Caught up in the Trump tor­nado

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Glen A. Jones is pro­fes­sor of higher ed­u­ca­tion and dean of the On­tario In­sti­tute for Stud­ies in Ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Toronto.

Re­cent events at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia in Char­lottesville and Don­ald Trump’s mul­ti­ple re­sponses ig­nited a me­dia firestorm that quickly moved north of the bor­der. Within days, Cana­dian me­dia were re­port­ing on pro­posed white su­prem­a­cist ral­lies in Van­cou­ver and at the Univer­sity of Toronto, based on in­for­ma­tion ob­tained on Face­book. This was fol­lowed quickly by sto­ries on Toronto’s re­sponse (no knowl­edge of any rally and no re­quest to use univer­sity space) and planned counter-protests.

The fear is that Trump’s am­biva­lent cri­tique of the ex­plicit racism ev­i­denced at the Vir­ginia events will pro­vide a sup­port­ive um­brella for sim­i­lar acts of racism in Canada. Univer­sity lead­ers is­sued state­ments con­demn­ing racism and big­otry, and pro­mot­ing in­clu­siv­ity and di­ver­sity. But the ubiq­ui­tous me­dia em­pha­sis on events in the White House risks di­min­ish­ing the at­ten­tion given to deal­ing truth­fully with Canada’s own racist colo­nial his­tory, and to the process of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with indige­nous peo­ples.

The fi­nal re­port of Canada’s Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion was re­leased in De­cem­ber 2015 and be­came an im­por­tant cat­a­lyst for na­tional dis­cus­sion of the trav­esty of a sys­tem of res­i­den­tial schools that sep­a­rated indige­nous chil­dren from their par­ents, lan­guage and cul­ture in the name of ed­u­ca­tion, lead­ing to phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional abuse.

Ac­cord­ing to the com­mis­sion, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is about “es­tab­lish­ing and main­tain­ing a mu­tu­ally re­spect­ful re­la­tion­ship be­tween Abo­rig­i­nal and non-Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples [which re­quires] aware­ness of the past, ac­knowl­edge­ment of the harm…in­flicted, atone­ment for the causes, and ac­tion to change be­hav­iour”.

Uni­ver­si­ties were very much part of the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal struc­tures that cre­ated and sup­ported these schools. Schol­ars played a cen­tral role in cre­at­ing a his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive that largely ig­nored them. Uni­ver­si­ties fre­quently taught the teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors who staffed them. Pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion pioneer Eger­ton Ry­er­son was also the ar­chi­tect of their cur­ric­ula. And, un­til re­cently, Cana­dian uni­ver­si­ties largely ig­nored schol­ar­ship fo­cus­ing on indige­nous lan­guage, knowl­edge and cul­ture.

Some uni­ver­si­ties, in­clud­ing First Na­tions Univer­sity of Canada in Saskatchewan, have been ad­dress­ing indige­nous peo­ple’s needs for some time. But the re­lease of the com­mis­sion’s re­port in the con­text of a new, po­ten­tially sup­port­ive fed­eral gov­ern­ment, led by Justin Trudeau, cre­ated fresh pos­si­bil­i­ties for change. Al­most ev­ery Cana­dian univer­sity re­sponded by cre­at­ing its own community-based pro­cesses to de­velop ac­tion plans. But while, two years later, there are some sur­face signs of change, there is gen­eral agree­ment that true rec­on­cil­i­a­tion will be a slow, dif­fi­cult process. Deep trans­for­ma­tions in re­la­tion­ships will be re­quired, in­clud­ing those be­tween uni­ver­si­ties and indige­nous peo­ples.

Fed­eral gov­ern­ment sup­port for these trans­for­ma­tions has been mod­est at best. There have been no ma­jor strate­gic in­vest­ments in in­creas­ing the num­ber of indige­nous fac­ulty or build­ing the re­search in­fra­struc­ture needed to fur­ther indige­nous schol­ar­ship. Ma­jor con­cerns per­sist over the fund­ing avail­able to First Na­tions’ schools and about indige­nous stu­dents’ rel­a­tively low school com­ple­tion rates.

Cana­di­ans are grad­u­ally be­com­ing more aware of the racism em­bed­ded in their coun­try’s his­toric re­la­tion­ship with indige­nous peo­ples. A sense of na­tional guilt has played a role in cre­at­ing the space for change. In my view, uni­ver­si­ties should play a key role, sup­port­ing the indige­nous schol­ar­ship and col­lab­o­ra­tion with indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties needed to en­sure that all Cana­di­ans learn more about both the truth and the pos­si­ble path­ways to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Trudeau re­cently de­cided to re­name the Langevin Block in Ot­tawa – which houses the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice – in ac­knowl­edge­ment of the role Hec­torLouis Langevin, one of the Fathers of Con­fed­er­a­tion, played in the de­vel­op­ment of res­i­den­tial schools. The irony is that, in the Trump me­dia tor­nado, most Cana­di­ans prob­a­bly know less about the rea­sons for this than they do about why Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols are be­ing re­moved through­out the US.

The is­sue is not whether one set of prob­lem­atic con­ver­sa­tions is more or less im­por­tant. It is, rather, that Cana­dian univer­sity staff and stu­dents should not lose sight of the im­por­tance of the do­mes­tic rec­on­cil­i­a­tion project and the need to ad­dress our com­plex, mul­ti­fac­eted nar­ra­tive of colo­nial­ism and racism.

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