The University of Toronto sits on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. Generations before our university was established in 1867, Indigenous peoples exercised their way of life and right to self-determination as sovereign peoples in the Toronto area and across Canada. The Indigenous peoples held and hold rich and varied political, legal, and cultural traditions.

Yet today, Aboriginal people remain under-represented in the media, and what media coverage there is has too often trended towards promoting negative stereotypes. Public opinion remains unduly influenced by these prejudices, when it should be motivated by respect for Aboriginal people.  Furthermore, we should embrace a willingness to correct Canada’s mistakes from colonialism moving forward.

With this in mind, the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s summary of its final report is duly welcomed. The commission represents a historical undertaking, with the goal of revitalizing the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and Canadian society. Specifically, the commission’s recommendations clearly articulate the continued necessity of education to increase public awareness in Canadian society.

Perhaps most importantly for university students, the commission called for funding to be increased to “post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.” In fact, several universities across Canada have already moved to make learning about Indigenous issues a mandatory part of the university curriculum.

Student movements at The University of Regina and The University of Winnipeg resulted in agreements from the administration to explore this approach, while the administration at Lakehead University has prioritized Indigenous studies, introducing a mandatory course for all its students.

In the same way, U of T should explore possible arrangements of a mandatory Indigenous studies course and prioritize Indigenous studies. Informing public opinion and countering the systematic devaluation of Indigenous knowledge aligns neatly with the university’s mandate. Indeed, U of T claims to attempt to challenge societal norms and establish an environment where excellence flourishes through “free expression of [… ] diverse perspectives through respectful discourse.” 

While some might contend that they already learn enough about Indigenous issues in K-12, Dr. Mashford-Pringle — an Algonquin woman, from the Timiskaming First Nation, and an instructor at U of T’s Aboriginal Studies Program —  believes differently. She emphasizes that what students learn is highly dependent upon the province, and typically restricted to perhaps one or two days per year — as such, she is taking the lead in pushing for mandatory indigenous studies classes at U of T.

It is important to note that many international students and Canadian citizens who grew up abroad, such as myself, do not benefit from the aforementioned provincial curriculums. Additionally, it is important to note that university education in Indigenous studies offers far more in-depth education than that of primary or secondary school.

The exact format an Indigenous studies requirement might take remains to be determined and, as a first step, U of T should begin to collaboratively explore different possibilities. Mashford-Pringle mentions that a popular option among the students surveyed was to introduce Indigenous studies as a breadth requirement.

When I spoke with her, Mashford-Pringle strongly expressed her desire to work with interested student groups at U of T to advocate for a mandatory Indigenous studies course. Indeed, the success of student-led movements at the University of Winnipeg and the University of Regina clearly illustrates the importance of student activism to Indigenous studies.

Fortunately, student opinion towards Indigenous studies seems very positive at U of T. This winter, Mashord-Pringle and some of her students conducted a field study, interviewing 500 U of T students, and found that a substantial majority (74%) looked favourably on having a mandatory half credit course on Indigenous issues.

When discussing this issue, the compelling words of the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Murray Sinclair are particularly key: “Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem — it is a Canadian problem. It involves all of us.”

Academic leadership is defined not by hesitancy in the face of injustice and ignorance, but rather bold action and belief in the power of education to drive positive social change. U of T must move to prioritize indigenous studies to do its part in the continuing process of reconciliation and we, its students, must make our voices heard in support of this process.

Sasha Boutilier is a third year student at St. Michael’s College studying political science and Ethics, Society & Law.