The history of cities on Turtle Island goes something like this: Europeans show up unannounced and, driven by racist ideologies,transform the land, remove its people and build a physical and social facsimile of Europe so waves of colonists can feel comfortable.
None of this seemed problematic to Katie Turriff (BES '20) until a reconnection with her Indigenous roots helped her realize the trouble with her profession’s “collective colonial amnesia.” Today she’s driven by the challenge of untangling urban planning from its settler legacy, and she’s asking her fellow planners to do the same.
Having volunteered to revitalize downtown Belleville, Ont., Turriff came to Waterloo concerned about the same issues plaguing mid-sized communities across Canada. “Getting people to the city core. Getting them to shop and buy things. Not enough parking? No parking at all? Belleville had it all,” she says.
She now realizes these spats lacked Indigenous voices, perspectives and decision-making power. This includes the local Tyendinaga community representing thousands of Mohawks in the Belleville area.
“If we’re serious about decolonizing, I would start with changing the names of our cities. Naming something is an act of ownership,” she says. “But real decolonization must be way more uncomfortable work in the realm of planning. Things like renaming are only the start.”
You could say I’m a pioneer in the field, but if you don’t get why that language is problematic, you still have work to do.
Turriff got her own start decolonizing urban planning when she took a Mohawk class at Waterloo and met fellow Indigenous people through the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre. “I knew about my heritage, but the Indigenous community at Waterloo opened my eyes to how dismissed and ignored Indigenous laws are in society, especially urban development,” Turriff says. “I don’t mean the law used by settlers to govern us and the land, but rather laws that existed before Confederation.”
Indigenous law emphasizes a kinship with the land that many today would recognize as environmental sustainability. “Settler environmentalists swooping in and presenting these concepts as new knowledge is actually kind of absurd,” Turriff says. She couldn’t stay silent to the erasure of her culture any longer and made it her mission to be a compelling and provocative leader in the movement to decolonize the discipline of city planning. "You could say I’m a pioneer in the field, but if you don’t get why that language is problematic, you still have work to do,” she says.
That work means helping settlers living on Turtle Island to truly understand decolonization and insist Indigenous peoples are consulted and given agency on projects planned for their land.Turriff laughs at the idea that decolonization means handing over total authority of Canadian land to Indigenous Peoples to do whatever they want. “I’ve seen this on social media. It’s laughable. It also says a lot about their cultural mindset that their first reaction is that they’ll be removed from their homes and livelihoods destroyed if Indigenous Peoples are given say over the land. That’s colonial policy, not Indigenous law.
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Katie Turriff says: “I knew about my heritage, but the Indigenous community at Waterloo opened my eyes to how dismissed and ignored Indigenous laws are in society, especially urban development.”
For some Indigenous peoples, Turtle Island refers to the continent of North America. Find out more about the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre.