At the third annual Building Reconciliation Forum, hosted by the University of Manitoba, Indigenous people and settlers discussed progress, possibilities and challenges for reconciliation in post-secondary education.
First, I would like to thank the people who welcomed me, a settler, as a visitor to Treaty One territory. By extension, my understanding of Indigenous issues in Canada is inherently limited as a settler. As a racialized ally and recent student, however, I believe I can provide valuable insight to fellow settlers working in the post-secondary sector.
Here are my three significant takeaways from the Forum (these are my views and not intended to reflect those of the McConnell Foundation!):
“Decolonization and indigenization go hand in hand. Decolonization challenges and indigenization heals.” – Dr. Jaqueline Ottman
The topic of reconciliation within a post-secondary setting is complicated, and surely not to be resolved at a two-day conference. But we can start by facing the facts: the large majority of Canadian universities and colleges are colonial institutions. They are colonial spaces that privilege European-Western knowledge traditions. Many have a history of contributing to the erasure of Indigenous people, language, and culture, a history which continues today. That recognition alone prompts the question of whether reconciliation is possible in Canadian post-secondary, and various voices at the forum highlighted this exact conundrum. However, I think that it’s possible for post-secondary institutions to support Indigenous communities in healing while being accountable to their colonial histories.
For non-Indigenous people, healing and accountability must happen on an institutional level and on a personal level. For example, while it is absolutely necessary to hire more Indigenous faculty and publicly acknowledge traditional territories, these are not sufficient acts of reconciliation. Non-Indigenous people must acknowledge their own privileges and actively work to change power dynamics on campuses. How do you benefit from the opportunities Canada offers to settlers? How does your education compare to that available to Indigenous communities? Once we recognize the systems that benefit some and disadvantage others based on aspects of identity, we can begin to reflect on the impact of our words and actions, regardless of our intentions.
This one comes as no surprise, but it’s so important that I’ll mention it again. As Dr. Maria Anderson, Professor at Guelph University concisely put it, “Whiteness needs to speak back to Whiteness so Indigenous people aren’t doing all the emotional labour of this work.”
Professional burnout is common, especially when the individual is a minority and thus seen as the representative for their entire community. We must recognize that the responsibility of reconciliation in the Academy rests primarily on the shoulders of settlers.
What does it mean to be sincere and authentic in redressing colonial education? How do we avoid treating our Indigenous colleagues as tokens? While certainly not a comprehensive answer, I imagine it begins with making a personal effort to learn about Indigenous nations through available resources instead of demanding explanations from an Indigenous peer.
Again, we’ve acknowledged this in the past. Expertise and knowledge are arguably the most important assets and output of any university. Who are knowledge holders in university? How do we value different types of knowledge? Who decides what expertise is? These are questions senior leadership and faculty need to address in making universities equitable. Post-secondary institutions in Canada must value lived expertise, oral histories, and ways of knowing beyond the ones we are accustomed to as legitimate sources of scholarship.
President Ralph Nilson of Vancouver Island University (VIU) announced during the President’s forum that VIU’s Elders-in-Residence are on the same pay grade as faculty with PhDs. This is at the core of valuing Indigenous knowledge: seek Indigenous knowledge & wisdom, integrate it meaningfully, and honour it (by compensating Elders accordingly).
On a promising note, the Building Reconciliation Forum demonstrated that at many schools, the leadership is willing to contribute to reconciliation within their communities and on their campuses. However, an institution’s conception and practices of reconciliation must actively be questioned to ensure that they are in touch with the needs of Indigenous communities.
So what next? Indigenous student leader Chance Paupanekis demanded ReconciliAction, not “more talk, more meetings.” One overarching demand by Indigenous students at the Forum was Indigenous language programs and degrees. This is in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #16, which specifically calls on universities and colleges in Canada to offer such programs. It’s a clear area where resources can be directed and a great place to start.
I repeatedly heard during the conference that there is “so much work to be done” in building reconciliation in our post-secondary institutions. But who will do the work? And when? Indigenous communities have offered institutions, government, business, community and philanthropy many actionable items to work towards reconciliation. As settlers, we have a responsibility to operationalize them.