Back in September, I joined a VIU dialogue group to discuss Indigenous perspectives in post-secondary education. The group is composed of 10 Indigenous students, five domestic non-Indigenous students, five international students, and various VIU faculty members and elders. The focus of the group is exploring what issues exist for Indigenous learners and what we as a community can do to deal with those issues.
As a non-Indigenous Canadian from Regina, Saskatchewan, I grew up with a knowledge of Indigenous people that was permeated by the false superiority of eurocentric ideas and racism. I did not learn the horrors of the residential schools until late in high school, and I did not know much about Indigenous cultures until my third year of study at VIU. I was inspired to join the dialogue group out of a desire to know more about the experience of Indigenous Canadians, as well as learn more about Indigenous knowledge and cultures.
Through the group, we were given an opportunity to attend the Building Reconciliation Forum at the University of Victoria (UVIC) on November 15 and 16. The forum is sponsored by Universities Canada, and began at the University of Saskatchewan. Lodge Keeper Wallace Fox was tasked with finding a symbol for the forum. He chose a walking stick, as the stick is a companion, a protector, and an educational tool in pow-wow circles. The stick travelled from the University of Saskatchewan to the University of Alberta, followed by the University of Manitoba, and most recently the University of Victoria. Along the way, each university added their own beaded crest to the walking stick. After four years of travelling the country, the stick will be retired to the National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation, and Victoria Indigenous groups will come up with a new symbol for the forum.
“This goes beyond, well beyond anything that any of us as institutions or individuals are able to accomplish,” Jamie Cassels, President of UVIC said. “Repairing a fundamentally broken relationship that goes so deep in our country’s history. Building a new country and reengineering social, political, and economic institutions. For educational institutions, the challenge is to stay true to our mission. Our mission is research and education; we cannot do everything. If we try to do everything we will fail at most of what we take on. We need to align our capabilities with the ambitions and interests of [Indigenous peoples] as individuals and as communities.”
The first day of the forum was held at the Songhees Wellness Center in Victoria. At the beginning of the forum, witnesses were called from the audience. Traditionally, witnesses were called to events at big houses to report what happened to their communities. Witnesses were vitally important as Indigenous cultures did not have a written form of language. A witness, Skip Sam, was called from our table. Skip and his wife May are respected elders who work with UVIC on reconciliation and providing services for Indigenous students. Affectionately known as Grandpa Skip and Grandma May, the pair shared insights and wisdom with us about their life experience on Vancouver Island.
Discussion panels covered topics such as how universities can support Indigenous children’s welfare and health through more respectful policies and procedures, as well as how universities can work with communities to accelerate Indigenous language revitalization and culture.
Speakers included Susan Aglukark, a musical artist and Founder of the Arctic Rose foundation; Aaron Franks, Senior Manager of OCAP and Information Governance at the First Nations Information Governance Center; Melanie Mark, BC Minister of Advanced Education, Skills, and Training; Dr. Evan Adams, Chief Medical Officer of the First Nations Health Authority of BC; and many other distinguished speakers from organizations and universities across the country.
“Someone once said that no act of reconciliation is too small and to always keep that in mind,” Minister Mark said in her address to the forum. “Sometimes I feel like I’m paddling in a really big canoe. I don’t always feel like it’s filled with as many people as I’d hoped, but I think it’s important that we paddle together and to stay focused on the things that we want to change.”
Minister Mark was the first Indigenous woman elected to the BC Legislature, and became the first Indigenous woman to serve in cabinet. She represents the riding of Vancouver – Mount Pleasant, and is of Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree, Ojibway, French, and Scottish heritage.
As I sat listening to the speakers and engaging in discussion with my table, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of love and optimism in the room. Grandma May shared with us that, despite abuse she experienced as a child in residential school, she learned how to be compassionate and love others from her father’s example. She told us that no matter what, she has love for every single person she meets.
The first day of the forum was closed with songs from a group of Grade 4 and 5 students of the ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School who study in a SENĆOŦEN language immersion program. SENĆOŦEN is the language of the Saanich people. Before they shared their songs, the forum heard a discussion panel on the importance of Indigenous language revitalization programs. We heard from adults who did not know their language until they were fully grown, individuals who were worried that their language may die out. But then we watched a 10-year-old girl address that same room in SENĆOŦEN. There’s no language that I can use to describe what it was like to witness that.
