The final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Justice Murray Sinclair, on the tragic impacts of Indian Residential Schools, was released on Dec. 15. The report reflects the testimony of over 6,000 people, many of them First Nations, Métis and Inuit residential school survivors and their families. The challenge now, for us at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and for all Canadians, is to act promptly on the report’s calls to action.
One of the keys to successfully implementing the report’s recommendations is, unquestionably, evidence-based policy development. Fortunately, Canadian universities and colleges have been steadily building research protocols and gathering much of the knowledge needed to confront the twin challenges of truth and reconciliation. This fact bodes well for Canada as a whole.
Postsecondary institutions have already made major strategic commitments to welcome and support indigenous students and faculty as members of a vibrant, intercultural community of scholars.
The University of Winnipeg was one of the first in Canada to waive tuition payments for former foster children. Beginning in fall 2016, they will require undergrads to take a mandatory indigenous studies course.
The University of Manitoba, with support from TD Bank Group, has become home to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The centre is digitizing the four million historical records and more than 6,000 interviews gathered by the TRC.
Canadian law schools have made important strides as well. At the University of Victoria, efforts are underway to create a dual-degree program in common law and indigenous legal orders. At Lakehead University, law students must take mandatory courses on Aboriginal legal issues.
Canada’s humanities and social science scholars are essential players in the ongoing truth and reconciliation journey – both in the art of dealing with hidden and often uncomfortable truths in our histories, cultures, laws, perceptions, habits and ways of thinking; and in the science of building up a foundation for genuine reconciliation and growth based on the two-way flow of knowledge and understanding between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.
This scholarly effort has been particularly impressive over the last 15 years, during which indigenous and non-indigenous researchers have come together to work out new rules of engagement, including a definitive shift away from research “on and for” to research “by and with” indigenous peoples. This shift has seen research and knowledge mobilization benefit keenly from leadership by, and partnership with, indigenous scholars and their communities.
At SSHRC, we have underscored our long-standing commitment to research “by and with” indigenous peoples by embracing it as a central guiding principle. In 2015, after extensive collaboration with its Aboriginal Advisory Circle, SSHRC launched its Aboriginal Research Statement of Principles and related resources – including its definition of Aboriginal research – in support of Aboriginal research and talent. This ensures that SSHRC’s concept of scholarly excellence includes indigenous perspectives, knowledge, methodologies and approaches.
The TRC has identified a wide range of areas for urgent action to support reconciliation: child welfare, education, indigenous languages and cultures, health, justice and corrections, indigenous rights, treaties and governance, youth and communities, museums and archives, history, media, sports, business and nearly every other aspect of Canadian life.
Social science and humanities scholars and their partners across the country are in a position to facilitate access to knowledge in all of these areas – knowledge properly grounded in relations of respect, diversity and reciprocity between indigenous and academic communities.
The work at universities and colleges, in addition to SSHRC’s support for research and talent development, is generating insights and skills that Canada needs in order to understand our past, and to move forward to a better future for all. This is an essential contribution towards truth and reconciliation.
There is still, unquestionably, a vast distance to travel, but we, at long last, appear to be on the right path to a successful joint future.
Ted Hewitt is president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.