Universities and colleges across Canada are actively involved in answering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, and we are discovering that this vital work is more complex and challenging than many of us anticipated. In 2015, the university sector – in partnership with Universities Canada – established the annual Building Reconciliation Forum to create a way to share ideas and experiences in response to the calls to action and to move forward together in a positive way. It has become an important venue for addressing the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada, for building the capacity of the next generation of Indigenous leadership and non-Indigenous allies, for promoting governance roles for Indigenous leaders on campuses, and for advancing Indigenous research.
In November 2018, the University of Victoria had the honour of hosting the fourth forum. The theme was Ts’its’u’ watul tseep, meaning to help one another in the Hul’q’umi’num’ language, and it brought together close to 250 leaders from universities, Indigenous communities and government. Over the two days, we discussed the need to acknowledge many unsettling truths about the impacts of our colonial history and, in particular, that education – through the Indian residential schools – was an instrument of assimilation and violence that did great damage to Indigenous peoples across the country.
Participants agreed that education can be a way forward and that universities can, and should, help repair that damage and contribute to projects of reconciliation as defined by Indigenous nations and communities. Senator Murray Sinclair, the chief commissioner of the TRC, stated the issue very simply, saying, “Education has gotten us into this mess, and education will get us out.”
Given this reality, it is significant that the fifth forum will take place October 8-10 at Algoma University, the site of the former Shingwauk Residential School. For the first time since the forum’s inception, the event is being co-hosted by multiple institutions: Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig, Nipissing University, Cape Breton University, the University of Northern British Columbia and Algoma University. Collectively, we will consider the role of Canadian universities as we begin the next five years of reconciliation. Participants will have the unique opportunity to explore the historic Shingwauk site guided by the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association survivor community alongside their team of research partners and museum curators.
It would be presumptuous of us to say exactly what reconciliation looks like, but we can say for certain that it will not be achieved simply by ticking boxes. The calls to action provide us with goals and pathways to a better shared future. But, we must also work together to achieve the even more ambitious goals of repairing a broken relationship, addressing the harms done by colonialism and completing the still unfinished business of Confederation. Reconciliation requires us to have difficult conversations about the redistribution of power and a re-engineering of social, economic and political institutions. So, what does this mean for universities?
Firstly, it means we must prepare for the hard work ahead and openly confront some of the issues that will arise concerning our decision-making, governance arrangements, research and teaching methods, and dominant epistemologies. Senior postsecondary leaders need to recognize that many current assumptions and privileges stand in the way of change.
Secondly, as universities, we must acknowledge the difficulty of the work ahead, but not be deterred by this. A new relationship is not an action, a gesture or an accomplishment – and it is definitely not a branding exercise. It is an ongoing commitment and must be sustainable and long-term.
Thirdly, collaboration, sharing and working together does not mean that universities and colleges should all do the same things. With over 600 First Nations across Canada and over 250 colleges and universities, we need to recognize the strength of diversity. If our efforts are to be responsive, make an impact and be sustainable, they must draw on the real capabilities of very different institutions and align with the ambitions and interests of very different Indigenous students and communities.
Reconciliation may be our greatest social challenge but also our greatest opportunity. We must approach the task with ambition, pragmatism and humility. At the same time, we should not overreach, overpromise or create expectations upon which we cannot deliver. We must focus on our core mission of education and research to co-create this better future together. Hay’sxw’qa and Miigwech.
Jamie Cassels is the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Victoria. Asima Vezina is the president and vice-chancellor of Algoma University.