How Canadian universities are responding to the TRC’s Calls to Action

Dalhousie’s Indigenous Student Centre recently relocated to a prominent place on the university’s downtown Halifax campus. Residing in a cheery blue house, shared by the Black Student Advising Centre, there’s a student lounge, computer lab and meeting/smudge room. On hand is an Indigenous student adviser to answer questions, serve as a sounding board and curate regular events, like a monthly communal meal that often includes traditional ingredients like moose meat. There’s also an elder-in-residence, and the centre provides tobacco ties—loose leaves collected in a small cloth and offered as a gesture of respect—in case students want to approach the elder for assistance.

Sitting in a room smelling of recently smudged sage and sweetgrass, Michele Graveline, Dalhousie’s Indigenous student adviser, describes an exercise recently added to the school year’s start for most incoming students to the professional faculties, including law, medicine and engineering.

The “blanket exercise” is an interactive workshop that explains Canadian history through an Indigenous perspective. Blankets are laid down and then gradually stripped away to symbolize the loss of land and the decimation of Indigenous perspectives through smallpox, residential schools, missing and murdered women and other forms of contact. Response to the workshop, designed by faith-based advocacy group KAIROS Canada in partnership with Indigenous elders and teachers, is mostly positive. Mostly. “There are still some students who ask why we have to do this,” says Graveline.

“It’s a very visceral, experiential way to understand the history of colonization of Canada and the impact it has on contemporary society,” says Brad Wuetherick, Dalhousie’s executive director of learning and teaching and co-chair of Dalhousie’s Indigenous advisory council. “A lot of people are concerned that for 150 years of Canada, this history was not taught.”

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada issued its Calls to Action in December 2015, it placed education at the centre of the country’s reconciliation process. Created following a settlement between the federal government and survivors of residential schools, the TRC issued 94 Calls to Action, including calls to eliminate educational and employment gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, address the backlog of Indigenous students seeking a post-secondary education and incorporate Indigenous education into existing programming.

Many universities have embraced these calls with gusto, accepting them as an urgent and overdue reckoning. Institutions have focused on recruiting and retaining more Indigenous students, hiring Indigenous faculty and creating Indigenous spaces—like the new centre at Dalhousie. And while the field of Indigenous studies is certainly not new—Trent introduced its department in 1969, the first in the country—some universities are receiving increased funding, re-examining curricula and implementing mandatory study for all students of particular faculties. As this work continues, many universities still grapple with the question of how foundational their changes should be. In an interview last year with the CBC, University of Saskatchewan Indigenous studies professor and Cree activist Priscilla Settee questioned the process by proclaiming that it would have to extend beyond “just add Indigenous and stir.”

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