Open Your Mind: A Q&A with Professor William Wicken

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University faculty champion fresh ways of thinking in teaching and research excellence. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations. 

Today, the spotlight is on William Wicken, a professor in the Department of History in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. Wicken's research interest concerns the indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States. He is also extensively involved in public policy, working for First Nations communities, governments and testifying as an expert witness on historical issues where the plaintiff or defendant has raised a constitutional argument. Wicken played an integral role in the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision that thousands of Métis and non-status Indians are now under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

William Wicken

William Wicken

Q. Please describe your field of current research.

A. I am writing a book which uses my maternal grandfather’s life to understand why indigenous people moved off reserve and how moving into the city affected their families. The book revolves around my grandfather, Clinton Claus, who was born in 1890 on the Grand River Six Nations reserve. His mother, Phoebe Johnson, had been at the residential school, had gone into service and then became pregnant, although the father is unknown. She moved back to the reserve and married a Mohawk man 35 years her senior. When he died, she placed my grandfather and his half-brother in an orphanage for five years, reclaiming them when she remarried in 1900. My grandfather married a Six Nations woman in 1908, but she died of tuberculosis in 1911. Sometime after that he moved off reserve, first spending time with relatives at the Lewiston reserve in New York State and later joining his mother and stepfather as tenant farmers near Aldershot, Ontario. Like many Six Nations men, my grandfather joined the Canadian army during the First World War and was shipped overseas in 1917. When he returned to Canada in 1919, he moved to Hamilton and, at the age of 30, applied to become enfranchised. And so too did the rest of his family.

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