“Nothing about us without us.”
That’s one of the key themes that emerged from a two-day forum last month at the University of Saskatchewan that welcomed university presidents, First Nations and Métis leaders, student leaders and scholars from across Canada. Its focus: how universities can answer the calls to action of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Dalhousie President Richard Florizone attended the forum, as did Diana Lewis (coordinator for Dal’s Indigenous Studies program) and Kara Paul (program manager for Dalhousie’s Aboriginal Health Sciences Initiative). The three returned to Halifax energized not only by the conversation among university leaders, but by the commitment to action.
“I think across Canada you’re seeing this sense that there’s a moment here, with people recognizing that it’s time for a new partnership between Canada and our Indigenous peoples,” says Dr. Florizone. “And I think the TRC provides universities with a powerful framework for action.”
The forum was an opportunity to learn more about what’s happening across the country related to Aboriginal students and scholarship. It was also a chance to hear from students, faculty and others about how universities can engage more effectively with Indigenous communities and become leaders and partners in building reconciliation.
“One of the things [TRC Commissioner] Justice Murray Sinclair said at the forum was: ‘Education led us into this situation; education will lead us out,’” says Paul, reflecting on the TRC’s assessment of the impact of Canada’s residential school system.
“Universities have to be part of that education. We not only educate Canada’s Aboriginal people, but the teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers and leaders across all our communities. We all need to be aware of what needs to be done.”
Answering the calls
Released earlier this year, the TRC’s 94 “calls to action” [PDF] are about more than addressing the troubling legacy of Canada’s residential school system. They’re also focused on achieving a broader reconciliation between Canada’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples and societies.
Several of the calls to action connect to universities and their mission. Some do so quite explicitly, such as improving education attainment levels and success rates among Aboriginal peoples, or developing culturally appropriate curricula. Others relate to particular fields, like increasing the number of Aboriginal individuals working in health care and closing gaps in health outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.
“One of the things that really stood out for me [about the forum] was the acknowledgment that we are failing our young people, our students,” says Lewis. She cites statistics from the most recent First Nations Regional Health Survey that found that 4.9 per cent of adults living in First Nations communities have obtained a university degree, compared to 22.6 per cent of the general Canadian population. Yet, when Aboriginal youth were asked what level of education they’d like to achieve, 37.4 per cent aspired to a university degree.
“There are students who are aspiring, but we’re failing them as they enter the system,” she adds.
As part of its commitment to addressing this gap, Universities Canada, which represents 97 universities across Canada, has formulated a set of 13 principles on Indigenous education: a guide for administrators, faculty and students looking to advance opportunities for Aboriginal students and integrate Indigenous themes and topics throughout the academy. (See the full list at the bottom of this story). The principles’ key theme: partnership, echoing not only the TRC’s calls to action but the spirit of Canada’s treaty relationships.
“The treaty partnership, if you look at it, is based on the symbolism of going down the river in two canoes, in cooperation, peace and friendship,” says Paul. “And right now, that’s not working really well. We need to get back to that. We have a great country, and we are all treaty people: that treaty is just as important to you as it is to me.”
Weaving indigenization throughout the academy
There’s a lot that’s already happening at Dalhousie related to indigenization — a word to describe the integration of Indigenous topics and knowledge. The university’s Aboriginal Advisory Council (that Paul co-chairs with Debbie Martin of the School of Health and Human Performance) offers a forum for collaboration across various initiatives, programs, curricula and research. Dal’s new Indigenous Studies minor welcomed its first students this year, and just this month launched its “Elders in Residence” program.
“I see a big shift here at Dalhousie, even just in the past six years from when I started until now,” says Paul. “And it’s going in the right direction. Now the shift is taking up speed, and we need to continue to keep that momentum going.”
What does that momentum look like? For Paul, it’s about creating space.
“Not just physical space,” she explains, “but in curriculum, in our signage, our concepts, our research. It’s about creating space for indigenization, not just having it be an ‘add on.’ It needs to be integrated, embedded within the fabric of the university.”
“And that students see themselves reflected in the student body, in the faculty, in the leadership,” adds Lewis. “Also, one of the things I tell students in my classes is that not only is it important to better meet the needs of our Aboriginal students, but to be open to and embrace non-Aboriginal students who are eager to learn more, to get involved.”
President Florizone says the Dal community can expect to hear more about the university’s efforts to respond to the TRC’s calls to action in the new year, including a proposed forum here on campus. This work, he says, will be in partnership with the Aboriginal Advisory Council and with local Mi’kmaq communities and leaders, as well as with colleagues across the university.
Reflecting on the work ahead, he recalls something that Blaine Favel, University of Saskatchewan chancellor and former grand chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, said at last month’s forum.
“He said, ‘My heart is filled with hope. Universities, you are the peacemakers. You will bind the wounds of this country.’ That’s an inspiring statement, but also a big call-to-action for us.”