Univer­si­ties take lead on abo­rig­i­nal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Carol Goar Carol Goar is a na­tional af­fairs colum­nist for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices

Sand­wiched be­tween Pride week­end and Canada Day, the re­cent an­nounce­ment by the na­tion’s univer­si­ties got less at­ten­tion than it de­served.

All 97 of them have adopted a set of com­mon prin­ci­ples de­signed to nar­row the ed­u­ca­tion gap be­tween abo­rig­i­nal stu­dents and their non-na­tive peers. Their um­brella group, Univer­si­ties Canada, an­nounced the na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion plan on June 29.

Each univer­sity will re­write its cur­ricu­lum to fully re­flect abo­rig­i­nal history, cul­ture and val­ues. They will all hire pro­fes­sors, ad­min­is­tra­tors and se­nior man­agers from First Na­tions as well as Métis and Inuit com­mu­ni­ties. They will cre­ate spa­ces and pro­vide re­sources for di­a­logue and en­gage­ment be­tween in­dige­nous and non-in­dige­nous stu­dents. Their pres­i­dents and di­rec­tors will strive to change the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion and raise the bar for other in­sti­tu­tions. “We are pleased to launch these prin­ci­ples on the eve of Canada Day which is not only a time for cel­e­bra­tion but a time for re­flect­ing on who we are as a coun­try and who we want to be­come through mean­ing­ful rec­on­cil­i­a­tion,” said Paul David­son, pres­i­dent of Univer­si­ties Canada.

This is the first sub­stan­tive re­sponse to last month’s call for ac­tion from the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion. “We have de­scribed for you a moun­tain,” Jus­tice Mur­ray Sin­clair, head of the com­mis­sion, told Cana­di­ans. “We have shown you a path to the top. We call upon you to do the climb­ing.”

Un­til last week, most of the re­sponses - from pro­vin­cial pre­miers, church lead­ers and states­men - had been open­hearted but vague. Public of­fi­cials (with the re­gret­table ex­cep­tion of the prime min­is­ter) ac­knowl­edged the dam­age done by Canada’s racist In­dian residential schools; promised to take to heart the lessons of the past; and pledged to build a new na­tional part­ner­ship based on trust, mu­tual re­spect and a fair shar­ing of the ben­e­fits of the land. But they stopped short of specifics.

The univer­si­ties were com­mend­ably ex­plicit. They set clear tar­gets and spelled out how they planned to reach them:

Bring the rate of univer­sity grad­u­a­tion among in­dige­nous peo­ples up to the na­tional av­er­age. Cur­rently, 9.8 per cent of abo­rig­i­nal Cana­di­ans have univer­sity de­grees com­pared to 28 per cent in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.

Nar­row­ing the gap re­quires two ini­tia­tives: get­ting more abo­rig­i­nal young peo­ple in the door and pro­vid­ing them with the sup­port they need to stay and grad­u­ate. To achieve those ob­jec­tives, Canada’s univer­si­ties in­tend to work with ele­men­tary and sec­ondary schools to cre­ate a sup­port­ive learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment for abo­rig­i­nal stu­dents (ap­prox­i­mately 25 per cent drop out with­out fin­ish­ing high school). They plan to build bridge pro­grams to help prospec­tive in­dige­nous stu­dents make the tran­si­tion to univer­sity. And they prom­ise that those who register will be wel­comed, re­spected and in­cluded in ev­ery as­pect of cam­pus life.

Make an in­sti­tu­tion-wide com­mit­ment to de­velop op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­dige­nous stu­dents.

This re­quires not just fi­nan­cial sup­port, but an ar­ray of aca­demic pro­grams and on-cam­pus ser­vices cus­tom-made to help abo­rig­i­nal stu­dents suc­ceed.

“De­col­o­nize” Canada’s univer­si­ties in the words of David Barnard, chair of Univer­si­ties Canada and vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba.

That means blend­ing western science with in­dige­nous knowl­edge, rec­og­niz­ing that there are dif­fer­ent ways of know­ing and learn­ing and in­te­grat­ing abo­rig­i­nal per­spec­tives into Cana­dian schol­ar­ship and learn­ing.

Urge other in­sti­tu­tions - cor­po­ra­tions, public agen­cies, non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions - to re­set their re­la­tion­ship with in­dige­nous Cana­di­ans.

Univer­si­ties aim to be the na­tion’s cat­a­lyst in a va­ri­ety of ways. They will show­case what equal­ity looks like. They will de­velop part­ner­ships with the pri­vate sec­tor that open doors for abo­rig­i­nal grad­u­ates. They will raise aware­ness about the im­por­tance of in­vest­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion for in­dige­nous youth. Their pres­i­dents can make public speeches. Their grad­u­ates will bring dif­fer­ent at­ti­tudes and ex­pec­ta­tions into the na­tion’s schools, work­places and com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions.

It took the heads of Canada’s univer­si­ties about a year to de­velop this agenda. They had a head-start be­cause many of them al­ready had pro­grams, ser­vices or part­ner­ships in place. The Univer­sity of Toronto, for ex­am­ple, has both an in­dige­nous cen­tre and First Na­tions House, which hosts aca­demic sem­i­nars, award cer­e­monies and cul­tural events for in­dige­nous stu­dents. Ry­er­son Univer­sity has a 12-year part­ner­ship with First Na­tions Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute to de­liver cour­ses to in­dige­nous stu­dents seek­ing to be­come so­cial work­ers.

The Univer­sity of On­tario In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy has an in­dige­nous stu­dent cen­tre and abo­rig­i­nal coun­sel­lors on and off cam­pus. These scat­tered ini­tia­tives are not enough to close the ed­u­ca­tion gap. But un­like other in­sti­tu­tions, Canada’s univer­si­ties have a blue­print to do bet­ter. This is a promis­ing way to be­gin the na­tion’s 149th year.

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