On Being the Wrong Mary Jane McCallum: Names, Assumptions and Connections in the (Still-Unexpected) Indigenous Post-Secondary

By Mary Jane “not the senator” McCallum


Mary Jane McCallum’s Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.) Graduating Class Photo
Faculty of Dentistry, University of Manitoba, 1990
McCallum is in the third row down, at the middle

Mary Jane McCallum was appointed to the Senate in early December 2017. At the time, she joined five other Indigenous senators: Murray Sinclair, Lillian Dyck, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, Charlie Watt, and Patrick Brazeau; since then, Yvonne Boyer has also been appointed. The first Indigenous person appointed to Canada’s Senate was James Gladstone / Akay-na-muka, a farmer from Kainai First Nation in southern Alberta. He was appointed in 1958, three years before First Nations people could vote federally without losing Indian status. (An image of Gladstone was featured on the Canada 150 commemorative ten-dollar bill alongside “Fathers of Confederation” John A. Macdonald and George Etienne Cartier, and Canada’s first female Member of Parliament, Agnes McPhail.) Since 1958, just thirteen other self-identified Indigenous people have been appointed to the Senate, and McCallum is only the fourth Indigenous woman.[1] McCallum has been active in providing dental health care, educating health professionals, advising on health policy, and advocating for social justice for her entire working life.

The announcement of Mary Jane McCallum’s appointment started a flurry of misdirected email messages to me from media outlets wanting to pass on good wishes and get a statement. For the next several months, and still every once in a while, I was congratulated and had to disappoint folks that I’m not that Mary Jane McCallum. But this was nothing new – I have been repeatedly mistaken for Mary Jane for a long while. For example, we both live in Winnipeg, and because stores will often collect personal information, we are regularly confused at the check-out while shopping. While still a doctoral student at the University of Manitoba, I was sent Dr. Mary Jane McCallum’s Record of Employment and T4 slip.

One of the side-effects of sharing the name of a well-known Indigenous woman from Manitoba and repeatedly addressing confusion and misrecognition about my name has been to elucidate some aspects of Indigenous post-secondary experience, and it has challenged me to think differently about women’s history and Indigenous history more generally. In particular, it has helped to articulate some of the racist and often contradictory assumptions about Indigenous women that I have faced as a graduate student and now a faculty member in a Canadian university.


I first learned about Mary Jane McCallum when I was an undergraduate student at McMaster University. In the hallway outside the office of the Indigenous Studies Program and the McMaster First Nations Student Association (which basically shared the same room), there was a large grey and white Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development poster featuring rows of small, square graduation photos of successful First Nations people from across Canada.

There it was, in official 1990s Government of Canada font: Dr. Mary Jane McCallum.

Below a photograph of McCallum with very cool, short, spiky hair, a caption said she was one of the first Aboriginal dentists in Canada and that she was Cree from Manitoba. At the time I remember thinking, “I’ll never in a million years actually meet her, but I sure like the way Dr. looks in front of Mary Jane McCallum.”

I have reflected back on this poster many times over the years. One might assume that the image influenced me as would a positive role model, that it would inspire undergraduate students like me to become doctors. While true in part, the reality is more complicated. It was also difficult to look at the image, and it inspired a discomfort with the Canadian government’s “if they can do it I can do it” messaging about Indigenous people – not to mention its taking credit for the achievements of Indigenous post-secondary students, in spite of its dark history and ongoing lack of commitment to fully and consistently supporting Indigenous university students. There was something particularly bothersome to me, too, about the ways the Department of Indian Affairs used (and appropriated) images of Indigenous women. So this image and name of Dr. Mary Jane McCallum became a kind of marker for me that forced me to shift not only my thinking about myself, but also the ins and outs of federal responsibilities for supporting Indigenous education and the appropriation of Indigenous images, efforts and lives in service of colonial structures and institutions.

