In June 2015, David Barnard, then president of the University of Manitoba and chair of the board for Universities Canada, issued a public statement introducing the association’s new 13 principles for reconciliation endorsed by the 90-plus members of Universities Canada. The 13 principles committed administrators and faculties at Canadian universities to ensure Indigenous peoples were fully represented in every aspect of Canada’s educational institutions, reflecting their needs and their vision for a better future.
A few examples included: ensure institutional commitment at every level to develop opportunities for Indigenous students; recognize the importance of indigenization of curricula through responsive academic programming, support programs, orientations, and pedagogies; recognize the importance of Indigenous education leadership through representation at the governance level and within faculty, professional and administrative staff; recognize the value of promoting partnerships among educational and local Indigenous communities and continue to maintain a collaborative and consultative process on the specific needs of Indigenous students.
Dr. Barnard noted in his statement, “We begin to decolonize our universities by integrating Indigenous knowledge, perspectives and worldviews into curricula, programs and services, and providing relevant training for those teaching and interacting with our students. When understanding of First Nation, Métis and other Indigenous cultures is woven through all of our campuses, then real change will occur not only within the institution, but within the many areas of society that we reach.”
The principles were intended to serve as guideposts for engagement and change at every level. They were to prompt action in the engagement of Indigenous students and the creation of spaces to teach Indigenous history, highlight contemporary events, protect languages and hold a steady lens on culture. The principles also included a commitment to support Indigenous scholars and ensure they held positions with authority and decision-making capacity.
However, there have been significant bumps along the way. Discrimination and stereotypes do not disappear overnight. Indigenous peoples and university administration have had to concede hiring deficits. There is still a perceived lack of cultural safety and Indigenous scholars and staff have experienced a “backlash” from what has been regarded as a forced inclusion of Indigenous knowledges and content requirements. There have been questionable appointments, and several people have been “called out” across Canada on the credibility of their ancestral claims to Indigeneity.
There have been a variety of setbacks, but there have been many successes as well. In April 2023, Universities Canada members reaffirmed their commitment to truth and reconciliation as they continue to strive for balance and movement towards a mutual sense of possibility. The new principles are a living document, like many of the treaties of Canada are regarded by Indigenous peoples. This will move us beyond inspirational to true reconciliation. Change is essential and the evolution of the relationship between universities, the federal and provincial governments, the people of Canada and Indigenous peoples must be addressed in a fulsome way if we are to continue to be successful in our mutual efforts.
Through the renewed commitments to truth and reconciliation, universities affirm their commitment to: respecting and making space for Indigenous expertise, knowledges and cultures in policies, structures, and governance; supporting Indigenous student success; advancing the Indigenization of teaching and learning; ensuring research is respectful, mutually beneficial and collaborative; developing strong engagement with Indigenous communities; and supporting Indigenous Peoples within Canadian universities.
The associated truths of long-term oppression and discrimination have been difficult to process for many people; not everyone is aware of the history of Indigenous peoples in this country, or the harm done under the guise of education. There has been a lot to atone for and the road to reconciliation was never seen as a straight line forward by anyone.
There were many people involved in framing these new principles, from administrators and faculty (including my own input from Lakehead University) to Indigenous community members. There is true excitement and confidence we will get to where we are trying to go, together.