This post originally appeared on ActiveHistory.ca

By Amy Bell, Scott Cameron, and Thomas Peace

The filing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Final Report marked a watershed moment when Canadian universities began to respond to calls for recognition and reconciliation. Land acknowledgements recognizing the link between Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories have gradually spread to universities across Canada, and university administrations have begun processes of self-auditing and consultation with Indigenous communities and nations.

Three weeks after the TRC report, Universities Canada, which represents the leadership of 96 universities across Canada, published a set of thirteen principles on Indigenous post-secondary education to advance opportunities for Indigenous students in post secondary institutions and integrate Indigenous themes and topics throughout the academy. In 2017, eighty percent of their member universities self-reported that they were conducting activities to promote intercultural engagement through cultural activities, events and forums, talking circles, competency or reconciliation training; just under seventy percent were developing strategic plans for advancing reconciliation; and two-thirds were working to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and methods into research projects and classrooms on campus.

These initiatives range from teach-ins on Indigenous law and practice at the University of Waterloo, to University of Toronto’s hiring of an outreach librarian to work with Indigenous students, communities and collections, to the University of Alberta’s Massive Open Online Course [MOOC], Indigenous Canada, which explores contemporary issues and Canadian history from Indigenous perspectives and can be audited for free.

Broader initiatives include greater outreach and recruitment within Indigenous communities, developing curricula specific to Indigenous cultures, hiring more Indigenous faculty positions and incorporating Indigenous representation in university governance. Both Ryerson University and Acadia University have, for example, committed to long-term decolonization strategies that will incorporate these types of systemic changes (Acadia Launches, 2018, Truth and Reconciliation, 2018). They require a long-term financial and resource commitment, a willingness to consult and listen to Indigenous communities, and an openness to structural change.

But what happens when your home university is not able to, or is unwilling, to engage institutionally with the Calls to Action? For a variety of reasons, the administration of our home institution, Huron University College, in London, Ontario, was slow to respond to the TRC. The question we faced in this context was: how can faculty enact change without structural transformation or significant administrative support?

Our question fits well within a similar one asked by Louie, Poitras-Pratt, Hanson and Ottmann: “What dynamics exist between instructors, working to embody Indigenous perspectives and enact change in their university teaching, and the leadership in those universities, working to precipitate change in policies, structures, staffing, and strategic directions?” (2017, 28).

Indigenous faculty members, such as Louie, Poitras-Pratt, Hanson, Ottmann, lead the way in using decolonizing practices for classroom experience, interaction, and learning that reflect Indigenous values and orientations within their teaching practices. Without such scholars, or institutional funding for new initiatives, however, we (at Huron) continued to ask: how could we, as settler-Canadian scholars, respond to the TRC Calls to Action?

As historians, back in 2015, we decided to focus inward on our own institution’s complex and lengthy role in upholding the residential schools system. In doing so, we sought to frame our approach within the institutional legacy of assimilative education in the post-secondary sector more broadly.  To carry out this work, we applied for an internal teaching award that would enable us to use Huron’s history and archives as a strategy to engage students with the historical and continued processes of settler colonialism that have eroded Indigenous languages, land and culture, and to acknowledge our institution’s historical role in fostering a national culture that enabled the residential school system (among other systems of state-sanctioned oppression) to thrive.

Building on our existing departmental use of collaborative-learning and undergraduate research-learning, methods which Edgerton has called “pedagogies of engagement,” this project sought to actively engage students with both the disciplinary practices that underpin historical study and the history of residential schools. We asked students to “do” history in several ways, including map-making, transcription, digital exhibit building, and collaborative “Heritage Minute” films for the public.

These student-led research-learning projects, which will be discussed in a post next week and can be found online here, point a path forward for better understanding the role of higher education in upholding settler colonial ideologies, both then and now. The central inequalities embedded in Canadian society were created in part by our universities and colleges and continue to be replicated there.

