This year’s Indigenous Education Week on campus rightly emphasized the need for U of T to play its part in the reconciliation process in Canada. Notably, writer and broadcast journalist Wab Kinew spoke last Wednesday about improving the dynamics of indigenous-settler relations, especially in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report released last December.
It is unsurprising that, at a university, Kinew focused on the importance of education for social change. Specifically, he advocated for curriculums and pedagogies that are more inclusive of Indigenous worldviews and history. For instance, healthcare professionals should be taught about the specific social determinants of health that affect indigenous people, such as intergenerational trauma from residential schools.
These changes would not only be of practical use — in this case, improving a doctor’s chances of accurate and effective diagnoses and interventions — but also reaffirm the principles of equality and reconciliation. Though some may argue indigenous studies are not relevant to their field, Kinew suggested that indigenous knowledge and presence is integral for understanding Canadian history. On a larger scale, it is relevant to any person who chooses to live in Canada. The word ‘Toronto,’ for instance, is derived from an Iroquois term meaning ‘where there are trees in water.’
Kinew noted that these educational changes can and should occur through mandating indigenous studies courses at U of T. Both the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University have already adopted this measure. U of T’s Native Students’ Association (NSA) has been circulating a petition calling for a mandatory Indigenous studies credit. In a meaningful gesture, Kinew added his own name to the NSA petition onstage at the end of his talk.
if years from now you are asked what you personally did while injustice took place around you, what will you say?
If, as members of the U of T community, we can agree that a university education should train students to be well informed and actively engaged members of society, then it’s time for more students to support the NSA’s efforts. Education for reconciliation is as much about understanding this country’s present and future realities as it is about acknowledging Canada’s past, as Kinew made clear when he cited examples of structural inequality affecting Indigenous communities today. Among other things, he pointed to the underfunding of schools and child welfare services on reserves, the latter of which the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal recently found discriminatory.
Certainly, it would be reductive — and dismissive of the powerful work of Indigenous activists in Canada — to suggest that taking a single indigenous studies course would enable all U of T students to understand the complex problems resulting from centuries of colonial governance, which continue to define indigenous-settler relationships today. Still, it can provide an important foundation for raising awareness of our colonial history and consequent responsibilities. As such, education can open up the possibility for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to combat the enduring realities of systemic inequality in Canada.
In turns graceful, devastating, and funny, Kinew’s talk painted an appropriately multifaceted picture of what reconciliation might look like moving forward at U of T. The talk remembered the injustice of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people, past and present and honoured the resilience of the communities that have endured and survived. Above all, it stressed the importance of working together now to build a more positive and more equitable future.
As we await the results of the U of T-wide steering committee on the TRC, let us remember to reflect on what it means for each of us to be Canadian citizens in an era of reconciliation. As Wab Kinew pondered: if years from now you are asked what you personally did while injustice took place around you, what will you say?
Rusaba Alam is a third-year student at Victoria College studying English.