Three years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its summary report on the racist history of the residential school system. It provided settler Canadian institutions with 94 calls to action in order to address this legacy and achieve ‘reconciliation’ with Indigenous peoples.
The discourses of the educational system have historically justified the practices of separating children from their communities and by extension their culture, land, and livelihood. Schools and universities are arguably central sites in which redress for past and ongoing wrongdoings must occur.
As U of T scholar Monica Dyer notes, this is especially true for our university. U of T played a role in shaping the racist discourse that informed residential schools. Religious colleges and missionary organizations on campus were also connected to the propagation of residential schools.
Education is a vital mechanism for acknowledging and respecting the treaty relationships to which we are bound and for confronting settler Canadian ignorance about Indigenous communities. Hence, the TRC specifically calls for educational institutions to do better for Indigenous peoples.
Namely, it recommends increased funding to ensure that First Nations students have better access to postsecondary education, the creation of postsecondary programs in Indigenous languages, the education of teachers on the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms, and the establishment of a national research program to “advance understanding of reconciliation.”
Since this summer, universities across Canada have been stepping up initiatives in response to the TRC’s calls. At U of T in particular, it is a timely moment to reflect on education in the reconciliation era. Last week, First Nations House hosted its annual Indigenous Education Week — an important opportunity for the U of T community to “celebrate Indigenous contributions” and “Indigenous presence on campus.”
Last month, the Decanal Working Group (DWG), commissioned by the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS), announced its report’s recommendation — among 19 others — to create an “Indigenous College with residence space” by 2030. According to the report, the FAS has an important role to play in the inclusion of Indigenous languages, cultural expressions, and knowledges within academia.
Aside from the Indigenous college, the report calls for enhanced services and support for Indigenous students, curriculum changes, new programs of study, increased recruitment of Indigenous students and staff, and training for staff and faculty. All these recommendations are commendable and should be implemented by the FAS.
However, a major point of concern surrounds the report’s call for the dean to respond to the report and provide a roadmap for implementation “as soon as possible.” FAS Dean David Cameron, who established the DWG, is leaving next summer, and there is no indication as to whether or not his successor will be committed to the report’s recommendations.
This reflects a central issue with the university bureaucracy’s approach to reconciliation: it largely revolves around promises. Concrete action is slow to materialize.
The DWG’s report largely echoes many of the recommendations that were made by U of T’s Steering Committee in response to the TRC in January 2017. It also called for the creation of a physical space for the Indigenous community, increased recruitment of Indigenous faculty members, and curriculum changes to reflect education about Indigenous peoples.
The Varsity interviewed President Meric Gertler and asked about the progress made on reconciliation since the 2017 report. Gertler pointed to increases in funding to hire more Indigenous staff and faculty.
However, as a result of other universities pursuing similar initiatives, he noted that there is a “competitive labour market” for this objective — and that this corresponds to a lengthy time frame for realization. When asked about specific projects, he often deferred his answers to specific divisions and campuses, or the newly appointed advisor on Indigenous issues, as sources of action. Above all, he seemed most excited by the existence of “conversation” about reconciliation on campus.
In essence, U of T appears to be stuck in the realm of words, ideas, and slow progress as opposed to concrete action. This shortcoming was cautioned by Indigenous leadership at the time of the release of the TRC report. U of T’s lack of action cannot simply be excused as the result of administrative processes that are natural to the governance of universities.
Indeed, other schools are considerably ahead of U of T in taking action for reconciliation. For example, in 2016, the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University became the first two universities to introduce an Indigenous course requirement for incoming students.
Rather than solely rely on the labour of First Nations House to annually educate the community, U of T must take responsibility and implement its own initiatives — including an expedited implementation process in response to the DWG and Steering Committee reports. This, in turn, will show that settler society is committed to re-educating itself on its true history and reforming educational institutions to do more for Indigenous peoples.
We must move beyond the complacency and comfort of land acknowledgements and cultural appreciation. We should especially be creating physical spaces on campus and altering curriculum to reflect Indigenous histories, knowledges, and voices.
This performative reconciliation that lacks action is not unique to universities — it reflects a broader trend. The federal Liberal government may offer apologies and tears in the name of reconciliation, but it continually fails Indigenous peoples — for instance, by building pipelines without adequate consultation. Most recently, the Supreme Court announced that the government is not obligated to consult Indigenous peoples before drafting laws that affect treaty and Indigenous rights.
Frustration about the hypocrisy of settler institutions is most clearly articulated in MP Romeo Saganash’s claim in parliament that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “doesn’t give a fuck” about Indigenous rights.
Reconciliation is meaningless if institutions continue to perpetuate colonialism under the guise of empty promises. Indigenous students across Canadian universities know this firsthand as they continue to experience racism on campus. Campuses should not unilaterally pride themselves on reconciliation or ‘Indigenization.’ Rather, it is up to Indigenous students to determine the effectiveness of reconciliation policies on campuses.
The very discourse of reconciliation is also problematic because it implies resolution between two equal parties; it obscures the power dynamic between the colonizer and the colonized. We should acknowledge that reconciliation, if it is to be effective, is an uncomfortable process. It commits to decentring settler voices and centring Indigenous voices, and, most critically, to making material concessions that change how we organize our institutions.
At The Varsity, we know that we can and should do better as a media organization. This year, we are striving to improve our coverage of Indigenous issues and become a stronger platform for Indigenous voices.
Ultimately, university campuses must institutionalize a new mode of education that reflects the true history of this land, and take concrete action in pursuit of reconciliation. Until then, reconciliation is doomed to remain an idea as opposed to becoming a reality.
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