Despite this still fuzzy discomfort, I spent almost a decade in graduate school studying Indigenous history. When I finished my Ph.D. in 2008, I was interviewed for a job with history department at the University of Winnipeg. During my visit, Dr. Jennifer Brown (now Emeritus Professor of History and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada) asked me in the hushed, insider “I’ve got history gossip” way if I knew that there was another Mary Jane McCallum. As it turned out, Dr. Brown had a document similar to that poster hanging on the wall at the McMaster First Nations Student Association in the 1990s. Hers was a Department of Indian Affairs pamphlet from the same era profiling ten Indigenous women from across Canada, including Dr. Mary Jane McCallum. As she gave the poster to me, I had an immediate – if papery and sort of second-hand – sense of connection to where I was and what I was doing.


“Aboriginal Women: Meeting the Challenges”
Top semi-circle from top right: Melanie Goodchild, Sharla Howard, Mary “Jill” Johnson, Renae Morriseau, Miriam McNab
Bottom Circle from top right: Mary Jane McCallum, Janet Smylie, Stephanie Redman, Stacey Porter, Brandy Kanayuk.

In this pamphlet, Dr. Mary Jane McCallum is profiled as one of the “countless dynamic Aboriginal women in Canada today who are exceptional achievers in their particular fields. Through their various chosen careers,” the document continued, “these women are breaking new ground and opening doors for future generations of Aboriginal women.”

The document features some of the longstanding trends in the ways the Department of Indian Affairs frames Indigenous women, Indigenous history, and Indigenous post-secondary education. In this context, educated, working Indigenous women are awkwardly depicted as anomalies, unchanging and inflexible symbols, and steadfast heroines role-modeling for future generations.

Moreover, Indigenous “tradition” and “culture” is conveniently framed as unconnected to land, rights, racism, or the lived realities of patriarchy and colonialism (albeit this may be what is referred to as the “Challenges” Aboriginal women were meeting, it’s not clear). The following excerpt appears under the subtitle “Opening Doors for Future Generations.” I reproduce it here in the way I read DIA archival records, with interjections made to dialogue with the state and hold it accountable when it won’t acknowledge itself:

This pamphlet profiles some of the countless dynamic Aboriginal women in Canada today who are exceptional achievers in their particular fields [countless and exceptional both?  Huh!] Through their various chosen careers, these women are breaking new ground and opening doors for future generations of Aboriginal women.  [Who closed the doors? Wasn’t it always our ground too?]  Traditionally Aboriginal women have commanded the highest respect within their communities as the givers of life [except of course, there are those who are not respected, those who do not engage in this type of gendered work, and those who have been involuntarily sterilized in state-run institutions not “within their communities”]. Women contributed to decisions about family [except those whose children were taken into care because of poverty and race], property rights [except those who were involuntarily disenfranchised] and education [um… what, like residential schools?] and were the keepers of their people’s cultural traditions [except when they were outlawed and when they were forcibly discouraged from exactly this by Indian agents, Christian missionaries, and others] … Today Aboriginal women are pursuing careers that enable them to play pivotal roles both in their own communities and in mainstream Canadian society [that same mainstream Canadian society that follows them around in stores to be sure they don’t steal anything?]  … The example they set through their education, vision and hard work will encourage future generations of young Aboriginal women to follow their dreams [of the return of Indigenous land and resources].[2]

This sense of looking forward to the future is common in celebratory Indian Affairs discourse – in fact, in much discourse on Indigenous people in general. The sense here is that the past is or was difficult, but also that it’s understood and that it’s over so we can now plan for the future and move onwards and upwards. Another temporal signal is the reference to “today” as a qualifier for Aboriginal women – used twice in one paragraph. Cultural historian and literary scholar Chadwick Allan argues that in discussions of Indigenous people, the term “today” “indexes a comparison with an implied [singular] past that is more primitive and therefore more authentically indigenous.” Moreover, he argues that “today” serves as a modifier for the term Aboriginal, in ways that mark Indigenous people as “always-already dispossessed and also inherently inauthentic.”[3] The idea was that to be modern equated to being removed from tradition and therefore no longer authentically Indigenous; and that ‘true’ Indigeneity is erased by virtue of mere survival, let alone success, in modern settler society. Allen’s work shows how the mid-1960s’ discourse on the “Indian today” suggested benevolent and forward-looking Indigenous-settler relations in the U.S., and in fact almost exclusively referred to men and their so-called transition to modernity. What exactly was meant by the “today” of Aboriginal women in the 1990s in Canada? How were the contemporary lives of Indigenous women imagined in the 1990s, and what was meant by the phrase “meeting the challenges”?

