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Indigenizing the academy / Five years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Indigenizing the academy / Five years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

[National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba]

The Bentwood Box: carved by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston, the TRC Bentwood Box is a lasting tribute to all residential school survivors. Photo provided by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.

On June 2, 2015, Justice Murray Sinclair threw down the gauntlet in releasing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) historic report and its 94 calls to action. Following years of testimony and research on the multi-generational trauma caused by Canada’s residential school system, it was time for action, amends and healing. Education needed to play a central role.

“Education got us into this mess,” Sinclair said, “and education will get us out of this mess.”

Post-secondary institutions were quick to respond to the TRC’s recommendations with public statements of contrition and organized efforts in self-reflection to find the way forward. But public apologies and statements of solidarity only go so far. At this milestone five-year anniversary of the report's release, an assessment of real actions and outcomes tell a story of both hope and frustration.

Across Canada, new committees, task forces, advisory councils, and events have been launched, requiring Indigenous faculty involvement that has increased workloads, stress, and in some cases, burnout.

“In some respects, many of us are used to a struggle, both within our communities and throughout our history of colonialism,” says Patricia Settee, Indigenous Studies professor at the University of Saskatchewan. “So we rise to the occasion. But I think what is being asked of us is to do more with fewer resources.”

Settee says one of the key achievements at the University of Saskatchewan over the past five years was the establishment of the Department of Indigenous Studies and seeing its enrolment grow.

“Indigenous leaders and educators really put the university administrators' feet to the fire to ensure that happened,” says Settee. Other successes include several faculty and administrative positions being designated as Indigenous hires over the coming decade.

Academic staff at the school were also successful in pushing for a new position at the executive leadership level.

“We had years of getting ready for this position,” says Marie Battiste, Professor Emerita, Educational Foundations at the university. “We worked hard to get it, to advance it, to take it to the step of getting the Elders and communities involved with it.” Battiste, a Mi’kmaw educator from the Potlotek First Nation in Nova Scotia, says she is hopeful that through such “efforts at the senior level, we can aspire to making better changes.”

But over the past year, ten Indigenous faculty have left the university. Battiste is one of them.

While Battiste says she cannot speak to the specific reasons why other individuals left, she says burnout, the slow pace of change, the implications of COVID-19 and cuts were among the factors.

“I left the College of Education with an early retirement two years ago and took a reduced course load. I had an additional year to that commitment but…I decided to leave because I felt that the College of Education had not done what it could do to improve the climate for Indigenous faculty and staff.”

Having a strong voice in senior administration and having good commitments from the top is one thing, she says, but real change needs to happen at the level of the university’s colleges and faculties.

“Every college has to review their own policies, activities; they should be grounding themselves in reconciliation activities that include Indigenous faculty and staff members where appropriate. Without that consultation, support and help, large ideas that come from the university at the vice-provost level will not be as effective…You can’t have top down; we need to work in all directions and with communities.”

But Battiste’s efforts to advance reconciliation at the university are not done. She remains part of a group of Elders and knowledge-holders working with the Vice-Provost, Indigenous Engagement to finalize and launch an Indigenization strategy.

“I’m still on the Elders advisory committee and I will remain on that to help her (Jacqueline Ottmann, the Vice-Provost) pursue this.”

Other institutions have also had trouble retaining Indigenous faculty and staff.

These challenges may reflect competing visions and understandings of what Indigenization of the academy should entail. Adam Gaudry, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies, and Danielle Lorenz, PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta categorized various Indigenization initiatives, in an article they published in 2018. They found that Indigenization initiatives at Canadian universities range from status quo to transformative, with the majority falling into the former category.

“Complex and long-term solutions are needed,” notes Settee. “If we keep going in the direction we are going, at a broader level, I really have fears for all of us as an academic community and the impact down the road.”

Making more progress in the years ahead will require universities and colleges to stop seeing Indigenous people as “just another equity group,” says Patti Doyle-Bedwell, professor of Indigenous Studies at Dalhousie University. “We are Mi’kmaq people and we have a nation-to-nation relationship with the Crown…Land acknowledgements are good, but we have to act like it’s really true.”

CAUT’s Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education Working Group has identified several actions to assist in moving beyond the status quo. “Systemic change will take moving beyond a focus on the numbers of Aboriginal staff, leaders, students, curriculum changes and spaces, although these are important,” says David Newhouse, Chair of the Chanie Wenjack School of Indigenous Studies at Trent University and Chair of the CAUT Working Group. “It means recognizing and respecting Aboriginal rights, systems of knowledge creation and dissemination, and resourcing reconnections to communities, cultures and languages.”

“It will also take new governance models and approaches at all levels to prioritize Aboriginal faculty and community involvement and control over Indigenization,” notes Newhouse.

More and more academic staff associations are working to push post-secondary institutions to move across the three-part spectrum of Indigenization, described by Gaudry and Lorenz.

At Dalhousie, the faculty association secured recognition of Indigenous knowledge and additional service in the collective agreement. The association also won the right for Indigenous faculty to have someone from the community sit on the tenure and promotion committees.

“Sometimes you are involved with so many committees you aren’t doing as much publishing and then you are turned down for promotion,” says Doyle-Bedwell. “But now this is reflected in the collective agreement.”

The Brandon University Faculty Association recently negotiated a joint working group to determine ways of recognizing Indigenous knowledge and qualifications, as well as assessing teaching excellence as established through an Indigenous learning model. The group is also exploring how Indigenous knowledge and research methodologies, and service can be viewed and recognized from an Indigenous perspective.

In British Columbia, the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators’ Working Group on Decolonization, Reconciliation and Indigenization is asking members to centre ‘educational equity’ in their work by considering what role cultural freedom, informed consent and dignity of Indigenous learners and academic staff have while operating within post-secondary environments that have unknowingly, or willingly, been complicit in the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples.

From a Haudenosaunee perspective, Newhouse calls the work underway in response to the TRC recommendations, whether it be the hiring of additional Indigenous academic staff, creation of new Indigenous academic programming, changes in administrative and governing structures, support for Indigenous research, or bringing Indigenous knowledge into the academy, as “‘extending the rafters’ as it is akin to the addition of a new family to the longhouse.” He sees a greater role for academic staff associations.

“There will be tensions that arise from this huge project that involve working conditions, research support, developing relationships with colleagues and communities and evaluation of individual performance, among others.”

Settee agrees it is crucial that academic staff associations continue to be outspoken on these issues. “My concern as an active member of CAUT is the broader picture. A lot of this can be seen as smoke and mirrors if we are not paying attention. That voice of our associations is desperately needed,” she says.

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