Don't opt out: click here to learn more about our work.

UTSC talking circles established to address reconciliation with Indigenous peoples

Ten weekly circles to be led by UTSC’s Indigenous Elder Wendy Phillips, Circles of Reconciliation’s Susan Dowan

UTSC talking circles established to address reconciliation with Indigenous peoples

In the first of many upcoming talking circles, UTSC’s Indigenous Elder Wendy Phillips gathered with members of the UTSC community on January 11 to introduce the goals of this initiative and how it hopes to address the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The purpose of the talking circles is to build awareness in the UTSC community about Indigenous history and struggles, as well as to share thoughts and feelings about the TRC’s report.

Phillips has partnered with the Circles of Reconciliation’s Susan Dowan to hold these talking circles. Circles of Reconciliation is an organization that aims to “establish trusting, meaningful relationships between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous peoples.”

The TRC report was a landmark 2015 document that revealed the truth about Canada’s residential school system, and included accounts of Indigenous children who were physically and sexually abused in government boarding schools. According to the report, the TRC “identified a fractured relationship between [the] nations.”

The TRC published 94 Calls to Action that asked the government to work to repair the damages from residential schools, and to reconcile institutional relationships with members of Canada’s Indigenous communities. A number of these Calls to Action touched on changes to postsecondary education.

“This process of reconciliation… takes a lot of work,” said Phillips. “What we hope to achieve with these circles is to provide the opportunity for advocacy and education.”

Phillips began the program with a smudging ceremony, which involved Phillips lighting sage and passing the smoke around to the participants. This traditional ritual cleanses the mind and body, Phillips said.

“A talking circle… is very common with the Indigenous nations,” said Phillips. “We have different talking items that you can use.”

Phillips held out a carved wooden stick with colours of red, black, and yellow.

“This is a talking stick, this was my mother’s actually,” said Phillips. “The concept is everybody is given the opportunity to share their thoughts, feelings, and opinions of what’s being asked of them. So, after you’re done, you say thank you and pass [the talking stick] onto the next person.”

Dowan said that the talking circles will meet for 10 weeks, and that there are various themes each week. The themes can range anywhere from residential schools, to reconciliation, to Indigenous people.

The talking circles will give UTSC students the opportunity for dialogue that “was not really there.”

The topic for the talking circle next week will tackle the question of what exactly reconciliation is.

“It is a lot of learning, there are a lot of stories and experiences,” said Phillips. “Sometimes it will get emotional.”

New Indigenous College at U of T recommended by Faculty of Arts & Science commission

Space would be dedicated to Indigenous learning, suggested opening in 2030

New Indigenous College at U of T recommended by Faculty of Arts & Science commission

After a nearly two-year inquiry, a Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) commission has formally recommended that the University of Toronto create and construct a new “Indigenous College with Residence Space.”

The announcement was made at a Massey College event on September 17 by co-chairs of the commission, Associate Professor Heidi Bohaker and Junior Fellow Audrey Rochette. They have been engaged in this commission, called the Decanal Working Group (DWG), since the summer of 2016, when it was created by FAS Dean David Cameron.

The college would also act as a physical monument, acknowledging that U of T has and continues to operate on the traditional lands of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River for thousands of years. In addition, it would provide a physical space for a community of students interested in Indigenous studies.

The college would accept both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students from at least the FAS and operate in a similar way to other U of T colleges.

It would maintain “residence spaces, a registrar service, faculty members drawn from different units, spaces for commuter services, and [spaces] for academic programs that are connected to the college,” said Bohaker.

However, what would be unique about this space is that it would also offer services designed specifically to support Indigenous students returning to continue their education. For instance, as Indigenous university students are “often mature students with families,” according to Rochette, the DWG has recommended the operation of a daycare service within the college.

The space would also provide medical and psychological services, contingent on a community partnership with Anishnawbe Health Services, a clinic near UTSG.

Traditional healers from the clinic would provide medical as well as spiritual services from an Indigenous cultural perspective.

According to Rochette, the partnership would ease the burden on the Elders in Residence who are currently providing spiritual services at U of T.

The need for support has also been felt by Indigenous professors, said Rochette, who have been “taking in the students who are going through other issues and trying to support them when they also have to produce their own academic work.”

The architecture of the college could possibly be inspired by the Akwe:kon residence hall at Cornell University, along with the First Nations Longhouse at the University of British Columbia, said Bohaker.

