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With everything that has happened so far in 2020—the pandemic, a steep rise in awareness about systemic racism, alarming weather events due to climate change, among many others—it’s clear the need for diversity in leadership to combat these issues is crucial. And, not just at a federal level, but in every institution.

One thing that’s admirable about VIU is its clear devotion to moving inclusivity forward by ensuring people from diverse backgrounds are in positions of leadership. This summer, the university appointed Kekinusuqs, Dr. Judith Sayers, as its new chancellor, making this the first time both the president and the chancellor at VIU are of Indigenous descent.

Dr. Sayers will take over from current Chancellor Louise Mandell in October, and says she’s really looking forward to working for the university and opening up a new world of opportunity.

Dr. Sayers is currently the president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC), a non-profit society that provides services to and supports 14 nations and about 10,000 people. She is also an inspiring sustainable development advocate, lawyer, and educator.

When asked what knowledge she plans on bringing to VIU from her current and past roles, Dr. Sayers said, “I have a lot of strong skills in relationship building and building bridges to many different communities. I also have connections to many people, both provincially and federally, so I can always use that influence to bring more credibility and support to VIU.”

Once in her role, Dr. Sayers intends on expanding how students receive their education. In some ways, the traditional method of academic research isn’t feasible for Indigenous students, who learn about the land and other Indigenous ways of knowing via storytelling.

“I think just trying to allow for Indigenous students at the university to do research in their own way is important, because often there isn’t anything that’s documented. Oftentimes I start to tell a story and can’t draw on any references because [the written ‘academic’ story] doesn’t exist. And so, how do we work with our students to be able to do that? We need to be creative and innovative to allow for different cultures to learn in their own way.”

When VIU’s Director of Aboriginal Education and Engagement, Ha-Youly, Sharon Hobenshield, heard Dr. Sayers was to be the incoming chancellor, she was thrilled.

“Obviously, because she’s an Indigenous woman, but I think it’s also important that she’s from one of Vancouver Island’s three local nations. Her voice and leadership on the Island is huge, and we’re really trying to work with the local Indigenous population to inform our programming and services to ensure we’re being relevant and respectful,” Hobenshield said. “Judith has that vision for her own community and certainly that respected knowledge not only in her culture and tradition, but in her professionalism as a lawyer and key leader.

sîpihko pihêsiw iskwew, Dr. Deborah Saucier, VIU’s president, is equally as thrilled, and said she is excited to work with Dr. Sayers to further advance the Indigenization at VIU.

Dr. Saucier, who is an accomplished neuroscientist, stresses the importance of having diverse representation in leadership so young people can realize their potential. When she was growing up and obtaining her degree and PhD, Dr. Saucier said there weren’t any people who looked like her, especially in the sciences. 

“As an Indigenous Canadian, I had no idea that folks who looked like me could be university professors, or university instructors in the sciences. I know it’s a trope, but to be it, sometimes you have to see it,” she said. “Having diversity is important, because when there are a number of different voices at the table where decisions are being made, it ensures everyone’s needs and concerns are being met. Indigenous folks have a variety of perspectives on the world. It’s not a unified view by a long shot, and so we need even more than one Indigenous person at the table—we need many. That way we’re ensuring we make a better Canada for all of us.”

One thing Dr. Saucier and other faculty members have been working on to move inclusivity forward is a new academic strategic plan for the university.

Her excitement about the plan emanated through the phone. “When I read it, it gives me goosebumps,” she said. “It just makes me so excited for us to talk about ourselves as an institution and say, ‘This is what we stand for, this is who we are, and this is what you can expect from us.’”

The plan is to be rolled out at the beginning of October, and will include aspects of commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action.  

Dr. Saucier explains that it’s a student-led document, but COVID-19 got in the way of the first rounds of consultation in March, so the faculty is still welcoming student’s opinions on the strategic plan’s website at www.gov.viu.ca/strategic-planning.

“VIU is already well ahead of other institutions in Canada in its commitment to Indigeneity, Indigenous knowledge, and Indigenous ways of knowing, so I want to take the next step beyond that,” Dr. Saucier said.

VIU has been creating space for Indigenous programs, services, and support since Indigenous education at the university started back in 1970, when a lecture series led by Indigenous leaders who taught their own culture and history was introduced.

From then on, the university started to create a number of positions and programs for Indigenous students, leaders and educators. VIU’s first full-time Elder-in-Residence, Snuneymuxw Elder, C’tasi:a, Geraldine Manson, was appointed in 2013, where her role expanded to support students in the Faculty of Health and Human Services.

“When I was invited to be Elder-in-Residence, I didn’t realize how important it was going to be as each year progressed. Each year I’ve built my portfolio up even more because I’m not only giving to the students, but they’re giving back to me,” Elder Manson said. “That’s one thing I admire about our university is that they not only opened their doors to us, but they also made us a part of the faculty.”

VIU’s past leaders have also paved the way for reconciliation and Indigenous education at the university; from Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, who was BC and VIU’s first Indigenous chancellor from 2008 until 2014; to Director of the Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties & Reconciliation, Kwul’a’sul’tun, Douglas White III; to past President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Ralph Nilson and current Chancellor Louise Mandell—both of whom are big supporters of Indigenous education and advocators for Indigenous rights.

Elder Manson expressed her fondness for those who have paved the way for Dr. Saucier and Dr. Sayers. 

“Deborah is so approachable and understanding and has the listening skills so individuals feel heard, but also brings Indigenous voices to the campus itself,” Elder Manson said. “And our upcoming chancellor, Dr. Judith Sayers is another wonderful person who has so much to offer, and comes with the spirit and understanding of her role. And now these two beautiful Indigenous women will be connected.”

As we settle into the new semester in this era of unprecedented times, it is clear that both Dr. Saucier, Dr. Sayers, and all the Indigenous leaders and allies at VIU will set the precedent for the future: one of acceptance, open-mindedness, and diversity.

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