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MacEwan president outlines how reconciliation became a priority at her university

According to Deborah Saucier, symbolic and structural changes have led to improved enrolment rates and staff retention.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | MAR 01 2019

Editor’s note: Just hours after posting this story, we were notified that Dr. Saucier is resigning from her position as president of MacEwan University to become president and vice-chancellor of Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C. She will remain president at MacEwan until July 3.

Deborah Saucier says she has often heard comments aimed at Indigenous Canadians that they should “just get over it,” referring to the injustices they’ve suffered throughout the country’s history. To which she responds: “No, I’m not getting over it and I’m not going away.”

Dr. Saucier, president of MacEwan University in Edmonton and a member of the Métis from Saskatchewan, was speaking at a meeting of university communications and government relations directors organized by Universities Canada in Ottawa in early February. In her keynote talk, she outlined some of the ways that her institution is addressing reconciliation. “Our path to reconciliation is relatively new,” she noted, “but we’ve been able to make great strides, in part because I have an absolutely fearless director of Indigenous affairs (Terri Suntjens).

At the beginning, “we were kind of winging it,” Dr. Saucier admitted. For instance, when Ms. Suntjens approached her to ask if the university could fly the Treaty 6 and Métis flags alongside the civic, provincial and national flags, “I thought, ‘why not?’”

About a week later, Dr. Saucier said she got a call from representatives of the federal government asking what policy the university had followed to do this, “at which point I said, ‘uh oh, is there a national flag-flying law that I didn’t know about?’ No, it turns out they were just wanting to do the same thing and they didn’t know how to approach it,” she said. Dr. Saucier told them that her institution had consulted with the grand chief of Treaty 6 and invited him to raise the flag, and also asked an RCMP constable in ceremonial red serge to take part.

Some of the university’s other efforts at reconciliation might seem small, “but you go for the low-hanging fruit first,” said Dr. Saucier. At every entrance to MacEwan, for example, the university has installed a plaque that announces, in English, Cree and syllabic Cree “that we’re on Treaty 6 land, and that we honour the languages and the cultures of this place called Edmonton.”

The university also changed its policies so that Indigenous students and instructors can engage in ceremonial practices, particularly smudging, on campus. “We found that many of our Indigenous colleagues were already smudging in their offices illegally. They were hiding their ceremony because they thought it was against policy. This illustrates the ways in which university policies need to shift.”

Feeling at home

Dr. Saucier said it’s also important that Canada’s universities have Indigenous meeting spaces where “Indigenous students feel like they’re at home.” These spaces allow students to “get together informally and actually see other people who look like them, who have the same experiences as them. You can’t undervalue the importance of that for Indigenous people who walk through this world often feeling, especially at university, that they are really like unicorns.”

Last year saw a 10-percent increase in the number of students enrolling in the institution who self-identify as Indigenous, Dr. Saucier continued. This was “a huge increase for us” and goes beyond making students welcome, putting up symbols and changing policies, she said. “We actually made everybody who worked in our Indigenous centre permanent. They were [previously] on rolling six-month contracts. It wasn’t like we were ever going to stop doing this, but nobody had ever said, ‘I think we need to dedicate the resources in the budget for this, period.’”

Prior to this, what had been happening, she said, was that other institutions “were taking our most talented people.” The change in employment status for these individuals “has improved the morale and actually allowed us to expand programming.”

Addressing government relations staff in the audience, she noted that the postsecondary sector has a role to play, collectively, in pushing Indigenous education as a political priority. She noted that 10 percent of Indigenous people in Canada get university degrees, and of that 10 percent, two-thirds are women. “We need to encourage young men to go to postsecondary school, regardless of ethnicity, but especially young Indigenous men. Why? Because it will transform their lives, make them leaders in their community, make them leaders nationally, and allow us to develop the skills to take what is our treaty obligations and to deliver on them.”

As for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, she noted that several of the calls are specific to education, around language, culture and the valuing of Indigenous knowledge. “I actually think universities are taking this very seriously. They are doing their very best.”

However, she offered a caveat by way of anecdote. Her university, she said, will be offering a course in introductory Cree to help meet the calls to action. She noted that many universities are doing this, and as a result Indigenous languages instruction is on the rise. But, where did she get the person to teach the course? From a local First Nations college. “I went to the tribal college, hired their best person, paid them twice what they’d make there, and now they don’t work there anymore, they work for me.”

It would be far better, she said, if universities partnered with the existing Indigenous colleges and First Nations, and brought the students to them. “When you take our European-Canadian students out on the land to take these courses, their connection to the land is profound. The time spent with the elders is profound to them. … And if you make real partnerships, this is at the heart of reconciliation, I would argue.”

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