What reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples might look like on campus, and how it might be achieved, is no settled question. Last fall, for example, a Varsity editorial demanded that U of T move past words and conversation and “implement tangible changes” to make good on the university’s commitment to reconciliation.
Earlier this year, the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council proposed to change the names of a residence building and Vic One stream named after Egerton Ryerson, who helped design the residential school system. Debate ensued about whether such a proposal was a first step toward meaningful reconciliation, a merely symbolic gesture, or an erasure of a dark history that we ought not to forget.
Whatever the case, it would be naïve to think that true reconciliation is just a matter of time. It is also insincere to put the onus of reconciliation onto governments — even student governments — as others have suggested.
Amid all this debate, my view as a first-generation Canadian is that our attitude toward reconciliation should be inspired by the adage “be the change that you want to see in the world.” As individuals, we can and must be proactive and take the initiative to listen, learn, and understand the issues still confounding Canadian identity and society.
The sustained and pervasive societal ignorance toward Indigenous cultures and history remains one of the biggest challenges facing Canada’s attempt at reconciliation. It is what inspired John Croutch from U of T’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives to begin delivering day-long cultural competency training workshops to the university community.
In an interview with U of T News, Croutch noted that the purpose of the initiative is for each one of us to learn the truth about settler-Canada’s relationship to its Indigenous populations. In doing so, it hopes to reshape attitudes and institutions that continue to marginalize them. Opening ourselves to a diversity of perspectives, as any Torontonian knows, only enriches us as a society.
Croutch was alarmed by people’s limited understanding of Indigenous communities. In another interview with U of T’s Office of Indigenous Medical Education, he shared his experience with medical and health care professionals to show how this ignorance extends to even the so-called educated and skilled workers of society.
For this reason, it is important that the university support, encourage, and promote such cultural competency trainings. They are freely available to all members of the U of T community and can accommodate student groups. Through such training, individuals can take a proactive approach to learning about, listening to, and understanding Indigenous communities.
I can relate to this approach because of a personal experience that helped me appreciate just how delicate the issue of reconciliation is. Last summer, I had the privilege to attend a Master Naturalist course offered by Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. I learned about plants, insects, geology, ecology, and the natural history of Northern Ontario.
At the end of the course, representatives of the Fort Williams First Nation shared their perspectives and knowledge about these issues. Interested in learning from other cultures, I asked them to share something from their culture, which, if everyone were to learn, would help to make the world a better place.
They gave me an answer that I had never heard before: the importance of connections. They explained that Indigenous cultures are deeply connected and rooted to this land. For example, when you see a mining operation, it should not only be understood as a consumption of natural resources that may serve our materialistic needs, but as a severance of Indigenous peoples’ cultural connection with the land.
Upon completion of the course, our instructor, Bob Bowles, gave us a parting gift: a reusable straw to replace the single-use plastic straws that pollute the environment. I realize now that understanding the environment through the lens of connections is crucial. We all depend on each other and the land. Our survival, as people affected by environmental changes, is connected to the survival of Indigenous peoples and cultures.
For reconciliation on the individual level, whether as new or long-time Canadians, we should honour and recognize the thousands of years that this land has supported human life and cultural flourishing. Indigenous cultures are not just another piece of the greater mosaic of Canadian society and identity. Rather, they are more importantly the glue that connects all the other pieces to this land underneath our feet and from which we subsist. Canada will only truly flourish when we recognize this connection.
Oscar Starschild is a second-year Mathematics, Philosophy, and Computer Science student at Woodsworth College.