Indigenous Studies Professor Cody Groat on exploring his family’s past

The Gazette by Hannah Alper posted September 30, 2022

Indigenous studies and history professor Cody Groat is only in his late 20s and already has lived a thousand lives. 

Following the completion of his thesis, Cody’s next academic project will follow his life’s theme of learning and sharing stories — but this time, it’s his own family’s. The project follows the intergenerational, Indigenous history of his family going back seven generations. 

It wasn’t until university, when Cody’s class visited a former residential school and he saw the names of his grandparents on a wall of survivors, that Cody and his father even found out they were in residential schools.

Cody’s father, Bill Groat, was a survivor of the Sixties Scoop and an intergenerational survivor of the Indian residential school system. Bill was raised by a foster family, but was returned to his biological parents at the age of 10. His parents, like many other residential school survivors, had issues with alcohol due to the trauma and never spoke about their experiences. 

It wasn’t until his 70s that Bill learned about the Sixties Scoop and residential schools. He became a public speaker, sharing his experiences in the child welfare system and working to assure the records of similar experiences.

At the time, Cody was teaching at the University of Waterloo and invited his father to come to his class to speak about the process of getting his Sixties Scoop records. While he was planning on reading cue cards and developed a brief speech, what actually happened in front of his son’s class was far different.

“He had this presentation mastered. He started presenting in front of my class, and he just started bawling,” Cody says. “I've never seen him cry before. He just could not get through the presentation. And then that's when he sort of said, ‘I didn't realize all that I've been holding back.’”

Cody describes that speech as the weight off of his father’s shoulders, and was only fuel to do it more. His father became a guest lecturer at universities and a leading public speaker on truth and reconciliation until the end of his life, even speaking at Western University’s events. In February 2021, his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer but this didn’t affect his motivation.

The last thing his father did was sign a release to try to get his brother’s records so that his son could get justice and learn as much as he could about his family. 

“I think my father would have been just as fine not digging into things and not going into his records, but he knew how important it was for us,” Cody says. “And he also thought it was very important for other people and other families. So I don't even think it was as much his own story that caught his attention. It was the impact it could have for others.”

Most recently, Cody and his brothers established the Bill Groat Memorial Award at Western University, a scholarship awarded to an Indigenous student based on financial need. As someone that used food banks, lived in subsidized housing as a child and had band funding to help pay for post-secondary education, the scholarship means a lot to Cody and his family.

“If we didn't have that funding, we wouldn't have been able to go to school. My dad was a very firm believer of education,” Cody explains. “My younger brother decided that this is something my dad would have supported — a scholarship to help low-income Indigenous children or students attend university.”

When it comes to truth and reconciliation, Groat has become a leading voice, commentating on Indigenous issues for outlets like CTV News and the New York Times. In large part to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission being established, Cody explains that, as someone who didn’t hear anything about residential schools when he was in high school, he’s hopeful how much these issues are now such an open part of the national conversation.

“The change I've seen since when I was in my first year, and I didn't even know my grandparents were part of residential schools,” Cody says. “I didn't know what it was in my first year in 2012. And now 10 years later … truth and reconciliation is an institutionally-entrenched issue. Truth and Reconciliation Day is a national day of recognition, it's ingrained in university governance systems. To see that change from when I was 17 to 27 is just crazy.”

Cody’s project about his family won’t be his first collection of stories. In fact, he published his first book in his last year of his undergraduate studies and it all started with a lie.

As opinion editor of his student paper at Laurier University in fourth-year, Cody heard about a man named John Turmel. At the time, Turmel held the record for losing the most provincial and federal elections. 

His newspaper editor declined Cody’s pitch to profile Turmel, so he did what any other 20-something-year-old would have done: he emailed Turmel and lied, explaining that he had a blog where he interviewed well-known Canadians and he wanted him to be a feature on it. 

“I felt really bad because I lied to him,” said Cody. “But then I just kept on going.” 

Within six months of the interview with Turmel, former Prime Minister Paul Martin agreed to be interviewed, giving Cody legitimacy in the journalism community. 

Cody self-published his book Canadian Stories: A Teenaged Adventure with Presidents, Drag Queens and Drug Lords one year after the initial interview. He detailed his journey interviewing famous Canadians like Martin, environmentalist and author Farley Mowat and comedy legend Dan Aykroyd. 

As a Mohawk and band member of the Six Nations of the Grand River, Cody says that for students to get more involved in truth and reconciliation, they must continue learning and to refuse being complacent.

“Don't assume that if you've heard one survivor narrative, you've heard them all,” he says.  “There's also so many experiences and survivor narratives that community members don't know about, or that they don't feel comfortable sharing yet. It's going to be a long process. It's [going to] be a systemic change that will happen over generations.”