For the past two days, I had the opportunity to listen and learn about how we can build reconciliation in the academy at the 2nd Building Reconciliation Forum held at the University of Alberta. The speakers included residential school survivors, indigenous leaders, scholars, community members, elders, and university leaders. Powerful truths were spoken and there were many engagements with how we might work together. After these two days, I’m left thinking about what the future holds for universities in the wake of the TRC Calls to Action. The shifting terrain we face must lead to real transformation of our institutions, not merely the addition of an indigenous course or a few more indigenous faculty. The challenge of the Calls to Action is to face the racist and colonial concepts and beliefs academic institutions are founded upon and continue to enact. Yet I am an optimist. I believe institutions can change and become something greater than they are; a place where many knowledge systems are taught, where all peoples are welcome but the indigenous peoples of the land where institutions are built are celebrated, and where we educate all students to transform the world for a better future.
There are many terms that come up when we are talking about how we respond to the TRC Calls to Action: reconciliation, decolonization, unsettling, indigenizing, etc. One of the issues I (and others) have with many of these terms is that they imply an undoing, a return to a prior state. I do not believe returning to a past state is possible or desirable; as an archaeologist, I am keenly aware of the impact of time. I appreciate that the forum used the term “building”, but perhaps we need to think about building conciliation, rather than reconciliation. Also, I think it is important to recognize who should be doing the building; survivors have told their stories and done their work. It is up to those of us in the academy (and not just those of us who are indigenous) who need to have the courage to do the hard work of dismantling the structures of our institutions and rebuilding them in a new image.
Henry Marshall Tory founded the University of Alberta about 30 years after the signing of Treaty 6, on a Métis river lot and stolen Papaschase Cree land, in Amiskwacîwâskahikan (Cree for the land where Edmonton stands today), where many indigenous communities have gathered for thousands of years. He spoke of the role of the university to “uplift the whole people.” The irony of his statement for indigenous people is that the uplifting was done on their lands, their bodies. They were not uplifted by the university.
But as a scholar and a Métis woman, I believe they can be.
How do we do this? If the first step toward reconciliation/conciliation is truth, then we must begin with recognizing the complicity of academic institutions in the cultural genocide perpetuated on indigenous nations in Canada. Education institutions are powerful; they can transform and uplift, but they can also oppress and subjugate. As educators and scholars, we must come to terms with the history of our institutions both in how we have taught previous generations and how we have studied indigenous bodies and cultures to further our own research. This is hard, but anyone who has listened to the stories of survivors cannot ignore the ugly truth. We must then ask ourselves why our academic ancestors (and sometimes colleagues) were able to create careers based on the domination of indigenous people. We must acknowledge that while research has great power to help and heal, it also has great power to harm. Then we must act to change our institutions.
After listening to the speakers at the forum, the most resounding message for me was the continued hierarchy of knowledge and, in the words of Wab Kinew, the myth of cultural superiority. We have (mostly) moved past the days when anthropologists would measure the skulls of people and use the results to place “races” on a scale of least to most advanced. But the legacy of that research remains in that we center western ways of knowing and relegate other ways of knowing to a lesser place. The ideas and practices that did (and in some cases continue to) come out of Europe are deeply entrenched in a colonial system of imperialism, empire, and the subjugation of lands and bodies. Yet they hold supremacy at academic institutions. This is, I believe, our biggest hurdle in re/conciliation. Can we envision an institution where indigenous knowledge systems are held as equal to western knowledge systems? Where our students learn science from both an indigenous perspective and an western perspective? I can already hear the voices of some of my colleagues arguing why science is supreme and to bring in indigenous knowledge systems is to give credence to “myth” at the expense of “truth” – this is the academic fragility we must face.
The longer quote of Henry Marshall Tory is that the “uplifting of the whole people shall be [the university’s] final goal.” We are still on the journey toward uplifting the whole people, because a whole person includes the heart, body, mind, and spirit. I can imagine a future where academic institutions uplift the whole person, creating opportunities for learning from many different perspectives. A world where the indigenous knowledges of the nations in places where universities are built are interwoven throughout teaching, learning, and research, but also one that recognizes that some knowledge is sacred, meant to be taught and learned outside the walls of our institutions. An academia that is lead by Elders and scholars side by side, making decisions in collaboration with the communities they serve. A learning environment that produces the indigenous and non-indigenous scholars who will face local, national, and global challenges by bringing together many different ways of knowing to create novel, sustainable solutions for a more just, more equitable, and more kind future.
Some would say I am an idealist. Perhaps they are right, but I will not apologize for my optimism. Of all the amazing words I heard over the past two days, I found Peter [Piita] Irniq’s words to be the most inspiring. He spoke of our shared painful past, our responsibilities to others, and the transformative power of suffering. He spoke of compassion, forgiveness, and healing. He uplifted our spirits and emphasized the importance of connection. As academics, we have much work to do. But if we are courageous, open our hearts, and commit to the hard work of what Willie Littlechild calls reconcili”action”, we can change the academy and the world.
To me, this is our way forward toward a future for all of our children, indigenous and non-indigenous.
It is the only future I want for my daughter.