Since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action in 2015, many universities have been discussing how best to respond. Converge 2017, an event hosted by Universities Canada in February of this year, grappled with questions about the role that universities can and should play in reconciliation efforts between Canadian institutions and Indigenous communities, as well as examining what seemed to be working.
In my own role as a university administrator, I have also given much thought to how universities can respond. I would assert that every citizen in Canada has a role and responsibility in supporting reconciliation. However, for the purposes of this column I want to focus specifically on the role that university administrators can play in supporting reconciliation.
Deep systemic changes are necessary if we are to build a better society that aspires to achieve reconciliation. Administrators in postsecondary institutions are in a unique position to address systemic issues that hinder Indigenous peoples’ success as well as support reconciliation in very real and actionable ways. There are four broad elements that I suggest are foundational for educational institutions embarking on reconciliatory initiatives. These centre on establishing a vision, building relationships, respect and action.
First, it is important that institutions have a concrete vision of what they aspire to achieve when advancing reconciliation. For example, administrators are in key roles that support the development of institution-wide strategic plans, academic plans and research plans. These plans are key to organizational success and without a plan there is nothing to hold the university accountable nor to steer the university towards measurable outcomes.
It is important for administrators to remain attuned to the needs of broader society. Today, that means administrators have a social responsibility to support key aspirational strategic initiatives that facilitate institutional reconciliatory relations. I often hear colleagues in administrative positions downplaying their role in overall university directions, but I hold a strong view that leaders must take up their responsibilities in developing the leaders of tomorrow. If we have any hope of reconciliation we must all work together to ensure the leaders of tomorrow have a fuller comprehension of Indigenous peoples, their knowledge, history and culture.
Second, administrators are viewed as leaders in educational institutions. In these roles it is critical to build relationships with Indigenous peoples and communities. A key component of building good relations is ensuring meaningful participation of Indigenous community partners. A good example is Indigenous advisory councils, since many universities now have such councils in place. It is important that these councils are heard and that there are mechanisms in place to ensure they can provide feedback and direction.
This brings to mind the oft-quoted phrase used by Mi’kmaw educator Marie Battiste, among others: “Nothing about us without us.” Essentially, this means that Indigenous peoples must be involved in the planning and implementation of key strategic directives that concern any aspect of reconciliation.
Third, relationships need to be built over time to ensure trust and respect are an integral part of the relationship. Administrators can lead by example. It is important to understand that reconciliation is not easy and requires a deep commitment to change.
Part of building reconciliatory relationships requires dispelling myths and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples as well as addressing larger systemic issues. This may also, for example, mean supporting the critical re-examination of how the institution responds to Indigenous peoples, faculty, staff and learners.
The fourth element that I believe is important is to walk the talk. Actions often speak much louder than words. If leaders are not supporting reconciliation initiatives it is highly unlikely that reconciliation will be valued across the institution. The support must be in actions, whether through specific strategic initiatives such as creating welcoming and safe spaces for Indigenous peoples across campus, creating opportunities or people to come together to learn about Indigenous peoples, addressing systemic inequities, etc.
Further, it is important for administrators to engage in active learning about Indigenous peoples. At my home university it was wonderful to see our executive team host their annual retreat in a nearby First Nation. These are just a few examples of what can be implemented.