In an attempt to further integrate Indigenous perspectives of education and research in accordance with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations and its own TRC Steering Committee report, U of T appointed two advisors on Indigenous research and curriculum: Professor Suzanne Stewart and Professor Susan Hill.

In 2015, the TRC released its final report, which documented the history and intergenerational impact of the residential school system on Indigenous children and families. It described Canada’s assimilation policy — at the heart of which was the residential school system — as “cultural genocide.”

Education remains central to the disadvantages faced by Indigenous people. Indigenous youth face systemic barriers in accessing education, including at the postsecondary level, relative to non-Indigenous youth. In response, the TRC dedicated four out of 94 calls to action specifically to postsecondary institutions.

The new advisors

Stewart, a member of the Yellowknife Dene First Nation, has been a faculty member at U of T since 2007. She is now the director of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and an Academic Advisor on Indigenous Research.

Her new role will have her focusing on how researchers should go about working with Indigenous communities, in part by developing documents that provide guidance and best practices on how to conduct research respectfully within them. Stewart will also serve as a guiding hand for those who are interested in conducting collaborative research with Indigenous communities. 

Hill began her U of T career in July 2017 and holds a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Centre for Indigenous Studies. She is a member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — specifically the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation.

Her position as academic advisor of Indigenous curricula and education has her focusing on designing and redesigning curricula, developing collaborative teaching opportunities in Indigenous Studies, and establishing a database of Indigenous content and educational materials.

In response to these new appointments, Cheryl Regehr, U of T’s vice-president and provost, said to U of T News: “I am looking forward to working closely with Susan Hill and Suzanne Stewart to further the university’s commitment to U of T’s Calls to Action.”

“Their expertise will be invaluable in ensuring the university is moving forward on the most respectful path towards truth and reconciliation.”

In recent years, U of T has made steps to create Indigenous-focused initiatives: including the Deepening Knowledge Project at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the Indigenous Education Network founded by Indigenous students, and the TRC Implementation Committee at the Faculty of Law. In addition, a handful of master’s programs at the university have committed to integrating Indigenous education, such as the Masters in Social Work, Indigenous Trauma and Resiliency and the Masters of Public Health in Indigenous Health.

In conversation with Professor Suzanne Stewart

In an interview with The Varsity, Stewart reported having faced systematic and personal racism in Canada, including in postsecondary institutions. However, Stewart believes that due to the TRC, some positive changes in the education system are occurring — such as conversations about increasing Indigenous student support and funding.
Indigenous students still face racism, oppression, and barriers to higher education. While 63 per cent of non-Indigenous people have a post secondary diploma, that number drops to 44 per cent for Indigenous people. Stewart sees self-determination and racism as the chief issues for the Indigenous community.

Stewart suggests that the university should create “a system of special package funds” to break financial barriers for students who identify as Indigenous. In addition, she believes that people across the country “need to be more aware of Indigenous history and the privileges non-Indigenous people have in Canada.”

Reflecting on U of T and reconciliation

Another new Indigenous faculty member at U of T is Professor Heather Dorries. She holds a joint appointment in the Department of Geography and Planning and the Centre for Indigenous Studies, and is Anishinaabe. In an interview with The Varsity, Dorries admitted that when she was a student at McGill University, she felt that Indigenous education was not “something that the administration really ever put any energy into,” but now she is seeing positive changes in the general attitude toward it in the university setting.

Dorries firmly believes that the university can benefit greatly from Indigenous knowledge: for instance, the traditional Indigenous understanding of the environment can be valuable in the field of geography. She also acknowledged the pressures and stress constantly faced by students and suggested that Indigenous perspectives may be helpful in considering different perspectives on life and dealing with challenges.

In the future, Dorries hopes to see universities as “a place of empowerment for everyone, where we create and disseminate knowledge [and] educate ourselves in ways that help us to understand how we can support the flourishing of life.” She concludes that post secondary institutions will have to reconsider their priorities in order for reconciliation to happen.

According to Dorries, continuous student involvement is key to successful incorporation of Indigenous knowledge. If the university sees a demand for courses in Indigenous Studies, or other “events” relating to Indigenous education, the university will try to respond to that demand. In her previous position, she noticed that student action was the driving force behind the university’s initiatives towards reconciliation.

“Students shouldn’t underestimate the influence that they can have on the institution.”