The role of Canada’s universities in reconciliation

June 8, 2015
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This op-ed appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, and on the websites of the Leader Post, Star Phoenix, Vancouver Sun, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette, The Province, Calgary Herald and Windsor Star June 8, 2015.

By David T. Barnard, chair of Universities Canada and president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manitoba

Education has the power to transform the futures of individuals, their families and communities. However, the role of post-secondary institutions in advancing reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples extends much further. We need to look internally and make changes within the core of our institutions, engaging all university communities – administration, students, faculty, staff, donors and alumni.

As part of the recommendations it released at its closing ceremonies, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) called upon educational institutions to engage with indigenous communities and be leaders in reconciliation.

Foremost in this process is working with communities in creating opportunities for indigenous students. This includes collaborating with K-12 educators in building bridge programs that facilitate transition to universities and colleges and open the door for young students to pursue their chosen career paths. Working together, we can close the substantial gap in employment rates between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, a gap that is in large part due to the impacts of the residential school system and its intergenerational consequences. 

Reconciliation requires societal change. Therefore, educating all students about the history and legacy of residential schools is crucial. Gaining this understanding is particularly significant in professional programs such as law, medicine, nursing, social work and education, where understanding the full and deep impacts that residential schools have had on survivors and their families is key to those professional approaches, and key to engaging respectfully with members of the indigenous community. 

We begin to decolonize our universities by integrating indigenous knowledge, perspectives and worldviews into curricula, programs and services, and providing relevant training for those teaching and interacting with our students. When understanding of First Nation, Métis and other indigenous cultures is woven through all of our campuses, then real change will occur not only within the institution, but within the many areas of society that we reach. 

Universities fundamentally influence think tanks and community dialogues that shape policy development. When we see wrongs and untruths, we must fight against them; where there are people facing social injustices, we must stand up for them; and where there is racism, we must challenge it. 

At the University of Manitoba, where I serve as president, an early step in our university’s journey toward reconciliation was particularly meaningful for me. In 2011, standing with colleagues, I addressed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Halifax to issue a statement of apology and reconciliation to residential school survivors. As the first university in Canada to issue such an apology, I hoped that the spirit of reconciliation in which it was offered might open a door to rebuilding some of the trust that had been lost in the educational system, due to the far-reaching damage cause by residential schools. While our university recognized that we cannot undo the shameful past, we committed to assist in building more awareness about the history and the impact that residential schools had on generations of individuals, families and communities. 

Now, with the TRC having concluded its work and the sacred trust and responsibility for the care of the TRC archives being passed to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba, there will be an opportunity for survivors, educators, students and all Canadians to engage with the archives, to learn about the residential school system, and to foster a new relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. 

 I invite all post-secondary institutions in this country to join us in our efforts at the NCTR and work together for our shared future.

About Universities Canada
Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, advancing higher education, research and innovation for the benefit of all Canadians.

Media contact:

Lisa Wallace
Assistant Director, Communications
Universities Canada
[email protected]

Tagged:  Indigenous education

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