Indigenous People – University Relations: Are Partnerships a Path to Decolonization?

Indigenous People – University Relations: Are Partnerships a Path to Decolonization?

The 2016 Bishop’s Convocation Ceremonies marked what seemed to some to be a turning point for the university. The Chancellor began his remarks at each of the three ceremonies with an acknowledgement that honoured the traditional Abenaki territory on which Bishop’s is located. For those of us who have been questioning our individual and collective relationships with First Nations, Inuit and Metis [FNIM] people, hearing the words was an affirmation. It meant that formal discussions were taking place at the university around Bishop’s role in a post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] Canada. Equally, it suggested that the voices of advocates, most notably the Bishop’s students of the Indigenous Cultural Alliance, had been heard – even if the use of the territorial protocol was not necessarily one of their primary concerns. For those who attended the final of the three convocation ceremonies, another gesture of conciliation was evident in the conferring of the Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law to Abel Bosum, Cree negotiator and former Chief of the Ouje-Bougamou Cree. His testimony of being removed to residential school at the tender age of five brought the significance of the work of the TRC directly to the Bishop’s community. Drawing on the challenges he has faced and all that he accomplished, Bosum underlined to the graduates that they are equipped to achieve “many great things, armed with choices, a purpose, [their] passion and an open mind.”

The convocation-related events have served as a touchstone for those of us wondering how Bishop’s will contribute in the future to the growing movement across Canada to act on the TRC calls.  Some institutions of higher education are responding to the 13 principles on Indigenous education released by Universities Canada in late June 2015. Indigenous scholars and University leaders developed the principles, which represent a commitment on behalf of the 97 universities in Canada to acknowledge the work of the TRC. Like the Accord on Indigenous Education (2010), signed by all Canadian Deans of Education, the 13 principles have several key goals: supporting Indigenous students, fostering collaboration and intercultural engagement, and “providing greater exposure and knowledge for non-Indigenous students on the realities, histories, cultures and beliefs of Indigenous people in Canada” (UC, 2015). The principles include “soft” and “radical” reforms (Andreotti et al., 2015), with soft reforms being those aimed at better support for Indigenous student success, and radical reforms being directed at the entire university community and school culture.

The recent event we (Avril Aitken, Mary Ellen Donnan and Jean Manore) organized – Indigenous People – University Relations: Are Partnerships a Path to Decolonization? – was intended to engage members of the Bishop’s community in a reflection on the place of partnerships as a means to work toward the reforms illustrated by the TRC Calls to Action. Supported by the Gordon Educational Leadership Fund and the Speakers Fund, the event began in Bishop Williams Hall, where award winning author and scholar, Celia Haig Brown, Associate Vice President of Research of York University, spoke to a full house of students and faculty members. Her talk, Moving to Reconcile: The Role of Non-Indigenous People, drew on years of collaborative research and community-based work with First Nations, as well as her expertise in decolonizing research and land-based pedagogy. She proposed an iterative and dynamic process, inspired by Kirkness and Barnhardt’s (1991) seminal writing about the four R’s: Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity and Responsibility.

Dr. BosumThe afternoon saw the return to campus of Dr. Bosum, pictured (left) with students, Nikki Baribeau and Alicia Moore-Iseroff.  He participated in the second event –  a panel entitled Partnership in the Land: Applications for Teaching and Research. Using the example of the Eeyoch (Cree) in forming Nation-to-Nation relationships with Quebec and Canada, following dispossession in the territory, Eeyou Istchee, he made the case that Bishop’s might learn about partnership building from the Eeyoch. Following this, Celia Haig Brown presented some of the research-driven writing that will be integrated into her SSHRC-funded film project. It involves collaboration with the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach, who are facing significant social change as they move forward with partnerships around resource extraction.

The third panelist, Lisa Taylor, of the School of Education, shared her classroom-based research and pedagogy related to notions of territory, the Quebec and Canadian history curriculum, and student counter-memorials for the sesquicentennial. Current B.Ed. candidates, Jason Earl, B.A. ’16 and Emily Williams B.A. ’16, (right) presented an example. Kiersten Montgomery, B.A. ’16 (far right) was unable to attend.

During the final event of the day, Moving Toward Anti-Colonial Positions in Partnership, Mary Ellen Donnan of the Department of Sociology, presented some of the findings of our recent research into Bishop’s interest and preparedness for decolonization and an agenda of change. Through a careful movement between the findings and the points raised by the panelists, audience members were called on to consider how Bishop’s might more forward. One of the final points was made by Dr. Bosum, who underlined the significance of building trust and beginning with friendship, as the way for relationships to move forward into partnerships.

The question of how we might sustain a partnership with a First Nation is the concern that led to our above-mentioned research. Significantly, the findings show that there is notable support among members of the Bishop’s community for fostering such a partnership.  In light of this, and given an existing relationship between the School of Education and the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach, discussion are underway with some of their representatives regarding post-secondary educational opportunities. We also hope – picking up on points made by Dr. Bosum – that we might begin similar discussions with the Eeyoch of Eeyou Istchee.  Beyond that, we have plans for further dissemination of the research done at Bishop’s related to possible responses to the 13 Principles.

In speaking on March 20th, 2017, at an event entitled – Truth and Reconciliation: Where are we now? – Senator Sinclair, Chair of the TRC, made the point, “It’s up to society to step up and take the actions that are needed.” The question, Where are we now? is one that we might ask ourselves at Bishop’s. Notably, at the June 2015 Town Hall, which took place on the heels of the release of the Executive Summary of the TRC report, Principal Michael Goldbloom was asked how the university might respond to the TRC Calls to Action. Turning to the assembled people, he said that he hoped that members of the community would become involved. There is evidence that this has begun to transpire: small-scale individual and collective curriculum-related actions, increasing territorial acknowledgments, efforts to increase academic support for FNIM students, and projects, such as the collaborative work on an installation with Abenaki Artist Christine Sioui Wawanaloath. At Bishop’s, we are in a different place than we were in June 2015; however efforts need to be sustained and increased. We look forward to being part of this process and are grateful to have been able to further the existing dialogue, with the financial support of the Gordon Educational Leadership Fund, the Bishop’s Speakers Fund, and with the wise counsel of our guest speakers.