Friday, October 9, 2015

A Consider This Opinion Piece: Reconciliation in Universities

On Wednesday, October 14, I hope you'll join me for the public lecture Reconciliation in Post-Secondary: Implementing the TRC Recommendations.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report calls on post-secondary organizations to fully engage in reconciliation.  As Chief TRC Commissioner Murray Sinclair said, “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

To meaningfully engage in reconciliation, universities must look beyond recruitment of Aboriginal faculty and students and the development of Aboriginal programs towards acknowledgment of the historic and contemporary colonial bones of the university itself.  In its final report, the TRC said that harms accumulated over the 100 years that residential schools operated throughout Canada amounted to cultural genocide.  I believe that Canadian universities were more apt to train and support faculty and students to implement the residential school regime than to protest against it.

The only thing Aboriginal about the top-ranked university I attended in the 1980’s was the totem pole exhibit; and you had to cross the street from the main campus to go and see that. The very bones of the university were colonial, taking shape in the administration, the architecture, the languages, the faculty, the students, and the clear preference for western knowledge in the classrooms and libraries.  Aboriginal peoples, cultures and knowledges were disregarded, and there was no reflection by the universities on their role in colonization.  In speaking with other First Nations, M├ętis and Inuit students attending other universities at that time, my experience was the rule, not the exception.
Twenty-five years and three degrees later, I am both a faculty member and university student. And while there has been some positive progress, the focus has largely been on Aboriginal peoples insulating the colonial bones of the university system from a necessity for deep change.  Many faculties now offer courses on Aboriginal peoples, but too often these courses are elective, relegating Aboriginal knowledge systems to second tier status.  Faculties of Aboriginal studies provide an academic foothold for Aboriginal knowledge, but their important work does not easily permeate the domination of western knowledge outside the faculty walls.  They have largely become the Aboriginal reserves of the university system.  Aboriginal faculty members are too often restricted to teaching Aboriginal courses and serving on Aboriginal committees, and they are subject to tenure and promotion requirements that derogate Aboriginal scholarship.  The plain truth is that Aboriginal peoples in the university community are left to do the heavy lifting in the reconciliation enterprise.

Universities can, and must do better. It begins with a clear proclamation from university leadership that reconciliation is necessary for the institution and everyone in it.  It is not a project, a day or a course – it is a constitutional philosophy that imbues all aspects of the university culture, and requires that the whole university community embrace it.  University leaders must call on themselves and us all to engage in the courageous truth telling that Justice Sinclair called for. They must do this in ways that make colonialism visible, and in ways that make us all uncomfortable enough with its presence that we are required to change.  Join the conversation, and get ready to get “pissed off” in ways that make the colonial normal visible and unsustainable; and then roll up your sleeves for change.
Please join us on Oct 14 from 4-5:30 P.M., Education North 2-115, University of Alberta, for Reconciliation in Post-Secondary: Implementing the TRC Recommendations. This is a free public lecture featuring Dr. Cindy Blackstock, Dr. Eber Hampton and Charlene Bearhead.

This event is co-sponsored by FNCARES, Faculty of Extension; Indigenous Peoples Education, Educational Policy Studies; and Alberta Network Environments for Aboriginal Health Research.

If you can't make it in person, please join us by watching the livestream here. Just click on "guest," enter your name, and you will be with us! We will be *live* at 4 P.M. Mountain Time.

Read more about event here.

Dr. Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director, First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada, a U of A Associate Professor, and Director of FNCARES in the Faculty of Extension 

Dr. Blackstock is a member of the Gitksan First Nation, and has over 25 years of social work experience in child protection and Indigenous children’s rights, collaborating with other Indigenous leaders, Indigenous youth, UNICEF and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Her promotion of culturally based and evidence informed solutions has been recognized by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, the Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, Frontline Defenders and many others.



  1. Speaking at someone who works in Indigenous Studies, it is certainly true, as Dr. Blackstock points out, that Indigenous scholars and in many cases, Indigenous Studies departments, have experienced marginalization in the academy. As someone who has worked in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta for more than fifteen years, however, I can say that our faculty has worked closely with the Provost’s and President’s office and has benefited greatly from their support. Additionally, much of the work we do involves engagement with and critique of “western knowledge outside the faculty walls”. Our faculty members are highly sought after on scholarly, administrative and graduate student committees, and we publish widely and interdisciplinarily using a range of theoretical and methodological tools. Likewise, we have engaged publicly with audiences across the campus and outside the academy on a wide variety of issues, including government and nonprofit agencies, with indigenous communities, and internationally with scholars who work in fields spanning the humanities, social and natural sciences. Of course, there is always more work to be done, but at least at the University of Alberta, the Faculty of Native Studies has created and sustained relationships with scholars and administrators across the campus. Dr. Chris Andersen, Associate Dean (Research), Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta

  2. So then why is there not a Canadian Indigenous person as Dean? Canadian Indigenous people are still marginalized, especially 'in the academy'. The Indigenous community has the capacity so why hire someone from overseas?

  3. What does "reconciliation" mean in this context?


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