What it means for an institution to Indigenize

Since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report in 2015, Canada’s post-secondary institutions have worked to better integrate Indigenous practices and ways of knowing into their campus cultures and spaces. This effort has led to a growing conversation around what it truly means for an institution to Indigenize, with this conversation touching on nearly every aspect of post-secondary education, from infrastructure and ceremonial acknowledgments to shared governance and a greater incorporation of Indigenous knowledges into curriculum.

As part of Academica Group’s mission of moving higher ed forward, and as a benefit of its ongoing work with hundreds of post-secondary partners across Canada, Academica President & CEO Rod Skinkle recently sat down with Ron (Deganadus) McLester, Vice President – Truth, Reconciliation & Indigenization at Algonquin College in Ottawa, with an aim to share the benefits of Ron’s experience working deeply in the area of Truth and Reconciliation with the rest of Canada’s post-secondary community.

The Story

RS – “Ron, you and your team have developed a comprehensive vision and have proposed a series of ground-breaking practices at Algonquin with respect to Indigenization. Can you tell us a bit about the context and inspiration for that work?”

RM – “We started by looking into the Indigenous Knowledge concepts that are embedded within wampum belts and other objects that contain traditional understandings. The first and most important traditional framework is captured in the Two Row wampum belt.

This sacred belt was used to codify an agreement between Indigenous peoples and the colonists whereby our peoples would be represented on that belt by two parallel rows. One row would be the Original people and be represented as a canoe. The other row would represent those who came across the water and would be represented by a ship. It was also agreed that both parties would forever have their laws, languages, culture, government and customs protected and cared for.  They agreed, through the construction of this belt, that the ships (or Western ways) would never interfere with the canoe and vice versa.

Importantly, they also agreed that the relationships between the ship and the canoe would be based on three tenets: peace, friendship, and respect. I share this because this concept of ships and canoes becomes important when we talk about Indigenization at our institutions.

You see, our institutions today are like the ship, which can take you many places. But you must be careful because the ship also holds a lot of people and cargo. It is less nimble than the canoe because of its size. The canoe, on the other hand, is agile and maneuverable. It doesn’t allow you to take a lot of cargo—only what you need. In this, it represents a different way of looking at our post-secondary institutions that I find quite helpful for understanding what we mean by Indigenization.

The Mission

RS – “And for you, how does that translate into a vision, or perhaps even more importantly, a mission for post-secondary education in Canada?”

RM – “Many people are talking about Indigenization, and many organizations have very different definitions of what that is. Usually, the goal is to decolonize the institution or include more Indigenous spaces and culture on campus. This often leads to new campus spaces and a greater emphasis on hiring Indigenous faculty.  What people are only now beginning to talk about is changing basic institutional processes to have them better integrate and benefit from Indigenous ways of knowing.

In order to do this, we need to recognize that at this moment, nearly all of us are on the ship that I mentioned earlier, that being the “institution” as defined by a Western vision of what is efficient and effective. In order to begin to understand, articulate, build, implement, and experience Indigenization, we must consider how we get where we want to go from our current position.”

RS – “Is that to suggest that all community members are in a similar starting place with respect to Indigenization? How does that recognize the truth of the history of colonization that has led to this moment?”

RM - It is true that colonization has deeply fractured our people and our culture. However, it is also true that we are all standing at this place and time, here and now, together. I would suggest that in recent years, we have made some progress in a journey toward reconciliation – toward peace, friendship and respect, as illustrated in the Two-Row Wampum.

At Algonquin, thanks in large part to the spirit of our outgoing leader, Cheryl Jensen, we have decided to drop anchor, get off the ship, and explore the land, teachings, and resources that we need to start building the canoe. What’s different and most meaningful about this work is that we aren’t just building canoes for Indigenous learners. We are building them for every single person at the college.

The Practice

RS – “You spoke a moment ago about going deeper with Indigenization, to the point that you’re rethinking certain aspects of post-secondary institutions that many members of the settler population would take as a given. What does that look like for you?”

RM – Well let’s start for a moment with the four seasons. These are seasons that all of us live through, together. They are part of a natural process that is bigger than us and our differences. But now let’s think of a ceremonial calendar, where we might spend different times of the year caring (and expressing gratitude) for the season of the strawberry, seeds, maple syrup, animals, birds, plants, etc.

Now, let’s imagine for a moment that we took each of those items on the calendar (each of which gets about seven weeks of the year in which it is centered in our minds and hearts) and we find departments at our institution that could correlate with them. Now you’re in a situation where you might have a college leader saying, “And now we turn our minds to Human Resources. We acknowledge Diane, the VP of HR, in place of the strawberry.”

For the next seven weeks, the entire college would be celebrating and focusing on Human Resources. We can do a lecture series, professional development, or whatever other initiatives we choose in order to shine a light on this vital part of our institution. After that, we move into the next department, and for the following seven weeks, we do the same thing and shine a light on whatever issues that group wants to talk about, improve upon, and/or celebrate. Then we would move on again, in spans of time that align with the ceremonial calendar.

As you know, we at Algonquin are also working closely with you [Academica] at this time on an initiative called Burnt Water, which is a project devoted to providing a vision for Indigenous entrepreneurship for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners. It will also respond directly to requests from stakeholders both inside and outside the college to help operationalize this concept in concrete ways.

Currently, Burnt Water is working with Diamond Schmitt Architects, Ottawa public library, Library and Archives Canada, and also the City of Ottawa to build a new $210M library in our downtown here. This week, we had about 30 people on campus, leadership from all those places as well as Kitigan Zibi and Pikwakangan, and have done some really great work on moving this huge project forward. These are examples of productive journeys founded in the three tenants: peace, friendship, and respect.”

RS – “It’s been a pleasure working with you on that initiative, and a great privilege to learn from you today. Thanks for your time. Are there any thoughts with which you’d like to close?”

RM – “I’d just like to reiterate that Indigenization, that incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing, cultures, and practices into the way we do things, is for everybody. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past. We can only make this journey together and from a place of respect, and in that regard, I’m hopeful about what we can do moving forward.”



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