The university’s Steering Committee tasked with making actionable recommendations for the university’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada released its own report last week.
The report was titled Wecheehetowin, which is Cree for ‘working together,’ and on January 13, the committee delivered and entrusted the report to President Meric Gertler and Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr. In a ceremony at Hart House that included the lighting of sage and group dancing, Indigenous elders and members of the Steering Committee formally entrusted Gertler and Regehr with their recommendations.
Gertler, speaking to The Varsity, called the ceremony “one of those moments that will stick with me for a long, long time. Personally, it was very moving and very meaningful, and one of those milestones of one’s work at the university that will just be emblazoned in my memory.”
Formed early last year by Gertler, the Steering Committee was a direct response to the 2014 TRC report that outlined challenges facing Canada’s Indigenous population as a result of systemic abuse and racism, particularly the residential school system.
The TRC was an attempt at a transitional justice model of conciliation but has faced criticism in the years following its conclusion for lacking concrete reform.
The report is available online; it includes 32 recommendations.
Many of the tangible recommendations of the committee are related to physical changes on campus. The working groups informing the committee “emphasized that space was central to the Indigenous experience at the University, and that the current spaces dedicated to Indigenous experience were lacking in both number and features.”
The report stressed the importance of creating the “right environment” for Indigenous people, “if the University truly wishes to ensure the recruitment, retention, and flourishing of Indigenous people on our campuses.”
One of the more major recommendations related to Indigenous spaces includes the creation of a dedicated Indigenous space at UTSG.
Both the report and Gertler suggested that the Front Campus redesign process may be an appropriate and significant context for the establishment of this Indigenous space. “We have heard very clearly the call for a better and more visible space, and we will do everything we can to achieve that,” Gertler said.
In addition, the report called on the university to “begin planning immediately for the creation of dedicated, appropriate Indigenous spaces on the UTM and UTSC campuses.” The relationship between nature and structure on these campuses is crucial to this recommendation. Gertler says he has already reached out to the principals of both campuses regarding the implementation of this recommendation.
Further recommendations on the topic of Indigenous spaces include funding and placing more Indigenous public art across all campuses, and launching “a process to identify and name appropriate spaces on the three campuses using Indigenous languages.”
Indigenous faculty and staff
Many of the working groups identified a “strong desire for increased recruitment of Indigenous faculty members — particularly full-time, tenure-track or teaching-stream faculty members.” Their call to action on this point was a university-wide initiative to support significantly more Indigenous faculty over the next three years with the use of targeted funds.
Gertler said that “this one is really important, because so many of the other recommendations and calls to action in the report depend on our ability to work collaboratively with members of the Indigenous community. And the report makes clear that our current Indigenous community on our three campuses is stretched pretty thinly. There aren’t really enough of them to serve on all these committees and provide this important advice.”
Gertler elaborated: “We have to hire more faculty and staff of an Indigenous background.”
Some of the other recommendations surrounding how the university relates to and hires Indigenous faculty and staff are: exit interviews for Indigenous faculty and staff who leave employment with the university; a review of anti-discrimination training materials for hiring committees; and an increase in the number of Indigenous staff supporting “important programs,” especially ones that aim to revitalize and strengthen Indigenous languages.
A long-term call to action by the committee was that “the University should work to integrate significant Indigenous curriculum content in all of its divisions by 2025.”
Changes to curriculum will happen over time, according to Gertler. He made it clear that the faculty needs time to digest and think through the report. Once they’ve done that, “we will start a university-wide conversation about how to do this,” he said. “It’s in the faculties and divisions where curriculum is developed and implemented, so it’s really important for leaders at that level to buy in and lead the process of implementing these changes in ways that work for them and their disciplines.”
In addition, the report details a short-term goal of launching an initiative “to develop and offer Indigenous learning opportunities for faculty, instructors, staff, and teaching assistants.”
Both the university’s Steering Committee and Gertler see accountability as an important aspect of the university recommendations.
The report asked Gertler and Regehr to “consider the creation of an Indigenous Advisory Council made up primarily of members of Indigenous communities external to the University, and ensure that it is operating by the end of 2017 at the latest.”
This council would be tasked with monitoring the implementation of the calls to action made in the report and would address the issue of accountability to the recommendations.
“We haven’t yet settled on one model yet,” Gertler said, but he made it clear that the university is “looking around the country to see how other universities have been doing this, to see what we can learn from them.” Accountability is paramount to this ongoing progress and “it’s really important to ensure there is some mechanism for sustained progress,” Gertler said.
The Steering Committee also made significant calls to action in the categories of “Indigenous research ethics and community relationships,” and “Indigenous students and Indigenous co-curricular education.” One recommendation in the former category is “the development of research training modules that recognize historical patterns of unethical research in and with Indigenous communities,” which would be made available to any scholar looking to work in an Indigenous community.
Regarding students and co-curricular education, the Steering Committee highlighted the need for “the creation of a more visible, single Indigenous web portal to provide one stop for key information for Indigenous students, expanding and diversifying the existing Aboriginal Student Services web page.”