What I recall of the 1990s was that Indigenous women were misogynistically framed as heroic or debased sites of blood’s “purity” or “watering-down,” especially in the wake of the 1985 changes to the Indian Act that reinstated disenfranchised First Nations women and their children.  There was also a hyper-disciplinary culture of identity policing that essentialized “real” Indians and therefore constrained vast, diverse realities of people’s lives and histories. In Indigenous Studies, there was an effort to make visible the lives and work of women, though this effort too often cast women in somewhat simplistic, even boring hetero-normative roles as mothers of Indigenous children who faced “challenges” but stoically bore the burden of tradition because of their “strengths.” The so-called “challenges” Indigenous women in the 1990s faced, as acknowledged in this pamphlet, were rarely if ever actually identified outright; often in Indian Affairs contexts, they referred to the presumed long struggle with modernity. In reality, we know that Indigenous women in the 1990s faced deplorable rates of violence, and that racism, sexism, and homophobia severely limited their opportunities.

Photos of educated Indigenous people in the 1960s, 1990s, and still today continue to be interpreted and put to use in a variety of ways: they are used to communicate longstanding ideas about assimilation for progress, to promote Canada as a peaceful and democratic nation, and even to suggest uncritical Indigenous support and compliance with the colonial state. They can also be sources of inspiration, connection, and power. What I recall of young adulthood in a Canadian post-secondary institutions is the omnipresent spectre of uneasy conversation and navigating people’s pre-conceived notions – about women, about Indigenous people, about students, about history. On top of my years of graduate school marked by, as journalist Julia Baird writes, “as much isolation and self-doubt as discovery and original research,”[4] was the realization of how racial gender violence and inequity was intimately connected to land dispossession and state formation and that the restoration of Indigenous women’s history and power and the restoration of Indigenous land were connected projects.[5]


Since having the same name as a member of the Canadian Senate, I have received friend requests on Facebook from several smart, successful, funny Indigenous people I don’t know, many of whom are a generation older than me. They send me memes about growing old and notes about having seen me at the airport. They do this sometimes even after I explain who I am.

The name “Mary Jane McCallum” has meaning in this educated, professional, western Canadian, middle-class Indigenous network – a network that I’ve benefitted from even while I am regularly rejected from it and also try to distinguish myself within it. For example, when I was a Ph.D. student, I interviewed Indigenous nurses over the phone to gather oral history for the Indigenous Nurses Association of Canada. After introducing myself, the reply was fairly consistently something along the lines of, “You don’t sound like Mary Jane McCallum.” This happened so many times that I started including in my introduction a short discussion about my awareness of the Mary Jane McCallum I wasn’t. I continue to be out-Mary Jane McCallum’ed on a regular basis.  For example, a few months ago, I had the opportunity to meet Alfred McLeod, a well-respected knowledge keeper and advocate for Two-Spirit people in North America. “I’m Mary Jane McCallum,” I said while introducing myself.  “No, you are not,” McLeod clarified.

In another futile attempt to pre-empt the confusion, somewhere between 2012 and 2014 I began to use my second middle name formally when publishing. This has backfired, likely in a gendered and age-related way, as people assume that I married a Logan and it was part one of a new double-barrelled last name. I’ve been chasing publishers and librarians ever since.


Logan McCallum [sic], “Condemned to Repeat? Settler Colonialism, Racism, and Canadian History Textbooks” in Too Asian? Racism, Privilege, and Post-Secondary Education, ed. RJ Gilmour, Davina Bhander, Jeet Heer, and Michael C.K. Ma (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2012).

