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Canadian campuses working toward reconciliation have their work cut out

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Adam Gaudry, Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta

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Post-secondary institutions across the country have been looking to implement new policies, programs and events to support the work started by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2008. But there is concern about how effective these changes can be due to the long history of colonization and the oppression of Indigenous peoples.

The truth-telling process of the TRC acknowledged the injustices and deep wounds caused by Canada's Indian Residential School legacy. Four of the 94 calls to action released by the TRC speak directly to education, recommending that schools integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms and include curriculum about Aboriginal people in Canadian history.

In response, many post-secondary institutions have created Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committees to review how they are addressing these concerns and what steps they can take moving forward. The Canadian Association of University Teachers also released a Guide to Acknowledging Traditional Territory in order to encourage academics to acknowledge the First People's traditional territory that we work and live on. And the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University have made Indigenous courses mandatory for graduation.

From campus to the workplace

Adam Gaudry, a Métis Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies and Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta, says academic institutions are the ideal starting place for this kind of work. He notes that students take knowledge and discussions from schools out into the workplace.

"We need a very kind of critical approach to this and I think that's one of the reasons why universities play an important role in that, universities are already sites where critical thought is encouraged," explains Gaudry. "This should happen everywhere but universities tend to have the knowledge base with the right faculty around to kind of lead that conversation."

Linc Kesler, Director of the First Nation House of Learning at UBC says one issue is that education about Indigenous people is lacking in Canadian curriculum, which makes it difficult for people to understand current Indigenous issues and concerns. He says this knowledge is also essential for making civic decisions and having respectful interactions with Indigenous people.

"Many people hear news reports or sort of controversies over pipelines or somewhere like Attawapiskat where people become aware of living conditions on remote reserves," says Kesler. "But people don't have a context for thinking about that, they don't have a way of figuring out why the conditions...existing today are [in the state] they are. And the reason is that there's been almost nothing in school curriculum for the last 100 years or more that has given people any kind of information."

In Ontario, Trent University has created a new bachelor's degree in an effort to address the need for more Indigenous teachers. The Indigenous Bachelor of Education program began this fall and there are currently six students enrolled. The five-year integrated program is the first of its kind in North America. Trent also created Canada's first department of Indigenous Studies in 1969. 

Nicole Bell is an Assistant Professor and Senior Indigenous Advisor at Trent's School of Education and Professional Learning, and Anishinaabe from the Kitigan Zibi First Nation, Bear Clan. She says the program addresses TRC concerns about Indigenous knowledge in the public school system. As an Indigenous faculty member herself, she has assisted other faculty with integrating Indigenous knowledge and learning into their practice. 

"By having more Indigenous teachers to go into our mainstream schools we then have those teachers there who can provide the first voice, the lived experience of Indigenous peoples in Canada to share with not just the students in their classroom but also the entire school," she explains. "So it's a way to kind of mobilize the education that needs to be done in our public school classrooms."

UBC is responding to the TRC's calls to action by creating a west coast affiliate to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre  will be a place to house records and historical material as well as foster conversation about the Indigenous experience in Canada. Construction of the centre is expected to be completed by next summer.

The centre came out of a partnership between UBC and Indigenous community members including the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. Kesler says the centre is personal for many people involved, himself included, since his mother was Oglala-Lakota and attended a similar institution to residential school in the United States

"We're really thinking about this as a place where people talk about history and information and how to think about history, especially traumatic history or difficult history," explains Kesler.

Words vs action

However, critics say this move towards reconciliation is in contrast to the university's recent decision to reinstate John Furlong as the keynote speaker at the 18th Annual ZLC Millennium Scholarship Breakfast. In 2012 the Georgia Straight published an article by Laura Robinson with claims that Furlong abused Indigenous students while he was a physical education teacher at Immaculata Catholic School in Burns Lake, B.C. While criminal charges against Furlong involving separate complainants were dropped or dismissed, the allegations in Robinson's article were never brought to court. Many believe the university's decision to hire him as a speaker sends the wrong message about their commitment to reconciliation.

In a Ubyssey article, UBC alumna Glynnis Kirchmeier who penned a letter asking that Furlong not speak at the event, is quoted as saying, "This is a very precise illustration of how empty not only UBC's commitment to truth and reconciliation is, but all of Canada's."

Indeed, there is concern that because Canadian schools are colonial institutions that they may lack the self-awareness to truly reconcile their troubled history with Indigenous people.

Adam Gaudry says that university commitment to reconciliation and decolonization lies in long-term changes like hiring more Indigenous teachers, supporting Indigenous students and committing resources to scholarships for Indigenous students.

"There's a lot of energy that goes into doing these things behind the scenes and so it does take I think good leadership and committed leadership to really see these things through and not just have it as a PR exercise," says Gaudry. "I'm hoping that these commitments are long-term and they're not just kind of the thing to do in the immediate moment and I think that we will definitely see over the next couple of years which universities are serious about this and which aren't." 

He says that universities in Western Canada are especially committed to these changes given the high percentage of Indigenous students. He has also noticed increased interest on the part of students to be part of this change

"We've seen an uptick in interest in Indigenous content courses and that a lot of people especially on the Prairies going into things like social worker education, a lot of environmental science students are enrolling in Indigenous studies in quite large numbers," he says. "They feel like it's a necessary part of their education and I think that's an important change too."

Emily Blake is a former rabble blogs intern and a graduate of UBC's Journalism program.

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Image: UAlberta.ca

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