Canadian post-secondary school reps focus on reconciliation in Yukon gathering

Representatives from 31 post-secondary schools across Canada are meeting in Yukon this month to talk about ways to advance reconciliation with Indigenous people.

Yukon College is one of several organizations partnering to host the first "Perspectives on Reconciliation" institute.

"We'll have some really deep conversations and find out what other people are doing in other parts of the country that's working for them, and try and tackle some of the challenging conversations," said Tosh Southwick, the associate vice-president of Indigenous engagement and reconciliation at the college and a member of Kluane First Nation.

"Reconciliation is not easy, it shouldn't be easy. If it was easy, we'd be done."

Many of the institutions represented at the event are already doing "amazing things," said Southwick.

The institute started last Friday in Dawson City. It's being held in Whitehorse for part of this week before finishing in Carcross.

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"I think every university in the country would say there's room for improvement. I think we have a long ways to go in terms of reconciliation," said Asima Vezina, president and vice chancellor of Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

She said she's looking to learn new ways to improve her school's role in reconciliation.

Trent Keough, president and CEO of Keyano College in Fort McMurray, Alta., said part of his focus is on how to bring non-Indigenous Canadians to the table.

"I'd like to think about how we can move individuals who might be fearful of inclusion. How can we move individuals who might be ignorant of our historical culture here in Canada? And that culture is not one of inclusion as it relates to Indigenous communities in the nation," he said.

Marissa Mills, also from Kluane First Nation, recently completed her studies at the University of Ottawa. She spoke at the event to give an Indigenous student's perspective.

She described moving from Yukon to Ottawa for school as "kind of a shock" because of the relatively few Indigenous students at the school. She said there were not enough visible efforts on campus to recognize the traditional Indigenous territory the school is located on.

"When an Indigenous student walks onto a campus, they should feel represented and they should feel that they belong in that space," Mills said.

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It's also key to recognize that each Indigenous community is different, she said.

"We need to really make sure that those protocols and governance structures of the Indigenous communities around those campuses are respected and practiced in a meaningful way," Mills said.

The lens of reconciliation can also be applied to research at school, Southwick said.

"It means that we're going out to ask communities, what is it that we want to study together, and how do we want to do that, and what do we want to do with the results? Rather than going to a community and saying here's what we're studying, do you want to participate or not?" she added.

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For any post-secondary school, the key is forming relationships, Southwick said.

"Start anywhere. Just start. It's not gonna be perfect. We'll learn lots from the things that don't go really, really well. In fact, I think we learn more from mistakes than we do from things that go amazing, so just start," she said.