This past August, Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs) released the results of a survey that assessed the progress being made towards reconciliation at Canadian institutions.
One of the main findings was that universities recognize the importance of education in the process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Nearly 90 per cent of the 70 institutions that responded have a strategic plan to foster reconciliation, and more than half of these plans include specific public strategies or action plans to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. In pursuit of this vision, 90 per cent of responding institutions are committed to integrating Indigenous knowledge into their programs; 72 per cent are forging partnerships with Indigenous communities and 50 per cent are improving Indigenous representation in campus leadership positions.
Beyond strategic plans
According to Jacqueline Ottmann, president of First Nations University of Canada, when it comes to policies, curricula, programming and holistically supporting and meeting Indigenous students where they are at, universities across the country are spread out across the spectrum related to the inclusion of Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing. Some institutions are just beginning, but many are already well along the reconciliation and decolonization path. More and more universities are also committed to ensuring that Indigenous peoples are prominently represented at all levels of leadership and throughout the university’s scope of influence. A member of the Universities Canada advisory group on Indigenous higher education, Dr. Ottmann advocates direct and meaningful Indigenous participation in developing and implementing strategic plans. “Their experiences and expertise,” she said, “are crucial assets to guide these initiatives.” Such an approach “is not only a testament to trust but also an acknowledgment and practice of the principle of ‘nothing without us, about us’ holds true. Indigenous strategic plans must be led and validated by Indigenous peoples; otherwise, they will not be effective.”
Once a strategic plan has been defined, Dr. Ottmann believes it’s also important to know whether there are action plans and evaluation mechanisms linked to the strategies. In addition to these follow-up measures, she stressed that universities must back their intentions with significant financial commitments, as “prioritization is followed by the allocation of resources.”
Celebrating small victories while remaining vigilant
Despite this nuanced assessment, Dr. Ottmann is recognizing any and all victories. “We must consistently celebrate the small steps and, of course, acknowledge the significant changes taking place in various units, departments, colleges and universities. There is now a heightened awareness not only of Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action but also of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and its implications. Some universities have embraced UNDRIP within their institutional framework.”
The progress made is being welcomed by the student population. Shannon Cornelson and Stevie-Rae DeMerchant, co-chairs of the national Indigenous advocacy committee of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, note that conducting surveys on reconciliation and indigenization at Canadian universities is already a huge step forward and will help to better identify and address barriers to education for Indigenous students.
However, they also observed that the situation varies from one university to another. Ms. DeMerchant, a student at St. Thomas University, who is also Wolastoqiyik from the community of Woodstock First Nation, noted that while 90 per cent of universities have created specific positions and groups for Indigenous students, “that’s not the case for every university.”
Students are furthermore concerned these advances will be impacted by shifts in the political climate and local attitudes.. “Our reconciliation efforts can sometimes face challenges due to the prevailing political climate in Canada. This presents a problem. For instance, in Alberta, our province does not officially recognize TRC Day,” said Ms. Cornelson, a student at the University of Alberta and an urban member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation.
Integrating Indigenous knowledge into education is a key concern for both co-chairs, and they stressed the importance of respecting and celebrating the cultural and linguistic diversity of Indigenous peoples. Ms. Cornelson noted that, their group primarily represents the interests of the first-generation student population facing unique challenges. “The predominant question currently concerns the accessibility of universities. While there is some funding available, the comfort, accessibility and overall understanding are lacking. That is precisely an area that we are actively addressing, with a focus on improving the accessibility of universities for Indigenous students.”
She also underscores the importance of recognizing that the comprehensive support system for Indigenous students is very different from what is available to international students or those who traditionally attend postsecondary education.
Acknowledging these same concerns and efforts, interim president and CEO of Universities Canada, Philip Landon, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the positive changes that have occurred in recent years. “The survey helped us understand that the university sector has come a long way, but [institutions] still have a long way to go.” For example, one of the initiatives he will be monitoring closely is the development of the distance learning program. “I believe there are opportunities for community-based learning, allowing students to remain in their communities and access remote learning, as we’ve witnessed during the pandemic. This could be an intriguing area to observe for potential growth in the next few years.”
The results of the survey were released a few months after the organization published its commitments to truth and reconciliation, which replaces the 13 principles adopted in 2015. It was “necessary to review the principles and transform them into concrete commitments to promote reconciliation,” Mr. Landon explained. He noted that the new commitments go beyond the previous principles and direct universities towards specific actions to promote truth and reconciliation. Taking time to build those solid relationships, he added, is crucial for genuine commitment.