The last residential school in Saskatchewan closed in 1996, the year I started kindergarten. A dark chapter in our history was closed along with that school. I often wonder if I would have made it through university, or even high school, if that’s where I had begun my educational journey.
The challenges facing Indigenous students in postsecondary have been very, very, well documented. It’s now well understood and accepted that the effects of residential schools, an unwelcoming postsecondary environment, and inadequate training in primary and secondary school—among other factors— have contributed to a significant education gap between Indigenous peoples and Canadians. For generations, Indigenous alumni of Canadian colleges and universities were the exception, certainly not the rule.
The last 15-20 years have marked a huge shift in the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian academy. The first generation of Indigenous academics and its allies have worked to make postsecondary institutions more compatible with Indigenous peoples, and some institutions have prioritized Indigenous success and inclusion.
We need to acknowledge these important developments, and build on that work to grow authentic relationships with Indigenous communities inside and outside of the academy. But we must also recognize that despite these first steps, we’re still nowhere near where we should be when it comes to bridging the educational gap and encouraging Indigenous enrolment.
This is a call to colleges and universities to add Indigenous excellence to their teaching, research, and discovery mandate.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report outlines the atrocities committed by the joint church-and-government-run schools. The conclusion of the report includes 94 recommendations that will lead to a Canada that is more just and prosperous for Indigenous peoples. But what makes the Commission’s recommendations different from those in other government-commissioned reports is that they include calls to action for not only government, but for Canadian postsecondary education.
The Commission has done a great favour to all university and college leaders who have been struggling with how to meaningfully incorporate Indigenous priorities into their institutions.
The Commission calls on postsecondary institutions to create degree and diploma programs in Indigenous languages, and to include Indigenous courses as requirements to earn credentials in law, medicine, and nursing. Most significantly, the Commission calls for these courses to go beyond what those disciplines might now teach in Indigenous courses to include the history and legacy of residential schools, Indigenous teachings and practices, and skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.
The Commission also calls on the federal government to provide funding to end the backlog of First Nations students seeking postsecondary education and to provide resources so postsecondary institutions can include Indigenous knowledge in their classrooms.
It’s crucial now to reflect on these recommendations, and in fact, for scholars and administrators to read the entire report, to understand what the Commissioners were trying to accomplish, and to then act. If you’re a president, dean, professor, student leader, staff member, or community partner, do what you can to make this happen. Recognize your institution’s role in reconciliation.
Some colleges and universities have already begun this journey. Just recently I met with a dean at the University of Saskatchewan who, when talking about some new initiatives, asked me, “Will this help us fulfill our obligation under treaty?” I was surprised by the depth of understanding this senior leader demonstrated for the questions that need to be asked when moving new initiatives forward.
This is the new benchmark that our postsecondary institutions must meet. They must be committed to strengthening treaty relationships, to providing education that meets the needs and aspirations of Indigenous communities, and to incorporating Indigenous values into the why and the way things are done.
Canada needs reconciliation. The only way to respect the memories of those children lost in the residential schools, and the students who suffered horribly even after leaving the schools, is to act. Colleges and universities have the power, resources, and influence to change our nation by taking up this work. All that is needed now is the will to do it.
On the day the recommendations were released, Justice Sinclair told Canada, “We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you the path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing."
This journey has just begun.