Moving Forward With the Calls to Action

    Education is essential on the path to reconciliation, the TRC emphasizes. But implementing the wide-ranging calls to action is a slow and complex process, as many at the University of Alberta are beginning to realize.

    By Karen Sherlock on May 24, 2017

    The hope for healing is high, but so is the fear of hoping.

    Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its calls to action in June 2015, governments, institutions and individual Canadians — most of all, Indigenous peoples — have been coming to terms with what it means. And if, in the end, it will mean anything.

    “The optimistic side of me sees how it can all work out. But the realities of how complex this is and the histories of trauma pull me back,” says Kelsey Dokis-Jansen, ’11 BSc(EnvSci), ’15 MSc. As an environmental studies grad of Anishinaabe heritage whose master’s research combined Indigenous and western knowledge, she’s aware of the challenges of bridging the two cultures. She brings that awareness to the role she took on last April as manager of Indigenous initiatives in the University of Alberta provost’s office.

    “There’s this knowledge that it takes time to build relationships. It’s going to be slow and we have to be patient. But then there’s also this sense of urgency, that we have this window of opportunity. … That if we can’t deliver, if we can’t show that this can work, it’s never going to happen.”

    For post-secondary institutions, the implications of the TRC’s 94 calls to action are far-reaching, almost overwhelming. More than three-quarters touch on education, directly or indirectly. At the U of A, people are wrestling with the calls to action and what they mean — in their personal lives, in their professional lives and as an institution. It’s a complicated, slow process. And an emotional one.

    It’s essential that the university tread carefully and respectfully, Dokis-Jansen says. “Indigenous communities are skeptical of … non-Indigenous institutions proclaiming, ‘We’ve solved the problem and we know how to move forward.’ It’s a very tricky balance: we know we have all this internal work to do [at the university] and we have systems that need to change, but we also need to do it in consultation with Indigenous communities.”

    The university’s new strategic plan, shaped by consultations with faculty and staff, commits to developing “a thoughtful, meaningful and sustainable response” to the TRC report. “What we’re trying to imagine in a pragmatic way is what do we need to put in place over the next three to five years that will have a lasting impact? How do we shift the way the institution operates?” asks Dokis-Jansen.

    One challenge has been taking inventory of the many initiatives that already exist, ranging from long-term health research to Indigenous language preservation to course development. At the same time, the U of A is building the resources it needs to begin addressing the long-term calls to action, including hiring additional Indigenous employees and creating an Indigenous support team in the provost’s office (see sidebar).

    Marilyn Buffalo, from Samson Cree Nation, has a unique perspective on what’s happening at the U of A. She served as adviser on Indigenous affairs to then-president Harry Gunning from 1975 to 1979 and was founding chair of the General Faculties Council Committee on Native Studies. As of November, she is back serving as cultural adviser in the university’s new Indigenous advisory office. She and the elders and others she worked with in the ’70s helped lay the groundwork for many of the Indigenous initiatives that exist today.

    When she worked on campus in the ’70s, there were 15 Indigenous students. This year, there are 1,100 self-declared Indigenous students. “Thousands of kids have graduated from here, and yes, we should celebrate that, but we have to remember that’s not enough. There are 48 First Nations in Alberta, and every one of them should have an Indigenous doctor, nurse, economist, accountant, educator, writer, historian.”

    In an institution as large and diverse as the U of A, responding to the TRC is complex and disagreement is inevitable. Requiring students to take courses in Indigenous history, for example, as a number of faculties are doing, has led to some push-back. Another source of friction for every research institution is the question of how ceremony, Indigenous knowledge and oral tradition meld with academic rigour.

    Chris Andersen, ’05 PhD, interim dean of the Faculty of Native Studies, has been at the U of A for almost 20 years as a student, professor and senior administrator. In his eyes, a shift toward reconciliation would look like this: more Indigenous faculty, staff and senior leadership; more connections with Indigenous communities; greater Indigenous content throughout faculties and departments; and campuses on which, from an art and architecture perspective, “we can see ourselves.”

    Andersen is encouraged by the sheer volume of things going on across U of A campuses, he says, and that the university has committed symbolic and financial resources. “There’s a long way to go in terms of the tough stuff … but I’m really excited about what’s happening.”

    The TRC’s greatest value, he believes, has been in sparking public conversation both on and off campuses. “It’s getting Canadians to think about what a reset relationship would look like. How do we move from where we are now, where Indigenous peoples are mostly seen as problems to be solved, to where Indigenous peoples are seen as partners to be engaged with?

    “For me it’s really important that you think about Indigenous peoples as partners that you want to engage with because you think we have good things to contribute to the conversation.”