In the past few years, Canadian universities have taken up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action, aiming to be leaders in reconciliation through changes to the higher education system. But given the long history of colonialism, there is risk that this will turn out to be merely another example of settler appropriation of resources that rightfully belong to Indigenous peoples. To move forward in positive ways, it is crucial that university leaders think carefully about ways to avoid replicating the past, and to instead establish equal partnerships with Indigenous community leaders, university administrators, faculty and staff.

In 20 years, will we look back and say that the only benefits in the current commitment to reconciliation went to euro-western institutions and faculty?

Who will be viewed in the national academy as the “experts” in Indigenous knowledge creation and dissemination?

Time will tell if today’s initiatives lead to meaningful shifts in relationships and post-secondary education, or just highlight another settler appropriation of resources, career advancement, and stolen opportunities from Indigenous people.

To respond honourably to the Calls to Action, universities need to think honestly and transparently about these key questions.

  1. Who makes decisions about Indigenous education

Since the late 1980s, Ontario universities have been required to have councils or circles to advise on programs and policies that impact Indigenous people. But if we are truly committed to reconciliation and partnership, these Indigenous education councils need to be a properly resourced part of the entire formal decision-making structure.

Institutions need to ask themselves whether in their decision-making these councils are considered equal to that in curriculum committees or university senates. The councils should be consulted on all programming, not just Indigenous programming, because all programming impacts Indigenous education. If they don’t make structural changes with respect to Indigenous self-determination over education, universities risk replicating colonizing relationships.

Universities should also be scrutinizing the level of Indigenous representation on their boards, senates and senior decision-making committees. Is the level of Indigenous representation adequate to meaningfully reshape universities and make decisions about university resources? Beyond that, members of boards and senates, as well as administrators, faculty and staff, need to receive training from Indigenous experts about Indigenous history as it relates to colonization and education.

Finally, universities should be conscious of who inside their academic and administrative hierarchies are leading academic, strategic, and research plans. What proportion of leaders are Indigenous, and do they have decision-making authority?

  1. Who are the knowledge experts on Indigenous education?

From 1982 to 1992 I had the privilege of working with community members from all First Nations of the Robinson-Huron Treaty area on the development of an Indigenous university-level program. During part of this period, I was also doing doctoral work. Two elders asked me if I would study federal government policies dealing with Indigenous peoples in Canada. This was not my original proposed research topic, and yet I wanted to honour these elders for all the knowledge the communities had shared with me.

But let’s be clear: neither of these projects nor others I have worked on makes me an expert in Indigenous issues. On the contrary, the work has driven home to me the importance of ensuring there is meaningful space for Indigenous leadership on matters in the Canadian academy. My perspective has been shaped and guided by decades of experiences and learning in my relationships and projects with Indigenous colleagues.

Conversations with Indigenous and non-Indigenous colleagues at my former university have caused me to wonder about the proportion of Indigenous scholars who receive project funding for Indigenous-themed research, versus non-Indigenous scholars. Some settler faculty at Canadian universities have seen funding for Indigenous research as an opportunity to access a new source of funding to “tweak” their existing research program. If the recipients are not Indigenous, then this is another example of settler monopolization of resources intended to support Indigenous scholars.

This raises questions about who is making internal decisions about eligibility for funding. I would strongly suggest that universities be guided by Indigenous scholars’ ideas about what is needed to support Indigenous education and research. Universities need to listen mindfully to what Indigenous scholars say and learn about what they expect and need, and then follow through to make change happen with Indigenous scholars rather than “for” them.

Indigenous research is different from most other research, and its success is not measured only in research dollars or citations of high-impact articles. Universities need to recognize the importance of allocating the necessary resources to Indigenous research by Indigenous scholars and leave space and authority for Indigenous leaders to determine how best to use these funds. This may mean fewer resources for other priorities: to me this is the true essence of what reconciliation means – not merely adding a few resources for Indigenous education, but contributing base resources so that meaningful changes can occur.

  1. How can universities decolonize structures and decision-making processes?

If universities are serious about reconciliation, they need to enact meaningful changes to the academy’s structures, traditions, and practices. Some aspects of the academy might be part of larger colonial structures that need to be replaced by bringing in Indigenous governance models. Indigenous colleagues can provide examples of how this can work.

Understanding what changes need to be made will become clear to settler academic leaders only if they listen to and respect Indigenous ideas and ways forward. We settlers are not the experts in these dialogues; we need to listen respectfully and reflect on what we are learning, rather than debating or taking over the conversation. And we should be allocating adequate financial and human resources to support structural innovations.

Given that the Ontario government is now funding community-based Indigenous post-secondary institutions, now is an appropriate time to ask whether universities are willing to hand over Indigenous programs and resources to Indigenous institutes at some point in the future. If the answer is anything less than a resounding yes, we are doomed to repeating the same patterns of settler colonialism that have led us to this moment in history.

Photo: A man hammers a copper nail into the Reconciliation Pole before its raising at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver on April 1, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

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Anne-Marie Mawhiney
Anne-Marie Mawhiney is professor emerita of Rural and Northern Health at Laurentian University. In her career she held a number of roles as a professor and senior academic administrator.

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