Making the university and its relationship to settler colonialism the subject of undergraduate research-learning allows students to further consider their own place in relationship to processes that normalize settler colonialism.  The question for scholars after the TRC is not just how to open up spaces in our institutions for Indigenous students, but how to question the historical inequalities within these spaces and transform them. Our goal in presenting these projects here is to suggest that the history classroom holds promise for fostering this transformation and that these types of exercises are replicable in other undergraduate institutions.

Nearly every Canadian university has a similar legacy; all the Canadian post-secondary institutions we have studied or taught at – Acadia, King’s College, Saint Mary’s, York, Queen’s, Laval, Toronto, and Huron – are connected to similar pasts and embedded within a similar nexus of complicated colonial relationships (see here for an elaboration of this point).

These sets of interconnections need to be probed. As professors and students working in this environment, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has provided an opportunity to use the classroom as an important site to unpack and understand these relationships, and to move towards to decolonization of the academy.

Scott Cameron is an alumni of Huron’s history program. Amy Bell and Thomas Peace are professors in the history department at Huron University College. Many thanks are expressed to John and Gail MacNaughton for the funds that made this research possible.

Author’s note: In the year’s since this project began Huron University College has begun to act more directly in this area, making it a core part of its Academic Plan. The featured image assigned to this essay is a recent sign posted on campus succinctly teaching about this history.

Sources Cited:

Acadia University, Acadia Launches Decolonization Strategy as Response to Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. (7 March, 2018). Retrieved from: https://www2.acadiau.ca/home/news-reader-page/acadia-launches-decolonization-strategy-as-response-to-truth-and-reconciliation-commission-report-6164.html

Ahmed-Ullah, N.  #UofTBTS16: U of T hires librarian to work with Indigenous students (23 August, 2016). Retrieved from: https://www.utoronto.ca/news/uoftbts16-u-t-hires-librarian-work-indigenous-students

Craney, C., McKay, T., Mazzeo, A., Morris, J., Prigodich, C. & de Groot, R. (2011).  Cross-Discipline Perceptions of the Undergraduate Research Experience. The Journal of Higher Education. 82 (1), 92–113.

Fechheimer, M. K. Webber, K. &. Kleiber, P.B. (2011). How Well Do Undergraduate Research Programs Promote Engagement and Success of Students?. Cell Biology Education 10 (2), 156–63. doi:10.1187/cbe.10-10-0130.

Louie, D.W., Poitras-Pratt, Y., Hanson, A.J. & Ottmann, J. (2017). Applying Indigenizing Principles of Decolonizing Methodologies in University Classrooms. Canadian Journal of Higher Education.  47(3), 16-33.

Ryerson University, Truth and Reconciliation at Ryerson University: Community Consultation Summary Report. (26 January, 2018). Retrieved from: https://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/aboriginal-news/aboriginal-report-web.pdf

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015).  Calls to Action.  Retrieved from http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Final Report: Volume One: Summary, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company.

Universities Canada. Survey shows Canada’s universities advancing reconciliation. (21 June, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.univcan.ca/media-room/media-releases/survey-shows-canadas-universities-advancing-reconciliation/

Universities Canada. Universities Canada Principles on Indigenous Education. (29 June 2015). Retrieved from :  https://www.univcan.ca/media-room/media-releases/universities-canada-principles-on-indigenous-education/

University of Alberta, Indigenous Canada. Retrieved 7 April, 2018: from https://www.univcan.ca/media-room/media-releases/survey-shows-canadas-universities-advancing-reconciliation/

University of Waterloo. Teach-in; Aunty/ Indigenous Love: Canadian Lawlessness, Indigenous Law, and Practice. (3 April, 2018). Truth and Reconciliation Response Projects. Retrieved from https://uwaterloo.ca/truth-and-reconciliation-response-projects/

Vallett, D.B., & Annetta, L. (2014). Re-visioning K-12 education: Learning through failure—Not social promotion. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. 3 (3), 174-188.

Wilkes, Rima et al. (2017). Canadian University Acknowledgement of Indigenous Land, Treaties, and Peoples. Canadian Review of Sociology. 54 (1), 89-120.

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