I was initially named Mary after my dad’s mom, Jane after my dad’s aunt, and McCallum after my dad’s family surname. I was called Janie until I went to school, though there are very few people out there who still call me by that name (I love it when they call me Janie). In school, I was Jane. This confused people in university when forms came to assert increased authority over my identity and so I just started introducing myself as Mary Jane. People who called me ‘Janie’ or ‘Jane’ were old friends and people who were related to me; people who called me Mary Jane or MJ were newer friends, authority figures, sometimes people who were related to me and good-naturedly thought that was what I now wanted them to call me. My good friend Danielle, who has known me for years and years, jokes that my name is sister Mary Mary Jane Jane Logan McCallum. My partner calls me Jane when I’m around my family and MJ when we’re around his. A small group of Lunaape language learners in Ontario call me Wiingii (short for Wiingiimask, or Sweetgrass) instead of Mary Jane, a nickname a teacher with a good sense of humour and a rich and varied life history gave me and it stuck. In a crowd, I sometimes find myself answering to any sound with one or three syllables.

Some time after my maternal great-grandfather Alonzo Logan passed away, my parents had his last name legally added to mine; loss has been consistently associated with the addition. When my great-grandfather died, we lost one of those rare family members who are both able to remember most things and also willing to share information freely. His death also signaled the severing of our immediate family from the approximately two square miles where his family had lived for approximately six generations, the Munsee Delaware nation. Alonzo died before the passing of Bill C-31, so my grandmother – who had lost Indian status when she married, but not the status of first-born girl and who therefore cared for Alonzo in his old age – could not inherit his farm. Nor could any of his children; his sons had all passed away, and both of his daughters had been disinherited through section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act. We had never met the person who inherited the house and land. In an interview with my mom in the early 1980s, Alonzo said that Logan was a name given to us by a missionary. As far as we know, it dates in our family back several generations, prior to the settlement of Lunaape on the Thames River more than 250 years ago.  The missionaries took a name when they gave that one; the addition of Logan bears that subtraction too, an Indian name that carries but also survives colonial violence because our history is remembered when the name is passed down. The name has since been taken on as a second middle name by my brother and passed on to his son, Logan McCallum.

A kind of straightforward, normative, white middle-classness is still often associated with Anglo, French, and Scottish names in the post-secondary context, suggesting in some ways how total elimination and racial segregation has become common sense in many places in Canada. And yet in the everyday Indigenous space of the University of Winnipeg, co-founder of Red Rising Magazine and former president of the University of Winnipeg Students Association, Kevin Settee recently sent me some photos of McCallums he’d seen in an old store in Green Lake, Northern Saskatchewan, wondering if I was related:

When I met author and community activist Theodore Fontaine for the first time (Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Residential Schools, Heritage House, 2010), he told me that there were two Jane or Mary Jane McCallums in his class at Assiniboine Residential School (1958–1972) in Winnipeg in the 1950s, and he even brought me his class photo:


I contacted Media Indigena founder and well-known broadcaster Rick Harp about the photo because I had learned that his mom is also named Jane McCallum.  The photo was indeed of his mom, (Jane Glennon), who is a retired social worker, counselor, and teacher who is a band member of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation. She told me that her grandfather’s name was John McCallum (a name my own grandfather shares), and he’d been a northern Saskatchewan trapper as had her dad, Richard McCallum. From a piece she wrote entitled “Sihkos’ Story: Residential School Remembrances of a Little Brown ‘White’ Girl,” I learned more about her early family life in the territory where she grew up. “There were McCallum families situated in Southend, Pelican Narrows and Island Falls – all in northern Saskatchewan,” she stated.  “There was a family in Brochet, Manitoba,” she continued – and: “I guess you know Mary Jane McCallum who is a dentist in Winnipeg.”



Close-up of 1990 graduating class photograph in the hallway of the
Faculty of Dentistry at the Bannatyne campus of the University of Manitoba
McCallum does not usually use a hyphen in her name

I have know of that Mary Jane McCallum who is a dentist for a long time now but the point of connect that is most significant for me, however, was the first – the moment I saw “Dr.” in front of “Mary Jane McCallum.” It did inspire me.  Reflecting back on the photo, its placement, and its messaging, however, also inspired me to identify and articulate the roots of my discomfort of some of the messaging about Indigenous people and post-secondary education. In part, I think that we two McCallums are so frequently confused because of assumptions that there could only be one successful Indigenous woman in a university, assumptions that reflect popular notions, Adele Perry argues, “about the constituent character of whiteness, its place in the nation, and its cherished institutions.”[6] That this confusion comes during an era in which institutions regularly overwork their very few Indigenous faculty seems to add insult added to injury.

