U of T receives final report recommending response to TRC
By Clarrie Feinstein
The Steering Committee for the University of Toronto Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has answered a call to action. On Dec. 31, 2016, it released Wecheehetowin, a final report on how the university should respond to the dozens of educational reforms recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Taking its title from the Cree word for working together, the report’s recommendations aim to create a more welcoming environment for Indigenous students by having their presence more widely acknowledged in campus spaces. At the heart of the report is a recognition that the university must acknowledge its own role before any meaningful reconciliation can begin.
“When we were forcefully removed from Toronto, people celebrated. This has to be reminded”—Lee Maracle, Traditional Teacher
“U of T has played a role in the oppression of Indigenous peoples as the university educated generations of political leaders, policy makers, teachers, and civil servants who were a part of the system that created residential schools,” reads the report, which emphasizes the vital importance of evaluating the relationship between the university and the Indigenous community in an honest way.
“The biggest problem the Indigenous community faces at U of T is representation at all levels,” says Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo, co-chair of the steering committee and director of Aboriginal Student Services at First Nations House and coordinator of the Council for Aboriginal Initiatives. “They need to find a place, community, and people on campus, and if these are not readily available then it makes it very difficult for them to feel a sense of belonging.”
The report strives for increased representation and awareness of Indigenous issues in regard to five specific areas: Indigenous spaces, Indigenous faculty, Indigenous curriculum, Indigenous research ethics and community relationships, and Indigenous co-curricular education. Five individual working groups created the recommendations for each of these categories. In total, the report outlines 34 Calls to Action, and recommends specific ways the university can implement certain initiatives in order to make this vision a reality.
“We wanted different approaches and to expand the number of people participating in the process,” says Hamilton-Diabo. The committee included staff, faculty, and students, as well as two Indigenous Elders, Traditional Teacher Lee Maracle and Elder in Residence Andrew Wesley.
There are 500 to 600 students who self-identify as Aboriginal on all three campuses, but Hamilton-Diabo says this is a conservative approximation.
And although First Nations House (the third floor of the North Borden Building on Spadina Avenue) and the Indigenous Studies program offer a space for Indigenous students, such spaces have limited resources and are not centres of focus at the university. The final report outlines ways to make Indigenous spaces more central on St. George campus, and provide opportunities for spiritual practice.
“It goes beyond the physical space,” explains Hamilton-Diabo, “it’s not just about dedicating a building. There has to be more enhanced Indigenous presence for people to see there is an Aboriginal community that is very vibrant here. This can be done with outdoor spaces holding events and ceremonies outside, like a sacred fire or cleansing ceremonies. It’s all about visibility and acknowledgement.”
But visibility is a systemic issue that extends to faculty and staff.
There is no available data on how many Indigenous faculty are hired at U of T, but historically they have been underrepresented. The need for greater representation amongst faculty is essential in enhancing the University’s Indigenous curricular offerings and academic support for Indigenous Students, reflected in the 11 Calls to Action focused on Indigenous faculty. These comprise the largest section of recommendations.
“Hiring practices are starting to change,” says Traditional Teacher Lee Maracle. “There’s no reason why other departments cannot hire Indigenous professors. But we need to make the Indigenous studies program a department, where we can have tenured professors in our own program and expand it.”
The university must develop strategies in close consultation with the Indigenous community on forming hiring targets, which could improve if the Indigenous community realizes that working at an institution like U of T is an attainable goal. “Not everyone who works in the academic world needs a Ph.D. You can work with the campus police, registrar, student services,” says Hamilton-Diabo. “These connections need to be made and if people cannot see the vibrant community that is here people will not want to apply for jobs or student positions.”
As the title of the report suggests, working in tandem with the Indigenous community is an integral step in moving forward and will build the right kind of relationships that historically have not been made.
“People need to see that non-Native students have been placed before Native students in every way,” says Maracle. “We were always dealt the leftovers and left out of the conversation. When we were forcefully removed from Toronto, people celebrated. This has to be reminded. And when people accepted this during the process of writing the report, we managed to have a positive attitude going forward.”
FOCUS ON EDUCATION: Decolonizing our schools (December 2016)
FOCUS ON EDUCATION: Building a respectful future (November 2016)
HISTORY: Honouring those who honour history (October 2016)
ON THE COVER: Tracking history in the Annex (April 2016)