When considering the cultural context in which Rochdale College was created and existed (1964 -1975), one finds a striking resonance with our contemporary moment: a turbulent political ocean, fuelled by the currents of a counterculture which demands the re-examination of its systems and structures. Activists were and are speaking out, and living out, in protest.
Today, our political ocean remains turbulent and, sadly, includes many of the same concerns. It is difficult to speak to the mood and the feel of a past moment through which one did not live, but its resonances can be felt today. The fear of failure supported by the prevalent narrative of collapse that surrounds Rochdale, ‘the utopian flop,’ places it in the ‘cautionary tale’ category and sucks the hope out of idealist visions for our contemporary society. ‘They tried that and it didn’t work’ haunts the ideals that once flourished amidst the anarchic confusion and, as sometimes viewed, embarrassing failure of a whole hearted attempt at ‘something else’. Thus Rochdale’s legacy has been manipulated to reinforce dominant systems of control and oppression, shaping it into a proof that the way we currently live is simply ‘the way things are’.
Yet there are legacies of change that were given space to incubate and coalesce within the protective walls of Rochdale College. There is certainly something to glean from the struggles and shortcomings of the participants in this experiment, this laboratory for alternate societal frameworks. Positive change did occur and, in some cases, revealed deeper problematic issues which allow the activists of today to better understand where change needs to happen before further growth can occur. The momentous and sometimes tangled work that was born out of Rochdale might better serve us as encouragement than cautionary tale. One such example is the Institute for Indian Studies.
While Rochdale was being incorporated in 1964, Indigenous groups across the country were also expressing the need to create their own schools. This movement gained a significant profile in 1970 when the Indian Association of Alberta (IAA), led by Harold Cardinal of Sucker Creek First Nation, and the National Indian Brotherhood, presented the Canadian federal government with the Red Paper (otherwise known as Citizen Plus). The Red Paper was a counter proposal to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper (Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy). Nearly 30 years later, Cardinal reflected that “[e]ducation is one area in which political change since 1969 has been real and measurable”, stating that while there is still further to go, much of the positive progress was due to “the development and implementation of policies guaranteeing First Nations educational control” (Cardinal, xvii).
In 1967, one of the first full time resource persons at Rochdale, Ian MacKenzie, proposed the creation of an Institute for Indian Studies (IIS). The IIS would provide Indigenous education through an Indigenous approach and would be housed on the 17th floor of the college building. MacKenzie brought Wilfred Pelletier, an Odawa from the Wikwemikong Reserve on Manitoulin Island, and an active member of the National Indian Council (NIC) and the Canadian Indian Centre of Toronto, to Rochdale to build the institution. The IIS opened in 1968 and quickly became a community hub for Indigenous youth in Toronto, as well as a prominent place of exchange between Indigenous and ‘hippie’ activists. The Institute also contributed to the national movement to transform Indigenous education in Canada through its ‘Cross Cultural Workshop’, a ten-day participatory training program in cross cultural communication from Indigenous perspectives. This workshop was held successfully for three consecutive years, after which it evolved into the influential and expansive Indian Ecumenical Conference (1971-76).
Whereas Rochdalians were seeking to dismantle a system, the IIS sought to restore an alternate one. During these first few years of existence, while Rochdale struggled to find its footing, the IIS flourished and grew. Pelletier believed that “people who are conditioned to get their information from books, conditioned to learn by submitting to instruction, don’t know how to look and see, don’t know how to observe”(Pelletier & Poole, 163). He was the Director for the Institute, but insisted that “everyone makes up their own minds in terms of what they want to do, and they do those things, and if I can be of assistance, then I assist” (Pelletier, 1971).
Pelletier became a prominent member of the Rochdale resource team, even serving as acting general manager for six months. He and his colleagues provided guidance in creating an alternative structure for education and community building. However, the rift between ideology and practice for the majority of the students and organizers at the College proved to be an unexpectedly insurmountable challenge. In 1970, the IIS decided to relocate its operations, changing its name to the Nishnawbe Institute. As an interesting point of reference to Alberta history, Blue Quills Native Education Centre would open its doors one year later in 1971.
It is relevant and telling that while the Institute had originated as a collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership, the parity between these two groups began to break down over time. Ian MacKenzie and Bob Thomas, who were both non-Indigenous, believed that the Indian Ecumenical Conference had to be institutionalized or its success would dissipate. Wilfred Pelletier, along with other Indigenous members, believed that the drive to “lead” rather than “serve” would only result in “energy, resources and people [being] drawn out of the circle" (Treat, 221). They felt the Conference was no longer being led by Indigenous perspectives nor was it reflecting the wishes of its Indigenous community. These differences continued to grow until Pelletier left the steering committee in 1972. In No Foreign Lands, Pelletier summarizes this experience with white culture as people who “just can't seem to help taking over and running everything” and that somehow “they always ended up in the driver's seat” (Pelletier & Poole, 143). The Conference and the Nishnawbe Institute closed in 1976, one year after Rochdale itself.
An examination of the evolution and eventual demise of the Institute for Indian Studies reveals a paradox buried within the concept from which Rochdale College was created.Though they built walls to keep the ‘establishment’ out, they could not help but recreate the system they abhorred; it walked in through the doors, deep within many members of the college. In reflecting on the first tumultuous year of Rochdale, founding resource persons Dennis Lee and Ian Mackenzie each articulated substantial personal revelations. Lee came to describe knowledge as “the result of a decision to ask a specific question, […] or to welcome and endure the pathless necessities which bear in on us, or recede from us, when we admit that we do not know what question to ask at all” (Treat, 94). MacKenzie discovered that he was "far more conditioned to respond in traditional ways'' than he had initially believed, and that "coming to grips with life in a situation where all the external structures have been removed was a painful, and at times frightening, experience” (Treat, 94-95).
Dismantling a ‘system’ begins from within. It does not require an eighteen storey building, it requires attention and commitment to the difficult task of identifying the systems that are in place within ourselves. Similarly, a community or a counter-culture cannot be limited to the boundaries of a building. It cannot be separated from the rest of the world because it exists in relationships, and in the space we give each other to imagine different worlds. What happens when you realize your own complicity?
It would benefit those of us living in 2022 to reframe our perception of ‘failure’. We should be grateful for the courage and conviction demonstrated in the unabashed experiment that was Rochdale College, carrying forward its truths and weighty revelations. We should accept the challenge to examine the truest and deepest schism in our settler-colonial national identity: a desire for a new world combined with a compulsion to rebuild and control that which is familiar. We must put aside our incessant urge to externalize problematic patterns and acknowledge the personal responsibility of change.
Cardinal, Harold. The Unjust Society. Douglas & McIntyre, 1999.
Hall, Tony. The American Empire and the Fourth World : The Bowl with One Spoon. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.
Osborne, Ralph. From Someplace Else : A Memoir. ECW Press, 2003.
Pelletier, Wilfred, and Ted Poole. No Foreign Land; the Biography of a North American Indian. Pantheon Books, 1973.
Pelletier, W. “Childhood in an Indian Village.” RAINBOW PEOPLE, vol. 1, no. 4, 1971, p. 22.
Sharpe, David. Rochdale, the Runaway College. Anansi, 1987.
Treat, James. Around the Sacred Fire : A Native Religious Activism in the Red Power Era : A Narrative Map of the Indian Ecumenical Conference. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.