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​Relationships at the centre of reconciliation

by Pamela Ouart-McNabb Senior Program Officer, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation

Aaniin! My name is Pamela Ouart-McNabb, I am a wife, a daughter, a sister, an auntie, a PhD Candidate and also a new member of the McConnell team. I am a settler, with German and Ukrainian lineage and I am a part of an Anishinabe family by marriage and ceremony. I feel like I live reconciliation every day in my personal and professional life, and I am continually challenging myself about the ethics of doing so. This morning while scrolling through Facebook, a motivational meme posted by a fitness centre caught my eye, “It’s going to hurt and it’s not going to be easy. But you know you’ll love the results.” I think this is a good way to think about reconciliation.
Challenged with reconciliation, post-secondary institutions are uniquely positioned to catalyze change through teaching and learning. I came to awareness of Anishinabe culture through the Indigenous Studies PhD program at Trent University. It was a bumpy transition from western academic programs to one that centred Indigenous knowledge, and it impacted me in a profound way. The opportunity to learn from community and traditional knowledge holders in ceremony and in preparation for ceremony on the land was, and continues to be, transformative. This approach to learning, while second nature to Indigenous communities, is innovation in post-secondary experiences.

To understand and learn from Indigenous cultures, there must be an openness towards how teaching students and staff is approached.

I believe that embracing Indigenous learning approaches and ceremony are the foundation on which reconciliation in post-secondary institutions can and should be built. For example, Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, faculty, and administration should take time to learn on the land, not just about it. To understand and learn from Indigenous cultures, there must be an openness towards how teaching students and staff is approached. To optimize learning and the authenticity of these new ways of educating, the design of these programs must be led by Indigenous communities and students, and it must privilege their needs. This means ensuring that they are not volunteering their time, but are compensated equitably (among other things).
Foundational to this work are meaningful relationships, these relationships take significant time and energy to develop and maintain. Relationships can work to balance power, and shift it back towards Indigenous communities. Reconciliation will require extra effort on the part of those representing non-Indigenous institutions to build these relationships. This is where the importance of ethics comes in. I was once told by Wendy Phillips, an Anishinabe Elder, that it takes 18 months to get to know someone and for people to let their guards down. The space of working with your guard down is productive space.
During the 18 months traditional people are watching your actions, it is your role to earn trust. My dissertation explores Indigenous research ethics and discusses the ‘Code of Bimadiziwin’ which is a teaching shared with me by Anishinaabe Elders Mark and Wendy Phillips. They explain to me that truth, kindness, courage, honesty, sharing, love, honour, humility and wisdom all work together to demonstrate how you live your life. To me, this is ethics, if you can carry yourself according to these ideals you will meet, and likely exceed, other ethical standards. As human beings we all make mistakes, however, it is how we learn from our mistakes that shows our true intentions. Confronting our mistakes is uncomfortable, but it is in that discomfort that reconciliation can be possible.
With a foundation of strong relationships, post-secondary institutions and Indigenous communities can begin to co-create curriculum for reconciliation. It probably won’t be achieved in a real way within a single government’s mandate, it might even take more than one generation to get it right, but we need to start (or continue) now to ensure that we do this work much better in the future.

Jun 6, 2017 | Tags: