File photo: First Nations House. Iris Robin/THE VARSITY

In the wake of the recent release of the full report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), U of T president Meric Gertler and U of T vice president and provost Cheryl Regehr have struck a university-wide steering committee to review and implement the TRC’s conclusions. The committee was created on January 15.

The TRC released its historic final report which includes a total of 94 “Calls to Action.” These “Calls to Action” are recommendations that cover steps institutions and people can take towards expediting reconciliation. Many of them involve educational reforms.

Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo, coordinator of U of T’s Council of Aboriginal Initiatives and director of Aboriginal student services at U of T’s First Nations House, alongside professor Stephen Toope, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, are the steering committee’s co-chairs. Community Elders Lee Maracle and Andrew Wesley are also confirmed to be providing “guidance and wisdom” to the committee.

“The steering committee will be guiding the implementation of the Terms of Reference. I will participate in the same way all the members of the committee do,” said Maracle.

“The role of the committee is to consider the recommendations of the TRC and implement those that are relevant to the university. Students and faculty can become involved in the working groups attached to the steering committee and projects the committee proposes to undertake,” Maracle continued.

Other supporters of the committee include associate professor Sandy Welsh, vice provost, students, and professor Sioban Nelson, vice provost, academic programs and faculty and academic life, who will work closely with academic divisions and other stakeholders following the TRC’s Terms of Reference.

Native Students’ Association calls for mandatory Indigenous Studies class

The Native Students’ Association (NSA) recently circulated a petition calling on the university to implement a mandatory Indigenous studies credit across all levels of education. The petition, which was posted on last week, had 476 supporters at press time.

“The topic of Indigenous studies is relevant to everyone who was born or resides in this country as it is an often overlooked but essential factor in the search to fully understand our collective Canadian history and identity, regardless of one’s ethnic background,” said Matthew Cappella, Maten Clan Leader of the NSA.

“There are so many Canadians that are not educated on Indigenous people in Canada. I see this everyday in my classes. The University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay have already approved mandatory Indigenous studies for undergrads,” said Roy Stebel, Bear Clan Leader with the NSA.

The movement in support of a mandatory Indigenous studies course now directly responds to Call 62 of the TRC, which calls for funding and for the inclusion of Aboriginal knowledge on high school and university curricula.

“The University of Toronto is far overdue in keeping up to speed on such an important issue. It is about time that university students begin to have a better understanding of Indigenous Canadians, this will ensure a stronger more succinct nation for our future,” said Stebel.

According to the NSA, the steering committee has yet to reach out to them, and NSA members hope to be included in the process.

“At this point we know very little of the committee. Unfortunately we have not been contacted by anyone yet either. However, since we are already responding to Call 62 of the TRC Calls to Action, we are confident that at least one of our members will be selected for the committee,” said Dhanela Paran, Loon Leader, and Audrey Rochette, Crane Leader, in a joint statement.

“In fact we are hoping to have at least three of our council on the committee due to the tangible work we do everyday, every month, and every year on campus and [the] impact we have not only through thoughtful discussions but through our events, campaigns, community work, and dedication to our goals. We do this work already and our insight could be very valuable as student leaders,” they added.

Committee set to have “working groups”

“I am Mohawk, so this impacts many people in Indigenous communities and myself,” said Hamilton-Diabo. We want to be able to increase the inclusion of Indigenous people in the post-secondary sector and society where many members have disadvantages. [This is] me working for my community,” he added.

Hamilton-Diabo says the committee will look at all mechanisms available to them when considering a mandatory course in Indigenous studies for all students at U of T.

“First Nations House have been putting it out there on behalf of the NSA we support any activity the NSA puts forward to recommend change, and I think it is a important piece and we are well aware of the work they are doing and interested in seeing larger discussion that needs to take place. Should this go ahead, it would need to involve other areas. It sparks a very needed discussion,” commented Hamilton-Diabo on the NSA’s petition.

“I think we would definitely be looking at having a wide range of people that can be a benefit to the committee. [There will be] lots of opportunity for people to get involved. We will create working groups,” he said on the committee’s development.

For his part, Hamilton-Diabo is looking forward to exploring Indigenous language courses, which are currently offered at U of T. Courses teaching Indigenous languages were named in the 94 “Calls to Action” as an aspect of knowledge that post-secondary institutions should share and promote.

The committee is expected to present an interim report to Regehr and Gertler by July 1, 2016 and a final report by December 31, 2016.

Nominations for faculty, staff, and students to sit on the steering committee will close on January 25, 2016.

Calls to action and universities

The TRC Calls to Action that apply to post-secondary institutions include: asking universities to create degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages; requiring students at medical and nursing schools to take a course specifically related to Aboriginal health issues; requiring law students to take a course in Indigenous law; and educating future social and child welfare workers about the effects and legacy of residential schools for Aboriginal communities and families.

U of T currently offers courses related to Indigenous issues within these disciplines; however, not all programs require an Indigenous studies course to graduate.

The university also houses services for Indigenous students such as the First Nations House, the Council on Aboriginal Initiatives, the Indigenous Language Initiative, and the Indigenous Health Science Group. The most recent initiative is the newly established Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous health, a research institute dedicated to the health of Indigenous Canadians.

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