Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s minister of Indigenous and northern affairs, voiced her support for mandatory Indigenous studies classes for every university student. At a talk on January 25 entitled “Understanding Sovereignty and Security in the Circumpolar Arctic” at the University of Toronto, she highlighted the importance of educating all Canadians about Indigenous knowledge systems, traditions, and cultural practices.

Bennett, the self-described “minister of reconciliation,” said that “we have to begin work in our understanding with the reconciliation with the people of the north, but also of course a reconciliation with the land, which is in some ways what climate change and all of this is about.” 

“It is important that northern voices be fully heard in the formulation of the Canadian approach with recognition of the place of Indigenous knowledge,” Bennett added.

When asked about what the Canadian government plans to achieve in terms of implementing the recommendations put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with regards to education, Bennett remarked that she has been pleased to see many universities taking up the Calls to Action of the TRC. She praised the University of Winnipeg in particular for implementing a mandatory Indigenous Studies course for all students.   

“If people don’t understand the Indian Act, Residential Schools, the effects of colonization, if even the clinicians don’t understand PTSD in that lens, we aren’t gonna win,” Bennett said.

Members of the Native Students’ Association (NSA) caught up with the minister to ask for her signature on their petition for a mandatory Indigenous Studies course for U of T undergraduate students, which she did.

“I feel overwhelmed and a sense of great pride to be a part of the wonderful community. So many kind and generous people are supporting our cause. The response has created a new community, one that is dedicated to diversify our education and hear the voices of my ancestors,” said Audrey Rochette, crane and governance leader of the NSA. “The next phase in our petition will be to draft a proposal which will be reviewed by our council and select faculty members to ensure it meets the criteria of such a strong call to action that it simply can not be dismissed with a no,” Rochette said.

Minister Bennett also suggested that book clubs across Canada begin adding works by Indigenous authors or allies to their reading lists. “Ninety-six per cent of Canadians who are not from an Indigenous background have to actually get with the program and realize what they don’t know. That’s what Justice [Murray] Sinclair has been saying about ‘the secret of shame,’ the fact that it was still a secret, and that what we’re hearing from so many Canadians now is ‘How come I didn’t know that?’ and ‘How come I never learned that?’”   

Bennett is a University of Toronto alum. She said that when she graduated from U of T, swimming the length of a pool was a requirement. “So I’ve now changed my view; I think you shouldn’t be able to graduate unless you’ve done at least one course in Indigenous studies,” a statement that was met with applause.