Post-secondary leaders renew focus on reconciliation after gathering in Yukon

Post-secondary school leaders from across Canada are leaving Yukon with fresh ideas about how infuse their institutions with Indigenous knowledge and history.

Representatives from 31 colleges and universities were in the territory last week for the "Perspectives on Reconciliation" institute, a program hosted by Yukon College, Vancouver Island University and the McConnell Foundation.

At stops in Dawson City, Whitehorse and Carcross, participants learned about Yukon First Nations, heard from Indigenous leaders and explored how to advance reconciliation at their schools.

Here are some of the ideas school representatives are taking away:

Revising school's mission statement

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Michael Benarroch is provost and vice-president (academic) at Ryerson University. He said he and a colleague came up with three ideas for their school.

The first is to have faculty and other staff members develop their understanding of Indigenous knowledge, history, spirituality, and Indigenous people in the Toronto area.

"We believe that if that level of knowledge is raised throughout the university, that greater sensitivities will occur and that the university will then be able to really move forward in true spirit of reconciliation," Benarroch said.

He also said he wants to strengthen ties with the Indigenous communities the area.

The third idea is to put something about reconciliation into the school's mission statement.

"We felt that it would bring that front and centre for the university," he said. "If something's in your mission statement, it's something you have to deliver on."

Re-examine policies

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Mary Butler, president and CEO of New Brunswick Community College, said there are a couple of ideas that stand out.

She said she wants to take a look at her institution's policies that, intentionally or not, could "create boundaries and barriers for Indigenous students in particular, and probably students in general."

Butler said that though it's not the case at her college, she heard an example of some institutions requiring a credit card in the application process.

"That may be a barrier for some students, particularly those that are sponsored," she said.

The college has five values that shape every part of the school, Butler said.

The institute inspired an idea to add a sixth value about "honouring the land," which she said would involve being good stewards of lands the college campuses occupy.

More 'institutional champions'

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Mike DeGagné, who is Ojibway, is the president and vice-chancellor of Nipissing University.

"There's a sense that we have to make sure that there are more Indigenous people and people who are really supportive of Indigenization in senior administrative ranks," he said.

DeGagné also said he sees a need for "institutional champions — people who, inside the institution, can push for reconciliation and Indigenization." He identifies as one of those people.

Tweaking a plan

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Jane Ngobia is the vice-president of inclusive communities at Sheridan College. For her, the word "truth" in "truth and reconciliation" needs more attention.

Sheridan has a five-year plan for the topic, and she says three years in, it's time for some tweaks.

Those will include looking for the best methods of teaching people about history relating to Indigenous peoples, then adapting them to the school's culture.

"We are not going to recreate the wheel, we are going to scan the environment and identify who has what," Ngobia said.

More Indigenous students and staff

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Rick Ouellet, who is Indigenous, is the director of Indigenous education and services at snəw̓eyəɬ leləm̓, which is also known as Langara College, in Vancouver. 

He said the college should create a manager of Indigenization, who would review school policies. 

There should also be a focus on reflecting the greater community in the school's student body and faculty. This would mean significantly increasing the number of Indigenous members, Ouellet said.

One challenge is that there's no process for faculty members to identify if they are Indigenous, he said, so the current numbers are a guess.

That could be more complicated than meets the eye.

"There's a legacy of Indigenous people not wanting to self-identify, especially students because faculty would say inappropriate things," Ouellet said.

Rethinking program names

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Gillian Siddall is the president and vice-chancellor at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

She said she was inspired to look further into how the school can Indigenize its programming.

One moment that sticks out is a colleague saying the phrase "art and design" could instead be referred to as "creation," to help capture a different way of understanding that work, Siddall said.

She said she also leaves Yukon with a refined way of thinking about how to include others.

"Indigenous knowledge and ways of being are so powerful and so amazing for all of us that we need to think about it as becoming central, not off to the side," she said.

"And, for me, that was a paradigm shift in the way that I think about these things."