How indigenization can support students while honouring reconciliation

A growing number of Canada’s postsecondary institutions have begun implementing indigenization initiatives to better support Indigenous learners, communities, and other stakeholders while promoting diversity and inclusivity. Many of these institutions began pursuing these initiatives prior to the release of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report in June 2015, yet the TRC and its work have provided a powerful reminder of the guiding role that reconciliation needs to play in any school’s indigenization efforts. Our research has led us to work with a number of these institutions in developing indigenization strategies, and while every aspect of an institution is affected by these strategies, this piece focuses specifically on how indigenization can benefit students while supporting Canada’s ongoing efforts toward reconciliation.  

Honouring reconciliation

An essential aspect of indigenization is making sure your institution’s understanding of this concept is firmly rooted in the conclusions and recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In its “Education for Reconciliation” report, the TRC states that: 

Much of the current state of troubled relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians is attributable to education institutions and what they have taught, or failed to teach, over many generations. Despite this history—or, perhaps more correctly, because of its potential—the Truth and Reconciliation Commission believes that education is also the key to reconciliation.
— Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its Education for Reconciliation report

If education is the key to reconciliation, then any understanding of indigenization must account for (and respond to) the often-negative historical effects that settler populations and institutions have had on Indigenous peoples. It might be tempting for some institutions to keep their indigenization messaging focused on the general, celebratory concepts of inclusivity and diversity. But if they do not acknowledge the historical processes that have negatively impacted—and continue to impact—Canada’s Indigenous peoples, they may undermine their efforts toward both indigenization and reconciliation. 

Finding a common definition

One of the most important first steps in undertaking an indigenization effort is to build consensus around what your institution means when it says it wants to “indigenize.” There are many definitions of indigenization currently being developed and implemented by Canadian institutions. Many of these definitions work to honour the specific needs and histories of local Indigenous communities, while acknowledging the critiques that these communities may offer to traditional postsecondary education and its institutions. The Aboriginal Advisory Circle to the President (AAC) at the University of Regina, for example, defines indigenization as: 

The transformation of the existing academy by including Indigenous knowledges, voices, critiques, scholars, students and materials as well as the establishment of physical and epistemic spaces that facilitate the ethical stewardship of a plurality of Indigenous knowledges and practices so thoroughly as to constitute an essential element of the university. It is not limited to Indigenous people, but encompasses all students and faculty, for the benefit of our academic integrity and our social viability.
— Aboriginal Advisory Circle to the President, University of Regina

As one can see, this definition states that indigenization is the process of incorporating not only one, but multiple voices and perspectives into an institution’s entire structure, operations, spaces, and culture. Further, it explicitly states that indigenization must acknowledge and be responsive to the critiques that these voices and perspectives might bring to postsecondary education. 

For Ron (Deganadus) McLester, Executive Director and Special Advisor to the President on Indigenous Initiatives at Algonquin College,

Any indigenization effort needs to be guided by the unique nations and peoples represented in an institution’s Indigenous students, staff, and community partners.
— Ron (Deganadus) McLester, Executive Director and Special Advisor to the President on Indigenous Initiatives at Algonquin College

 

A key part of this effort, McLester adds, is “recognizing that postsecondary indigenization strategies deal with Indigenous peoples in the plural sense,” meaning that these strategies should also strive to reflect the cultures and concerns of diverse Indigenous communities and local contexts. 

Thinking holistically, asking the right questions


“A crucial aspect of any indigenization strategy is ensuring that it is implemented holistically at all organizational levels,” says Academica Consultant Yves Pelletier. While it is essential to include a school’s student support services in an indigenization strategy, Pelletier adds, institutions that narrowly focus on this resource “are bound to face significant hurdles in attracting and retaining Indigenous learners.” Instead, Pelletier recommends that:

A successful indigenization strategy must focus on ensuring an inclusive environment through culturally sensitive curricula, employee awareness, and the physical inclusion of iconography that has meaning for the diverse Indigenous groups connected to the institution. These efforts should also include devoted recruitment campaigns, admissions processes that include elements beyond grades, institutional funding committed to Indigenous learners, and on-campus Indigenous cultural centres.
— Academica Consultant Yves Pelletier

When taking a holistic approach like the kind Pelletier describes, it is important to remember that any new initiative is only as good as the questions and values it seeks to address. This means that as institutions consider new initiatives to support indigenization across their entire organization, they need to ensure that these initiatives are guided by questions that best serve the indigenization goals that are unique to that school and to the Indigenous communities with which it is seeking a more meaningful partnership.   

Some of these initiatives and their guiding questions can include: 

Indigenous Co-ordinator

  • What qualities are important for this role? Hiring the right person for this role is crucial for creating a clearly defined leader who can participate in high-level institutional strategy discussions while remaining in touch with the day-to-day concerns of an institution’s Indigenous learners.
  • Who will the co-ordinator report to? For example, it might be best to have the Indigenous Co-ordinator report to a Dean of Students to ensure that the Co-ordinator can quickly and effectively mobilize all of the institution’s student resources to assist Indigenous learners.
  • Are additional staff needed to support the co-ordinator? Having additional staff for Indigenous student support can help free up the Indigenous Co-ordinator’s time to consult on and initiate high-level strategy decisions. 
     

On-campus Indigenous Centre

  • Will this Centre be the first point of contact for students? Will it have an accessible space on campus, staffed with personnel who can respond effectively to the needs of Indigenous learners? 
  • What is the relationship of the Centre to other units within the university? We have found that it is beneficial to have the Centre be autonomous from, yet integrated with all of the other student support services at the institution. This way, Indigenous students can report any concerns or requests for support to a trained staff person at the Centre while using the Centre to access the institution’s general student support services.  
  • Where should the Centre be located? 
  • What is the ideal staffing level? A single Indigenous co-ordinator, for example, might not be enough, as this person might have many high-level duties that take her/him away from the office and thus leave students with an unstaffed physical space. 
  • What is the ideal Centre size and layout? The Centre should be of sufficient size to accommodate gatherings and events, student drop-ins, space for private meetings, etc.

Initiatives for educating faculty, staff on Indigenous issues

  • How can all faculty and staff be included in fulfilling the unique, local goals of indigenization at your  institution? Possibilities include implementing Indigenous education as part of staff orientation and offering mandatory professional development sessions on the subject, etc. 
  • Who should be involved in developing the form and content of this education? At the very least,  the institution’s Indigenous students, Indigenous Co-ordinator, and members of local Indigenous communities should be involved to ensure responsiveness to these groups. 

Conclusion

These are just some of the findings that our work with institutions has provided us on how indigenization efforts can support students throughout PSE and contribute toward Canada’s larger goals for reconciliation. With proper research and strong consultation with Indigenous learners, community leaders, institutional leadership, and other key stakeholders, institutions will be able to consistently improve the policies, structure, and culture that support indigenization efforts. Better yet, they might offer increasingly better responses to the question, “How can we best support Indigenous students while honouring and contributing to reconciliation?” Of course, an indigenization strategy should consider and pursue many diverse goals holistically across an institution, and we hope to discuss these further in future pieces. But for the purposes of this piece, we have chosen to focus on supporting students. 

If you would like to chat further with us about your institution’s indigenization strategy or any other strategic initiatives, we’d love to hear from you.

Simply contact us at your convenience. 

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