“We envision garden space, outdoor teaching and land-based pedagogy space, classroom space that envisions Indigenous pedagogies — no lecture halls with desks welded to the floor,” said Bohaker.

“Imagine learning in a circle, and how being in a circle changes how you relate to other people in the circle.”

The DWG has recommended for the college to be built at UTSG. Currently, there is no official statement by the Office of the President to commit to securing land for the project.

The Dean’s Advisory Circle is currently exploring cost estimates and funding sources. A timeline for completion of the analysis is not yet known, as the work of the recently-created group is “just getting underway,” according to the FAS communications office.

The DWG has recommended for the college to open in 2030.

Building on the TRC

A mission of the DWG was to explore how the FAS could implement recommendations from the 94 Calls to Action released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in December 2015.

From 2008–2015, the TRC documented the human rights abuses inflicted on Indigenous children throughout Canada’s colonial history at residential boarding schools they were mandated to attend.

The Calls to Action called on Canadian institutions to take specific actions steps to heal the damage done to the Indigenous people by these residential schools and colonialism.

Specifically, Call 65 advocated for the establishment of “national research program with multi-year funding to advance understanding of reconciliation” between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Canada. The DWG explored how U of T could answer Call 65, and that resulted in the DWG’s own Call to Action for U of T to create a new Indigenous college to centralize the university’s Indigenous studies research.

The DWG issued a Call to Action to create a “Dean’s Advisory Circle” to implement the recommendations of the Group’s report. Thus far, Professor Pamela Klassen, Vice-Dean Undergraduate, and Professor Susan Hill, Director of the Centre for Indigenous Studies, have been appointed as co-chairs.

Carolyn Bennett joins call for mandatory Aboriginal studies course

Indigenous and northern affairs minister signs U of T NSA petition

Carolyn Bennett joins call for mandatory Aboriginal studies course

Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s minister of Indigenous and northern affairs, voiced her support for mandatory Indigenous studies classes for every university student. At a talk on January 25 entitled “Understanding Sovereignty and Security in the Circumpolar Arctic” at the University of Toronto, she highlighted the importance of educating all Canadians about Indigenous knowledge systems, traditions, and cultural practices.

Bennett, the self-described “minister of reconciliation,” said that “we have to begin work in our understanding with the reconciliation with the people of the north, but also of course a reconciliation with the land, which is in some ways what climate change and all of this is about.” 

“It is important that northern voices be fully heard in the formulation of the Canadian approach with recognition of the place of Indigenous knowledge,” Bennett added.

When asked about what the Canadian government plans to achieve in terms of implementing the recommendations put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with regards to education, Bennett remarked that she has been pleased to see many universities taking up the Calls to Action of the TRC. She praised the University of Winnipeg in particular for implementing a mandatory Indigenous Studies course for all students.   

“If people don’t understand the Indian Act, Residential Schools, the effects of colonization, if even the clinicians don’t understand PTSD in that lens, we aren’t gonna win,” Bennett said.

Members of the Native Students’ Association (NSA) caught up with the minister to ask for her signature on their petition for a mandatory Indigenous Studies course for U of T undergraduate students, which she did.

“I feel overwhelmed and a sense of great pride to be a part of the wonderful community. So many kind and generous people are supporting our cause. The response has created a new community, one that is dedicated to diversify our education and hear the voices of my ancestors,” said Audrey Rochette, crane and governance leader of the NSA. “The next phase in our petition will be to draft a proposal which will be reviewed by our council and select faculty members to ensure it meets the criteria of such a strong call to action that it simply can not be dismissed with a no,” Rochette said.

Minister Bennett also suggested that book clubs across Canada begin adding works by Indigenous authors or allies to their reading lists. “Ninety-six per cent of Canadians who are not from an Indigenous background have to actually get with the program and realize what they don’t know. That’s what Justice [Murray] Sinclair has been saying about ‘the secret of shame,’ the fact that it was still a secret, and that what we’re hearing from so many Canadians now is ‘How come I didn’t know that?’ and ‘How come I never learned that?’”   

Bennett is a University of Toronto alum. She said that when she graduated from U of T, swimming the length of a pool was a requirement. “So I’ve now changed my view; I think you shouldn’t be able to graduate unless you’ve done at least one course in Indigenous studies,” a statement that was met with applause.