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In my opinion

Heeding the call(s): Student affairs and the TRC’s recommendations

What calls to action will we take on? And, how can student affairs not only fulfill but exceed these commitments and calls?


This is a reprint of a blog post that originally appeared on the Ryerson University student affairs blog.

The Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s final report is hovering, waiting for us to read, write, and develop programs in response to their findings. I feel personally and professionally compelled to participate in necessary and long-overdue healing. This is my attempt to further the conversation about the TRC’s final report, its urgency, and what we can do in response as student affairs professionals.

“We are convinced that public education, in its many forms, is society’s best avenue to strengthen, uplift, enlighten, and secure the individual citizen and the community of which they are a part. Education empowers individuals to meet their intellectual, emotional, physical, social, economic, and spiritual needs.”

— 2015 Cohort of 3M National Teaching Fellows

This is how the Call to Action in response to the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations begins as issued by the 2015 Cohort of 3M National Teaching Fellows. It also goes on to ask how those involved in educational institutions can redress the brutal failings of public education, chief among them residential schools and the systemic and horrific individual, community, and generational harms inflicted on aboriginal communities and indigenous ways of doing, being, and thinking.

I am not an expert in aboriginal histories or epistemologies (although I am prioritizing this learning). But even in my greenness, what I do feel certain about is that when we learn, we become responsible for what we learn; as such, I wish to be a participant in this redress instead of complicit in the status quo. I cannot not heed the call.

But how to do this? How to be a novice and yet act? How to be an outsider and yet participate in the response? How to weave in and embed the TRC recommendations, at all cost avoiding (continued) tokenism and trauma?

In reading the Truth and Reconciliation report and recommendations, reviewing the calls to action as well as seeing the early days of postsecondary institutional reactions and program development, I want those of us in student affairs to be at the forefront of responding.

I propose that, at least as a “first draft,” we in student affairs take-in, face, and build up from the histories and traumas housed in the TRC final report; I suggest we go broad and create guiding principles. Informed by the stories recounted by the TRC, I envision a series of sister philosophical underpinnings to our 5 Pillars at Ryerson. Moving inductively from the individual and particular, I wish to propose a set of student affairs commitments.

Perhaps they could include:

  • Transparency (to combat all that was cruelly dishonest in establishing residential schools, and that has been kept hidden from mainstream history curriculum);
  • Safety (to ensure that no one is subject to the physical, emotional, spiritual brutality endured by Canada’s first peoples, and that we commit to ending all continuing brutality);
  • Honouring of family, home, and original contexts (to prioritize ancestral origins and keeping family relationships intact);
  • Connection to place (to nurture connections to our natural environment);
  • And, straight from the TRC’s calls to action, “Mutual recognition, mutual respect, and shared responsibility” (45, iii).

In the meetings I am holding, in the students I am teaching, these commitments are becoming increasingly infused. I ask myself, in light of the TRC findings, what am I doing — in this meeting or that strategy session — to enact uplift and enlighten in my work? What I am doing to redress given that which I am now aware? How am I participating in a transition away from the long-imposed and -embedded colonial ways of knowing and being?

Perhaps the question is not how can we not respond? But rather, how will we? And so, what actions do we take? What calls to action will we take on? And, how can student affairs not only fulfill but exceed these commitments and calls?

This exploration, this post of deep concerns and heartfelt wonderings, is only a start for me. I am aware, and eager, knowing that this conversation cannot be held in a vacuum. As I venture forward in my explorations, concerns, and wonderings, I hope to connect with Ryerson’s Aboriginal student services, Aboriginal Education Council, and Aboriginal mentors in the community.

Even in my non-expertness, in my awkwardness, in my not quite knowing the what or how of what’s next in this redress, I wish to be unafraid to participate with, learn from, apologize to, and disrupt and grieve alongside. I know there is a path forward, and I’m keen, no, compelled, to follow it — I’m just not sure how best to find, walk, and follow it, or where it will lead. There is a groundswell, a sea change, and I wish, as a non-Aboriginal un-idle ally, to join voices in speaking truth to power and ensuring the AEC’s seven generation vision and goals of “a new relationship of truth and reconciliation.” This is only a start for me. Will you join me? Can we learn as we go, together?

Deena Kara Shaffer is a learning specialist at Ryerson University, PhD candidate, poet, and freelance education and health writer. Follow her at @deenakshaffer. Heeding the Call(s) is a series dedicated to student affairs contribution to integrating the TRC’s findings into our everyday work. Join Deena as she explores some principles of aboriginal education, examples of “indigenized” programming, and suggestions of how we might transition towards what some call indigagogy, all in the hopes of taking responsibility and prioritizing reconciliation.

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