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​Education for Reconciliation: the Role of Colleges and Universities

by Stephen Huddart President and CEO, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation

As I write this, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Mohawk nation — also known as Montréal — most of my colleagues are taking part in a day-long
Reconciliation Dialogue Workshop with Reconciliation Canada. It was organized by our Métis colleague, Nicole McDonald, Director of Indigenous Initiatives at McConnell. The Foundation’s Board participated in a similar workshop two years ago.
McConnell has supported reconciliation through grants to
Reconciliation Canada, Canadians for a New Partnership, the 4Rs Youth Movement, the Canada Council for the Arts’ {Re}conciliation initiative and others. As we deepen relationships and build new ones with a growing number of Indigenous partners and advisors, we are beginning to discern the shape of a more inclusive and resilient Canada — one that acknowledges its history with Indigenous peoples, and commits to reconciliation across every sector of society.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called on universities and colleges to ensure that leaders and professionals understand the history, culture and current realities of Indigenous peoples in Canada. There are calls to provide this kind of education to medical, nursing, law, and journalism students, as well as to future teachers, public servants, social workers and business managers.

There are also calls for the establishment of
Aboriginal language programs; for material on Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and practices to be developed in collaboration with Elders; and for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to establish a multi-year research program on reconciliation with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and other academic partners.
A growing number of universities
[1] now require that students take an Indigenous-focused course. Others encourage land acknowledgements at official public events. (See the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ helpful guide).

These are necessary first steps. How can post-secondary institutions deepen and sustain their commitment to reconciliation?

They can ask:

  • What is the history of treaty making, colonization and settlement that took place on the lands where they are located? How do they commemorate, honour and share this with their community, with Indigenous people, and visitors?
  • What percentage of students, faculty and staff are Indigenous, and what steps are they taking to ensure that Indigenous people have equitable access?
  • How are they using their economic assets — land, procurement policies, endowment investments — to contribute to economic reconciliation?
  • Who are their Indigenous partners and advisors, and how do they enter into dialogue, ceremony and joint action with them?
  • How do they equip all of their students to take part in reconciliation?

Sustained relationships yield new knowledge and opportunity. At McConnell we are discovering that innovation is a profoundly Indigenous value. Working with Indigenous partners adds resilience and diversity across all of our initiatives — including sustainable food systems; WellAhead (school-based mental wellness); Cities for People (urban innovation network) — and RECODE, which supports social innovation in Canada’s post-secondary institutions.
We are also learning that philanthropy’s role is to help set the stage, and then step back, so that Indigenous voices may be engaged in new conversations. In future blogs in this series, we look forward to hearing them.


Coming up in the series, Melanie Goodchild shares her reflections on the role of language in reconciliation. Stay tuned.

“Reconciliation is perhaps familiar as a concept, but unfamiliar as a practice to many Canadian institutions. Stephen Huddart invites us all to consider the role that education can play in bringing to life the spirit of reconciliation. The elders remind us always, that it is spirit at work, when we muddle through difficult tasks together, to find Anishihaabe Mino Bimaadiziwin, the good life.”

~Melanie Goodchild, H.B.A, M.A., PhD Student, WISIR Fellow / Research Associate at University of Waterloo, SERS.


[1] Including Lakehead University, University of Winnipeg, University of Victoria, Laurentian University and McGill Law.

Feb 2, 2017 | Tags: