Iris Robin/THE VARSITY

In light of Canada’s past and present colonization of Aboriginal peoples, the University of Toronto will join 96 other Canadian universities in a comprehensive national reconciliation plan. “The Principles on Indigenous Education” aim to help decolonize education and reduce the education gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students by rewriting curricula to include Aboriginal history, knowledge, values, and culture. It also aims to increase opportunities and resources for Indigenous students, including the promotion of engagement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Lee Maracle, an Elder-in-Residence and Traditional Leader at U of T’s First Nations House, stresses the importance of conciliation and reconciliation. “I think that without those discussions, there isn’t going to be a good relationship inside Canada,” she said.

Maracle explained that the initiative should extend beyond mere Aboriginal involvement to involving Aboriginal leadership, which she says is crucial during the decision-making and implementation processes of the plan. “In general, Canada has to reconcile with us… I think by reconciling with us, what I mean by that, is that it’s up to us to determine the conditions of reconciliation… the persons hurt would have to be in the driver’s seat.”

Institutional change

The mandates within Universities Canada’s announcement included a dedication to increasing the rate of Aboriginal graduates by working with elementary and secondary schools as well as an effort to encourage other institutions to improve their relationship with Aboriginal Canadians by forming private-sector partnerships to provide opportunities for indigenous students.

Maracle supports the need for working with elementary and secondary schools. “From Kindergarten to Grade 12, that is where the problem area is. If our kids graduate from high school, they go directly to university in greater numbers than any other race in the country. The problem is, they don’t graduate, and they don’t graduate because culturally, everything is foreign,” she explained.

While U of T has several academic initiatives to decolonize education from within its own institution, its projects with elementary and secondary schools and the private sector may need further attention and study.

Lucy Fromowitz, assistant vice-president of student life, highlighted the Council of Aboriginal Initiatives, formed at U of T about six years ago. The council includes several prominent U of T Indigenous voices. “[It is] a cross-divisional group led by co-chairs, the director of Aboriginal Student Services/First Nations House and the chair of the Department of Linguistics, with the vice provost, Students and First Entry Divisions as executive sponsor,” said Fromowitz, adding “[the] council provides a venue for discussion of Aboriginal issues, strategies and program implementation, partnership development, and dialogue and response to external organizations and Aboriginal communities.”

Incorpation of knowledge and experience

With respect to Universities Canada’s new Principles on Indigenous Education, Fromowitz named several academic faculties that are incorporating Indigenous knowledge and experience, such as the Aboriginal Studies Program and the Indigenous Language Initiative on maintaining and increasing the use of Indigenous language.

The Faculties of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, and Public Health include Indigenous pedagogy. In law, students can obtain a Certificate in Aboriginal Legal Studies, in partnership with the Aboriginal Studies Program. Courses in areas such as Indigenous Healing in Counseling and Psychoeducation and Foundations of Aboriginal Education in Canada are offered at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “[In] Social Work, Canadian Roots, a national non-profit educational organization, brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth in order to foster an environment of shared learning,” Fromowitz said.

When asked what an effective approach to decolonizing post-secondary education might be, Maracle said that it was up to Indigenous communities to determine what would help them succeed at school. “I think we have to be who we are and who we’ll always want to be, and Canada has to restore our language and cultures and they have to carry them through the institutions, their own institutions.” Maracle added that everybody should be able to learn languages such as Cree or Ojibway. “Non-native people have to have access to that language. There’s no reason why we all can’t speak Cree or we all can’t speak Ojibway if we want to.”

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