October 31, 2017
NOTE: This article was originally published on Higher Education Strategy Associates and has been cross-posted with permission. It is the fourth post in our series on Indigenous Innovation and Education.
Last week, the University of Toronto’s Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee released its final report, which sets out the institution’s response to the TRC’s Calls to Action. This seems like a good time to update my previous coverage on this.
First, I should say that on the whole I have been impressed by the response of the country’s universities and colleges to the TRC. I think there has been a commendable level of commitment shown by institutional leaders in trying to respond, as bet they can, to Justice (now Senator) Sinclair’s report. For the most part, institutions are getting better at creating and maintaining indigenous spaces, but that’s a fairly low-impact commitment. Many are saying the right things about trying to hire more indigenous staff, both academic and non-academic, though it will take years to see whether or not this actually comes to anything.
(Small quibble about some TRC related plans, including Toronto’s: though there are a lot of action lists, the documents are often weak in terms of spelling out who is in charge of ensuring commitments will be met or how the institution will follow up on its commitments. That’s not to say institutions aren’t planning on following up or that no one is in charge, but one would have thought that where building trust with First Nations is at stake the issue of accountability might have been given a bit more prominence).
But one area that has really got me thinking is the issue of curriculum change. The TRC report was quite specific about what it wanted in terms of curricular change. It wanted Medical and Nursing schools to “require all students to take a course dealing with Aboriginal health issues, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal Rights and Indigenous teachings and practices. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human-rights and anti-racism”.
For other fields of study, the TRC request was not for specific courses but for something more general. It asked for social workers to be “properly educated and trained about the history and impacts of residential schools” and the “potential for Aboriginal communities and families to provide more appropriate solutions to family healing”. It asked that Education faculties to be given proper funding so as to be able to “educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.” And finally it asked that Schools of Journalism provide education for their students on Indigenous peoples’ history, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the UN Declaration, treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations.”
I don’t think these differences in wording were accidental. In some fields of study, Sinclair wanted general change, but for Nursing, Medicine and Law he wanted specific courses introduced and he wanted them to be mandatory. Interestingly, the University of Toronto decided not to accept this call to action literally (in fairness, it is not the only institution to have taken this stance). The Faculties of Medicine and Nursing said they would integrate Indigenous content more widely across the curriculum so that it was “equivalent to” a full course. In Law, the proposed solution is to integrate content on Aboriginal Title and the Indigenous legal tradition into its mandatory intro classes and have it taught by an Indigenous scholar.
One could make a case for both either the “single course” or the “change across the curriculum” approach. The argument for change across the curriculum is that it is deeper and more lasting, and that a single course can be seen as a bit tokenistic. The argument for a single course is that you can actually count it and see whether it is being done or not. Also, the “integrating material across the curriculum” thing probably works well where you have a lot of Indigenous scholars developing and delivering the content; however, since most universities don’t have that, one is entitled to wonder a little bit about the effectiveness of this strategy.
By raising this issue, I don’t mean to criticize the U of T. The main point of TRC was to get Canadian institutions to embrace change in the cause of reconciliation, and U of T has certainly done that. But I for one would really like to hear what Indigenous scholars think about this issue: which methods do they think would be best, and in what circumstances? I think it’s a discussion from which we could all benefit.