fostering relationships around the ethical study and teaching of Indigenous peoples’ literatures in Canada.

The group included Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice; Sam McKegney associate professor at Queen’s University; Armand Ruffo, an Anishinaabe poet and associate professor at Queen’s; Rick Monture, a member of the Mohawk nation, Turtle clan, from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, and an assistant professor at McMaster University; Keavy Martin, an associate professor at the University of Alberta; Kristina Bidwell, a member of the Southern Inuit community of NunatuKavut in Labrador and associate dean of Aboriginal affairs in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan; Renate Eigenbrod, the late head of Native studies at the University of Manitoba; Jo-Ann Episkenew, a Métis writer and the late director of the Indigenous Peoples Health Research Centre at the University of Regina; and Cree-Métis scholar Deanna Reder, an associate professor of First Nations studies and English at Simon Fraser University.

Deliberations went on over several days, recalls Dr. Justice, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture at UBC. By the end, the group had drafted a statement of principles to guide its development.

“The whole point of the organization is how do we support and sustain the writing, the study of the writing and the people who are part of both,” Dr. Justice says. Mentorship, he adds, plays a significant role – particularly for “scholars in institutions where maybe Indigenous literature wasn’t very well represented, or not very well-supported, or where scholars may have felt vulnerable studying minoritized literature.”
Dr. Justice says that in nearly five years since that first meeting, ILSA has “grown by leaps and bounds.” Still, he adds, it remains “mindfully different” from other literary studies associations in ways that “attend to our needs as a field.”

One way that ILSA has set itself apart is in the format of its signature scholarly event. Every year, it co-hosts a roundtable discussion with the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. This year’s roundtable was ILSA’s biggest yet. Nearly 100 people showed up at First Nations University of Canada in Regina for a discussion titled “Sovereign Solidarities: Autonomy and Accountability in BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Colour] Alliances.” According to Dr. Justice, that’s five times the crowd they usually draw.

Besides the roundtable, ILSA hosts an annual public gathering. It alternates locations between the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, where it was held this year, or “in community.” The first ILSA annual conference, for example, took place in 2015 at Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario. In the conference program, organizers stated that the event strives to “move beyond academic lip-service regarding ‘community consultation,’ which too often replicates colonial power structures, and instead to build relationships among educational institutions and Indigenous groups based on reciprocity and respect.” For 2017, they […]

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