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Developing expertise in mentoring Indigenous graduate students

February 9, 2018

By Kaitlyn Balkovec



Approximately 150 Indigenous and non-Indigenous university staff, students and faculty gathered on February 5, 2018 for the Summit for Mentoring Indigenous Graduate Students.

Hosted by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and organized by the Indigenous Education Network, the event explored the expertise, conditions, material investments, and discourses involved in changing the university so that Indigenous students can thrive.

In his welcoming remarks, Dean Glen Jones expressed OISE’s commitment to implementing the education-related Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciiliation Commission. He encouraged guests to listen, learn and take action on making universities safer for Indigenous students. Referencing words given by former TRC Commissioner Senator Murray Sinclair, Dean Jones put forward that “it is education that created the devastating and recurring consequences of residential schools and it is education that must move us forward.”

View photos from the event

OISE’s Dr. Eve Tuck, who headed up the event planning, noted  that “while it is exciting that people came from across Canada to learn about mentoring Indigenous graduate students, I hope that this inspires other universities to hold similar events to identify the local expertise and knowledges that faculty and students and staff on their campuses can share. 

Keynotes by Indigenous scholars Dr. Zoe S. Todd, OISE’s Dr. Stephanie Waterman, and Dr. Robert Innes set the stage for engaging table talks and panel discussions that generated both ideas and cautions about what is required to change current education practices in order to make universities more deserving of Indigenous students.



One of the panel conversations was facilitated by OISE’s Dr. Jeffrey Ansloos who emphasized, “we are at an important juncture in this journey of Truth and Reconciliation where our actions matter more than mere words. We must act to make educational contexts places which center the wellbeing, hopes and dreams of Indigenous people. There are steps that get us there, foremost among them, we must follow the lead of Indigenous students.”

A number of Indigenous graduate students shared their experiences and ideas for improving academic institutions. This included OISE MA student Marie Laing who challenged the room to “do your work. Do your homework. Don’t expect Indigenous students to teach you everything about us or expect us to automatically share our stories and teachings with you… Be open to making mistakes, learn from them and be ready for us to call you in to do things differently.

Megan Scribe, who is a PhD student in OISE’s Social Justice Education department, also pushed attendees to consider the realities of Indigenous students. She asserted, “You need to understand that there is always going to be something going on for us in our lives that we are carrying… Violence against us is usually framed as trauma from the past, but there is always ongoing violence which includes our experiences inside and outside of these academic spaces.”

Many attendees expressed that listening to the experiences of Indigenous graduate students at the event helped them understand that meaningful mentoring requires much more than good intentions. They also gained increased awareness that everyone in the Academy has a role to play and must develop their expertise so that the labour of reconciliation does not fall on the shoulders of Indigenous students.


The following takeaways were shared by a few of the non-Indigenous attendees:

Farah Mawani, a PhD student at the University of Toronto who has mentored Indigenous students said that the experience “offered an opportunity to learn first-hand from Indigenous students ways I can improve my mentorship approach.”

Erin Clifford, lead coordinator of Mentorship and Peer Programs at the University of Toronto, was there to learn how “we can anticipate Indigenous students’ needs and wants without perpetuating patriarchal standards.”

Atifa Karim, a career educator at the University of Toronto, attended to explore “how do we meaningfully invite Indigenous students to collaborate with us without putting the onus on them to do the learning for us?”

Eugenia Coleman, Associate Professor of English at McMaster, noted that greater “self-awareness in the classroom and significant administrative change need to happen in order to meet the needs of Indigenous students.”

Josie Lalonde, Director of Student Academic Services at the University of Toronto’s School of Graduate Studies said she was there to “learn directly about concerns that Indigenous students have with the administration to make the university a far more welcoming place.”

Dr. Tuck concluded that “the essence of this summit is about how people with many of different roles in the university must use their influence to shift practices and policies which create barriers to student success.”