January 27, 2022 | Volunteer & Awards

Indigenous knowledge keeper James Bird receives rare double honours

Side-by-side images: James Bird holds a ceremonial coin, James Bird with Elizabeth Dowdeswell wear masks and stand together.

Left: James Bird (BA 2018 UC, MArch 2022) holds the Challenge Coin given to him by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario as a token of appreciation for supporting her office during her term. Right: Bird receives the Challenge Coin from the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell at Queen’s Park on December 10. Photos courtesy of the Office of the Lieutenant Governor

Over the past several years, Daniels Faculty graduate student James Bird (BA 2018 UC, MArch 2022) has worked tirelessly toward reconciling Canada-First Nations relations, liaising with top government officials and disseminating Indigenous teachings. And he has done it all while working toward his Master of Architecture degree, which he achieved earlier this month.

In December and January, the residential-school survivor and knowledge keeper from the Nehiyawak and Dene Nations was recognized not once but twice for his ongoing efforts, receiving a prestigious Challenge Coin from the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and a 2022 Clarkson Laureateship from Massey College, where Bird is a junior fellow.

Named after Adrienne Clarkson, Canada’s 26th Governor General, “the Clarkson Laureateships in Public Service are the highest honour that the College awards annually,” Bird explains. “This award dates back to 2004, during the final year of Madame Clarkson’s term. The Laureateships honour her many years of service to Canada by recognizing members of the Massey College community who also contribute to the public good.”

At Massey, Bird is one of three tobacco keepers of the college’s Chapel Royal, which was given that status by the Queen in 2017 and is known in Anishinaabek as Gi-Chi Twaa Gimaa Kwe Mississauga Anishinaabek AName Amik (The Queen’s Anishinaabek Sacred Place). A tobacco garden sits outside the Chapel Royal, the crop being a “sacred” resource long central to Crown-Indigenous relations. 

Although I am grateful for these honours, there is still so much more to be done, and I will continue to work on these issues that plague so many First Nations peoples in Canada

In June, Bird had co-hosted a luncheon and tour of the garden for the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor.  About a month before Bird accepted his Clarkson Laureateship during a virtual ceremony on January 14, he was at Queen’s Park, receiving his Challenge Coin from Dowdeswell in her office on December 10.

The Challenge Coin, a medallion bestowed annually to a select few, is a more personal honour, given by the Lieutenant Governor as a token of appreciation for supporting her office over the years of her term. 

In addition to hosting Dowdeswell at Massey College, Bird had also joined her ;for a July 1 Sunrise Ceremony, where he delivered the opening prayer. Such ceremonies are “a time to welcome goodness into the world and to move our collective intentions to kindness,” Bird said at the time. “As we move into these difficult times, let us all remember our collective humanity and move gently on Mother Earth.”

True to form, Bird will not be resting on his steadily growing laurels. Academically, a Doctorate of Philosophy in Architecture, Landscape, and Design will be next on his radar, while his work as a member of the University of Toronto’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission steering committee continues.  

“Although I am grateful for these [honours],” he says, “there is still so much more to be done, and I will continue to work on these issues that plague so many First Nations peoples in Canada.” 


Originally published by John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design

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