The second day of the forum was hosted at UVIC in the Michele Pujol room of the Student Union Building. Discussion tables were held on education, entrepreneurship, and socioeconomic capacity building, as well as how universities can develop new degree programs that challenge disciplinary boundaries to promote justice and the well-being of Indigenous cultures.
Speakers included Dr. Rick Colburne of the University of Northern British Columbia; Lianne Spence, Indigenous Artist and Graduate of the UVIC Aboriginal Canadian Entrepreneurs Program; Dr. Brent Mainprize of UVIC; VIU Chancellor Louise Mandell, retired judge The Honourable Steven Point; and UVIC Legal Professor Dr. John Borrows.
“The relationships are really what I want to talk about,” Louise Mandell said. “I think that’s what reconciliation is about, how we hold each other up, recognize all the knowledge we don’t have and recognize the need of each other. Then we can help in the self-determining process, of which we are a part.”
Following one of the panel discussions, VIU MBA student Sanchit Mittal shared words on his experience as an international student learning about Indigenous peoples culture and history.
“International students don’t know about the existence of things like this,” Mittal said. “There are about half a million international students in Canada. When we come to Canada, we come with a perception of coming to this perfect world that is inclusive and diverse. I’m not saying that all of that is not true, but there is another side of Canada and that reality needs to be told. That reality needs to be communicated and it needs to be communicated beyond this setting.”
Another VIU student, Lisa-Dawn Hanuse, who is in her last year of a Bachelor’s Degree in First Nations Studies, said that the speakers like Susan Aglukark and Melanie Mark inspired her to stand up and tell her story, to believe in herself and share her Indigenous perspective.
“This workshop was a life-changer for me,” Hanuse said. “So many years I blamed myself for being stupid. The reality is that the truth is my truth, and that blame is not on me, it’s part of the system I grew up in as an Indigenous lady. I want Indigenous girls to know that there is nothing wrong with you. It’s the system we grew up in. You are a worthy, strong, and smart woman. You matter. Seek out your identity, your homelands, community, family, culture, and traditional ways. That is who you are. Find your identity within. Don’t let any system tear you down because you matter.”
Rochelle Perrott, a second-year VIU student of psychology and First Nations Studies, said that she was greatly inspired by The Honourable Steven Point and Dr. Evan Adams. Perrott aspires to work in the healthcare field, and is particularly passionate about generating change in the field of mental health.
“The conference reaffirmed the importance of active participation in the reconciliation process,” Perrott said. “The ripple effects of this gathering will be profound. It’s very easy to get disheartened when considering the magnitude of change that needs to take place, but seeing how many people are actively trying to generate change on a larger scale reinforces a sense of hope in me.”
Chelsey Andrews, a student in the Masters of Community Planning Program at VIU reflected that she did not know much about reconciliation before the forum and that the forum opened her heart. She has committed to read and understand the 94 Calls to Action presented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as teach them to her children.
“I loved an idea that was reiterated several times: no act of reconciliation is too small,” Andrews said. “I feel like that gives us permission to do our best as individuals. To make small steps towards building relationships. It also underlines the fact that it is up to everyone to make a lasting authentic change—it is not just the responsibility of governments and institutions.”
At the end of the forum, the witnesses were called forward to share their experiences of the forum. VIU Director of Aboriginal Education, Sharon Hobenshield, who was called as a witness, shared her views on both days of the forum.
“What I’m walking away with is a lot of thoughts, but most importantly I’m walking away with good uy shqwaluwun, as the Coast Salish elders have taught me; ‘good feelings’ in my heart about what transpired here over the last two days,” Hobenshield said. “That good uy shqwaluwun started yesterday because we started in community. I really want to acknowledge the organizers for doing that. We started with protocol and with ceremony. I have to say it was a different feeling yesterday to today. Yesterday the conversation was around love, and with that love, good spirit and generosity was displayed through or discussions. Today, starting here at an institution, it was a different feeling. We talked less about love today, and that’s not a bad thing […] We started talking about racism, gender inequality, and oppression. My take away from day one and day two is that the organizers have modeled what we are trying to reconcile. We’re trying to reconcile day one with day two. The thoughts and feelings that come with these discussions are what we need to reconcile.”
Paul Davidson, President of Universities Canada, announced that the host of the 2019 Building Reconciliation forum will be Algoma University in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. The forum will be held in conjunction with the University of Northern British Columbia, Nipissing University, the University of Cape Breton, and Shingwauk Center of Excellence in Anishanaabe Education. Bids for host universities in 2020 are now open.