How Canada’s Universities Can Redefine The Indigenous Experience At School
Community One Canadian university is taking on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, implementing new strategies towards Indigenization.
In December 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) put out its 94 calls to action, with specific directives given to Canada’s educational institutions, challenging them to reduce inequities faced by Indigenous peoples in education and employment. In response, Universities Canada published a document of promising practices taking place across the country to help educational establishments move forward and create strategies that make Indigenous students’ needs a priority.
Nipissing University — in North Bay, ON — has been recognized as one of the country’s top universities in initiating Indigenization. According to Dr. Cindy Peltier, Chair in Indigenous Education at the University, Indigenization is a fairly recent term. “There are a variety of definitions that Indigenous scholars have proposed that essentially speak to changing the university as a system,” says Peltier. “But in order to increase Indigenous presence and to bring Indigenous knowledge into academia, we must consult with Indigenous communities, students, and faculty. Only then will Indigenization unfold in a good way through wise practices.”
Leaders in reconciliation
Dr. Peltier believes universities must play a leading role in reconciliation. “Post-secondary institutions are seen as sites of change, and our students are the potential agents of change,” stresses Peltier.
But how educational institutions are making a change will be unique to each establishment. “The process for Indigenization will look different depending on the institution and the support they receive,” says Peltier. “I believe that when concrete recommendations have been made available through the commitment and dedication of those willing to participate in realizing the calls to action, they must be just that — a source of action. The action piece is critical and we must be accountable.”
The strands of action
Nipissing University hired Dr. Peltier in July 2016, and since that time, Dr. Peltier has been responsible for defining and leading the process of Indigenization at the University. She uses a metaphor — described by Anishinaabe elders as braiding — to envision Indigenization. “Braiding involves interlacing three strands to produce strength that is not possible with any single strand. The three strands at Nipissing University include support for teaching, learning, and research; Indigenizing the academic environment; and one’s personal commitment to reconciliation.”
For Autumn Varley, a recent graduate of the University, these are not just lofty ideas but practices being achieved at Nipissing. “I was in my second year at another university and had decided to leave as soon as I received my bachelor degree. After speaking with a friend who attended Nipissing, I was convinced to finish my schooling there,” she says. “Until that point, I didn’t think cultural support was something I needed.”
But she did. And with the support of her professors and the president of the University — Dr. Michael DeGagné, Canada’s first Indigenous university president — she was encouraged to complete her Master of Art in history. “With the support I received, I grew as an academic and an individual. For Indigenous students who are far from home and without their support systems, being included in a community that respects a different way of being is crucial — it’s the reason I achieved what I did. Even my research defence was done in circle with an elder-in-residence and community members.”
Varley believes that a curriculum that recognizes and values a First Nations world view is integral to the reconciliation process. “Reconciliation is a really big word and everyone is trying to come to terms with what it means and how best to move forward since the TRC released its recommendations,” says Varley. “Universities play a distinct role in growing and shaping who you are — they create the curricula and they create thinkers. There’s no reason why anyone graduating from a university in 2017 should have little or no knowledge of Indigenous history.”
While it can be expected that each educational institution will respond differently to the calls to action made by the TRC, a comment made by Senator Murray Sinclair, chair of the Commission, rings true. His cri de coeur: “Education is what got us here, and education is what will get us out.”