Decrease font size Reset font size Increase font size

Truth and Reconciliation in Education

By Nicole Latulippe

February 18, 2016

“Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem; it is a Canadian one.”

Prompted by these words of Justice Murray Sinclair, a discussion panel was convened at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), Canada’s largest institute of education. The aim was to discuss the TRC’s calls to action as they pertain to education and research.

OISE is not the only public institution looking to begin the process of reconciliation through education. The province of Ontario is introducing mandatory Indigenous cultural sensitivity and anti-racism training for all public service employees. They also announced plans to include within public school curriculum the impacts of residential schools, the history of colonization, and the importance of treaties. The Native Students’ Association at the University of Toronto is petitioning to bring mandatory Indigenous studies courses to Canada’s largest University.

PanelIt was standing room only as students, faculty, and members of the wider urban Aboriginal community gathered for the first of what’s expected to be a series of ongoing conversations about implementing the calls to action – distinct from recommendations that too often gather dust on the shelf. Panelists included OISE scholars: Suzanne Stewart, Jane Griffith, Eve Tuck, Jean Paul Restoule, Tanya Senk, and Sandra Styres. Personal accountability, strengthened relationships, and institutional change were key themes.

Restoule opened the discussion with an empowering invitation. All people are implicated in colonial relationships, but each person can make a difference. Echoing Sinclair, panelists challenged everyone to pick at least one call to action that reflects whatever sphere of influence they might inhabit, and to implement that action, both personally and professionally, until it is fully realized. We were asked, what will you do? To which relationships are you accountable?

Sustained, meaningful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators, researchers, and communities are powerful. Panelists spoke of the need to eliminate systemic barriers that prevent Aboriginal people from working in education. Institutional support is needed to reposition Metis, Inuit, and First Nations worldviews, perspectives, histories, and bodies as central in education and research. Tuck held up a vision of OISE as leader in Indigenous participatory research by and with Indigenous communities, where Indigenous peoples are seen as the experts in their own lives.

Given its role in colonization, education holds the key to reconciliation. But panelists cautioned against simple, tokenistic appeals to reconciliation and cultural tourism. The University has work to do. Indigenous faculty and students can’t be expected to shoulder the burden of reconciliation. Griffith spoke of the long, hard fought battles lead by Aboriginal peoples to establish the TRC, and warned against the treatment of residential schools as past event rather than ongoing structure.

Like its predecessors, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and Ipperwash Inquiry, the TRC points to government’s desire for unfettered access to Indigenous lands as the driving logic behind residential schools. Today, differential access to lands and resources continues to shape uneven relations of power between Indigenous and settler peoples in Canada. The TRC and its interlocutors emphasize that change needs to be real. Grounded. Structural. Anishinaabe scholar Leanne Simpson writes, reconciliation requires substantive change; including, land restitution, cancelling the omnibus bills that ignited Idle No More, repealing Bill C51, and eliminating other forms of oppressive, colonial intervention.

On that material reality, Styres, stated that although not everyone is part of a treaty, we are all Treaty people. Everyone is affected in some way by the treaty relationship and the degree to which treaties are recognized and implemented, or not. This includes settlers and newcomers, and our very academic spaces. For Senk, there is an opportunity to re-conceptualize this relationship and to uphold the dignity of Indigenous peoples in Canada through frameworks such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Sinclair has said, “If you thought the truth was hard, reconciliation will be harder.” Universities will need to create institutional cultures that are ready for change. Senior administration, faculty and students at OISE are making the necessary moves.