Last February, the Decanal Working Group (DWG) released its Report on Indigenous Teaching and Learning to the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS). It addresses the “central role” that the administration ought to play in advancing the calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to the FAS.
On September 17, it was announced that the faculty would fulfill a key recommendation by creating an “Indigenous College with Residence Space.” Many of the 19 other recommendations — including enhancing forms of support, curriculum changes, and divisional leadership — are still undergoing implementation or have yet to be announced, demonstrating that this is an ongoing process.
The DWG’s call reflects an often overlooked problem at U of T: the absence of Indigenous methods in academia. If U of T is to be an inclusive, accessible, and empowering environment for Indigenous students it must become a place where forms of Indigenous expression and thinking are integrated into academics, including being “critically and rigorously studied at the most advanced levels.”
While the implementation of these recommendations are a step in the right direction, the broader systemic issue — the discriminatory and unwelcoming environment for Indigenous students on campus — is a problem that the purely academic- and faculty-based report cannot fully resolve. We, the students, must do more.
Therefore, although written for the FAS, the DWG report is also a legitimate and worthwhile document for other bodies and student government representatives to follow. This includes the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), the colleges, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), and Governing Council.
Most initiatives appear out of the immediate jurisdiction of student governments. Nevertheless, they can participate by holding the administration accountable during the implementation process. Above all, the recommendations can inspire student groups to pursue their own initiatives in the spirit of reconciliation.
In fact, the concerns at the heart of the report fall completely in line with the intentions of student government. After all, Indigenous students are represented by the UTSU and ASSU, so student governments should work for the welfare of those whom they represent.
It is also consistent with the UTSU’s mission statement to “safeguard the individual rights of the student” and “foster their intellectual growth and moral awareness.” Indigenous students have the right to an inclusive university experience, and the UTSU’s cooperation with the DWG’s initiatives, from an academic perspective, can also help to intellectually and morally enrich non-Indigenous students.
The fact is that these initiatives also benefit the broader U of T community by promoting active learning and understanding of Indigenous peoples and their forms of expression. More importantly, this will aid in the progress of reconciliation between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Canada — a process that requires the active remembrance of a painful past, as well as action in the present that can contribute to ending quasi-colonial institutions and discrimination.
The first recommendation — the creation of an Indigenous college — is already planned for opening in 2030. The UTSU and ASSU, however, can contribute their voice to these plans, such as encouraging particular aspects of student life within that new space.
There is also the essential role of accountability: to maintain a careful eye in ensuring that the administration does not make empty promises. Additionally, this does not preclude existing colleges from making themselves more accommodating. The Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council, for instance, is pursuing an initiative to rename the Ryerson residence house and VicOne Ryerson stream to something derived from Indigenous academia or language.
One particular area that student governments can take proactive and immediate action in is by providing more support and services for Indigenous students. This seeks to address unique problems and barriers that Indigenous students face in a racist and colonial structure, in which there is a profound lack of understanding of Indigenous cultures, languages, and ways of approaching the world. Student government must play its part to counteract and remove barriers for Indigenous students.
Such initiatives are not completely new to student governments. For instance, there are plans to expand the pilot ASSU Mentorship Program, a support system for students, to include a stream specifically for Indigenous students. It should also be mentioned that this can be done through active participation in several groups on campus — such as the Indigenous Law Students’ Association and Indigenous Education Network — that have taken up the call to action.
Student government must consider the DWG’s recommendations seriously, for it presents an obligation to hold the FAS accountable, and an opportunity to act on more reconciliation-based initiatives for the creation of an inclusive environment for Indigenous students.
Sam Routley is a fourth-year Political Science, Philosophy, and History student. He is The Varsity’s UTSG Campus Politics Columnist.