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Working in step with Indigenous peoples

The 2021 National Building Reconciliation Forum provided an opportunity to identify the work that remains to be done at universities.


The sixth edition of the National Building Reconciliation Forum was held virtually on Sept. 21-23 under the theme “Falling into step with First Peoples students.”

The forum was held nearly one year to the day after Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman, died in hospital in the Quebec region of Lanaudière after being mistreated and insulted by nursing staff. Her death became a symbol of racism toward Indigenous peoples in Quebec. That was followed a few months later by the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of First Nations children near former residential schools in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

“These highly publicized tragedies have led even more people at our universities to take an interest in the Indigenous experience and have contributed to the popularity of this year’s forum, which had around 400 participants,” said Johanne Jean, president of Université du Québec and co-president of the forum.

These events have also helped to spotlight the difficult relationships between Indigenous peoples and postsecondary institutions. The memory of the devastation caused by the residential and day schools is still fresh in Indigenous communities. Sen. Michèle Audette, co-president of the forum and senior advisor for reconciliation and Indigenous education at Université Laval, herself had to attend day schools run by religious communities in her youth.

“The Innu of my generation don’t celebrate education,” she said. “Those who wish to pursue postsecondary studies are often judged by their peers and are sometimes even seen as less Innu.”

For these reasons, the improvements that postsecondary institutions are looking to make to support First Nations and Inuit students will need to be co-constructed with these peoples. “This aspect was a big topic at the forum. The event and the five preparatory webinars preceding it were developed in collaboration with Indigenous partners,” Ms. Jean said.

Isolation and alienation

Organized in Quebec for the first time in its history, the forum highlighted the realities of Indigenous students attending postsecondary institutions in the province. Each panel and work shop began with testimonials from one of 11 ambassadors representing the 11 Indigenous nations in Quebec.

Despite being from different communities and different university programs, there were many similarities between their experiences. Feelings of being isolated and uprooted were very widespread. Most people brought up the importance of having somewhere to meet with other Indigenous students, especially at the start of their first year.

A number of ambassadors also mentioned their difficulties in accepting course material that they found colonial. “In my classes, there was talk about social injustices, inequality and democracy, but none of my professors brought up the issues faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada like poverty, colonialism, or cultural genocide,” said Jedidat Matoush, a member of the Cree Nation of Mistissini and a PhD candidate in political science at Concordia University. “It’s very alienating.”

These testimonials made an impression on Sen. Audette in two different ways. “I was really touched by the pride of these young people, by their courage, and their determination to persevere. But at the same time, I was saddened that in 2021, they still have to overcome barriers and confront racism from the institution and from other students. That really illustrates just how much more effort needs to be implemented.”

More than just apologies

Andrea Brazeau, an Inuk from Kangiqsualujjuaq with a bachelor’s degree in preschool and primary education from McGill University, said the desire for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples often includes apologies, but it needs to be accompanied with concrete action.

“For example, all university professors should be educated on Inuit and First Nations and on major events in our history, like colonization, residential schools, and the sled dog slaughter,” she said. “They need to know all of that to understand us.”

Similarly, it is in the best interest of postsecondary institutions to learn more about fundamental aspects of First Peoples’ culture. That includes the the importance of oral traditions, which are too often overlooked as a source or as the subject of university research, as are their other ways of learning.

“First Nations greatly value circular learning,” explained Édith Bélanger, a member of the Wolastoqey Nation and master’s student at the École nationale d’administration publique. “We learn by listening, observing and doing. This dynamic approach depends on the contribution of multiple individuals. In the traditional, colonial mode, the instructor provides the education. We can see reconciliation as a way of reconciling these two models.”

Stéphane Grenier, a professor of social work at Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, has been experimenting with this approach for a few years now. He has moved his classroom to the Anishnabe community of Lac Simon, Que. Together with the community’s elders, he co-teaches social work to his non-Indigenous students while integrating holistic Indigenous approaches.

“My non-Indigenous students experience the cultural insecurity felt by many Indigenous students in our institutions,” Dr. Grenier explained. “In the communities, they learn by doing. The teaching process is reversed, and I become as much a learner as a teacher. Other people from the community, including children, regularly come in to join the group.”

Progress at universities

In 2019, on the initiative of the Bureau de coopération interuniversitaire, Johanne Jean made an inventory of the actions taken by Quebec universities for, by, and with First Peoples. The report revealed that at least 13 out of 19 institutions were trying to take into account the visions, values, needs and interests of Indigenous communities in their teaching; that more than half were investing in a culturally safe environment; and that half of these institutions had Indigenous members on their governing boards and advisory committees.

“I’m proud of what universities are putting in place,” she said. “At Université du Québec, for example, we have spaces to share our practices, so we have a better understanding of what works well and what works less well.” She added that universities need to play a role not only for Indigenous students, but also in society. “We’re educating the workers of tomorrow, especially the people who will be working in schools, hospitals and courts, so we’re well positioned to promote reconciliation and fight systemic racism,” she said.

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