Mount Royal University adopted an Indigenous Strategic Plan (ISP) in 2016. While it is a good start on the path toward reconciliation, experts say more needs to be done, especially at a grade school level.
Mount Royal University is one of several universities around the country that has implemented an Indigenization strategy.
The university worked on the framework for the ISP from 2012 to 2014, preceding the calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
The University of Winnipeg was also one of the universities to implement an Indigenization strategy back in fall 2016. They were one of the first universities in Canada to require that all their students know about Indigenous culture and people.
Jarita Greyeyes, former director of community learning and engagement at the University of Winnipeg, said their strategy began as a student lead initiative.
The students requested an Indigenous course requirement for all students to establish a baseline knowledge about Indigenous people. The university also worked to help connect students and faculty with Indigenous communities.
Greyeyes explained it was important to recognize where the university is situated. The University of Winnipeg was built on Treaty 1 territory and is in the heart of the Métis Nation.
Location is also important for Mount Royal University, which is located on the Treaty 7 lands of the Niitsitapi, Iyarhe Nakoda, Tsuut’ina and the Métis Nations.
Treaty 7, is a legal agreement between the Government of Canada and the First Nations of Southern Alberta, who rightfully owned and inhabited the land. However, since the signing, the government has ignored or overlooked some of the commitments they made, including annual payments and land rights.
Mount Royal University’s ISP should, therefore, help rebuild relationships that should have been strengthened by Treaty 7.
The strategic plan encompasses five main goals: Indigenizing Mount Royal University; culturally respectful Indigenous research; bridge-building with Indigenous education stakeholders; support for Indigenous learners; and respectful inclusive curricula and pedagogies.
The Calgary Journal spoke to Liam Haggarty in April 2018. He will be helping meet MRU’s five goals alongside Renee Watchman, as co-directors of the Office of Academic Indigenization.
Haggarty, a settler from Victoria who is currently on sabbatical, said he was fortunate to have Indigenous family members help expose him to Indigenous culture.
He aims to create a space at MRU where students can have similar experiences to his.
When in university, he enrolled in many courses that taught him about Indigenous people.
In one of the courses, students visited Indigenous communities.
Haggarty said experiences like these, “were [the] most meaningful and relevant to me and my life and the people that I grew up with.”
According to Haggarty, the ISP is trying to foster methods of Indigenous learning and education that have otherwise been absent from education models.
Adding the strategy should help bridge the knowledge gaps between settler and Indigenous ways of life.
An Indigenization strategy should destabilize post-secondary institutions, he said.
“It should be challenging, it should be uncomfortable,” said Haggarty. “It's more important to do this well, with the right relationships in place, with the right training, with the right resources available, than it is to do it quickly.”
According to Kevin Lamoureux, the head of education for the National Center of Truth and Reconciliation, “Being exposed to a story of their nation that's very different from the national identity that they have internalized… this whole exercise of learning truth can be unsettling and traumatic for everyone involved.”
Greyeyes has similar beliefs.
“It's not enough to just bring Indigenous students and faculty and staff into institutions that currently exist but the actual universities have to transform.”
The most important thing about Indigenizing education is validating Indigenous history and Indigenous cultural practices through the use of resources developed by Indigenous people, according to Gabrielle Lindstrom — a member of the Kainaiwa First Nation in Southern Alberta and an Indigenous studies professor at MRU.
“Understanding that we both are going to learn from each other, you know, so that requires letting go of preconceived notions that require of letting go of what you think you know about Indigenous people.” — Gabrielle Lindstrom
However, Lamoureux knows that Indigenization strategies can be difficult to implement and that some university students consider a required Indigenous course as yet another course they will need to pay for.
“The idea that Indigenization is a burden to universities is a very real reason why Indigenization has to take place,” he said. “There needs to be a further conversation to invite people to recognize that reconciliation is not an act of pity we do for Indigenous people it's something we're doing to heal our nation.”
Questions remain about what reconciliation will look like in a university environment.
“How can you Indigenize a curriculum when you're turning Aboriginal studies into a history class and offering it online?” asked Lindstrom.
Lindstrom explained that Indigenous people believe in the growth of the learning spirit, which offers learning, guidance and inspiration. However, the growth of the learning spirit is being shut down by western practices.
“So that’s the problem… it’s not how do you Indigenize but how do you humanize?”
Nevertheless, even with Indigenous teachings being incorporated into western practices, it can still have an impact.
Lamoureux noticed the impact in the reactions of the students who come out of mandatory learning at the University of Winnipeg.
“The things that we found with mandatory learning is that non-indigenous students often times are very traumatized by the experience of learning things that they didn't grow up with."
Those reactions indicated the importance of Indigenizing university curriculums.
However, Haggarty and Greyeyes believe that the mandatory learning experience would be a lot easier on students if it were introduced early on in grade school curriculums.
A paper on Indigenizing education in Canada, written in 2016 by Jo-ann Archibald Q’um Q’um Xiiem & Jan Hare from the University of British Columbia stated, “In 2014 the Government of Alberta released an Expression of Reconciliation for the Legacy of the Indian Residential School System document indicating all K-12 should learn about Aboriginal history and culture.” When this paper was published the strategies were not yet visible on the Government of Alberta website, proving no change had been made.
What is visible on the government website is the addition of Aboriginal studies 10-20-30. However, this course is not required to graduate. According to the Government of Alberta website Aboriginal studies is, “Intended to provide a conceptual framework for all learners to enhance understanding of the diverse Aboriginal cultures within their region, Canada and the world.”
This could help address what Lamoureux said is the toughest question students ask after taking the required courses: “Why didn’t we learn this sooner?”
Haggarty understs the student’s frustrations.
“I think if most people had the same kind of experiences as me growing up there wouldn't be a need for Indigenizing universities today,” he said.
But many have not had similar experiences, so Greyeyes said it is important for universities to focus on Indigenizing. “I think that universities should focus on what they can do, and not rely and think that students have come from the K-12 system and have that baseline knowledge. ‘Cause I think that it's clear that they don't right now.”
What universities can do is stress the importance of conversation and opportunities for dialogue, something Haggarty, Lamoureux and Greyeyes all believe is critically important.
“If we can make systems that are reflective of all of our students, we'll be so much richer and so much stronger as Institute,” said Greyeyes.
To Lamoureux this means getting students to understand the need for reconciliation. He wants to change the way our national history is told. “It's something that can help us reclaim the nation that should have been our birthright,” he said.
Lindstrom said the government shouldn’t be the ones fixing the problem as they are the ones who created it in the first place; it has more to do with what they are willing to give up.
According to Lindstrom, the hardest part is, “understanding that we both are going to learn from each other. So that requires letting go of preconceived notions, that requires of letting go of what you think you know about Indigenous people.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Feb. 19 to clarify details of MRU's Indigenous Strategic Plan. Also, a previous version of this article referred to Jarita Greyeyes as the director of community learning and engagement at the University of Winnipeg. In fact, she is no longer in this position. The story has also been updated to fix a misspelling of Renae Watchman's name. We regret and apologize for these errors.
- By Sofia Gruchalla-Wesierski