Sharing a name with Dr. Mary Jane McCallum also prompted and animated my research on the realities of modern Indigenous women’s experiences in Canada. In part, this work contradicts presumptions of Indigenous women’s absence that are so prevalent in common Canadian and Indigenous framings of the past.  When we place an Indigenous woman dentist at the centre of our thinking, what kinds of things can we learn about that were previously overlooked?  What kinds of generalizations about Indigenous people are exposed? What new and diverse Indigenous realities are learned? What kinds of thinking do we challenge?

The existence of two “Dr. Mary Jane McCallums” casts aside the essentialist, essentializing, and stereotypical representation of Indigenous women in media and education. Given the commonness of our name, we should not be unexpected and our lives should not be conflated.  There can be a laziness with names, languages and identities of Indigenous people and a lack of precision – sometimes informed by a sense that Indigenous lives are mysterious and unknowable, lost like their histories, traditions and lands in the modern world. Paul Seesequasis, who writes about working with modern historical photographs of Indigenous people here, regularly posts photos on facebook that are unnamed or misnamed. In my work too, I have found last names misspelled, first names wrong, and other photos significantly misidentified and never corrected. Part of this trend in Indigenous photo history is informed by an ideology that sees Indigenous people as essentially mysterious, and Indigenous history as essentially imprecise and un-knowable and also separate from Canadian history – a history that has to some extent been reproduced through practices of colonial archiving.

It is well worth looking Senator Mary Jane McCallum up and learning more about her.  But when you google the name Mary Jane McCallum, you need to add some more keywords to find the right one.[7]

Acknowledgements: I have an ever-accumulating debt of gratitude to Jill McConkey for turning my “gestures to many things” sitting on my floor into readable, tied-together pieces of writing. I’m grateful for your friendship and your smarts. Part of this was presented at the University of Saskatchewan’s Indigenous Studies Speakers Series in January 2018. Anushiik Dr. Sarah Nickel and the Indigenous Studies Department for the invitation and for leading a fruitful discussion.

[1] Marie Burke, “Seven Aboriginal Senators: 40 Years,” Windspeaker 16:8 (1998). http://www.ammsa.com/publications/windspeaker/seven-aboriginal-senators-40-years. In no particular order and by my count, other Indigenous people who served or are serving as senators are: Walter Twinn, Len Marchand, Willie Adams, Thelma Chalifoux, Aurelien Gill, and Gerry St. Germaine.

[2] Canada, “Aboriginal Women Meeting the Challenges,” Ottawa, Indian and Northern Affairs, 1997.  For more conversation on simplistic discourses on Indigenous women, see also Emily Snyder, Gender, Power, and Representations of Cree Law (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2016).

[3] Chadwick Allen, “Unspeaking the Settler: ‘The Indian Today’ in International Perspective,” American Studies 46:3/4 (Fall–Winter 2005): 30.

[4] Julia Baird, “Women, Own Your ‘Dr.’ Titles,” New York Times Opinion 28 June 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/28/opinion/women-dont-back-down-online.html accessed July 18, 2018.

[5] “Indigenous Feminisms Power Panel,” University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan 16 Mar, 2016, available on Youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HnEvaVXoto accessed 18 July, 2018.

[6] Adele Perry, “Graduating Photos: Race, Colonization and the University of Manitoba,” in “Too Asian?” Racism, Privilege, and Post-Secondary Education eds. RJ Gilmour, Davina Bhandar, Jeet Heer, and Michael C.K. Ma (Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 2012), 65.

[7] Senator Mary Jane McCallum has her own website: http://maryjanemccallum.ca

3 thoughts on “On Being the Wrong Mary Jane McCallum: Names, Assumptions and Connections in the (Still-Unexpected) Indigenous Post-Secondary

  1. Hello Mary Jane: Interesting concept. Not sure of the reasons for your “fuzzy discomfort” of the government pamphlet you mention. Would like to discuss this further with you. My phone number is 250-334 3757 (Vancouver Island).

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