The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action states “In order to begin to redress the legacy of the residential school system and advance the process of reconciliation in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made 94 calls to action for individuals, organizations, communities, and governments.” In Call to Action 43, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the Canadian Government to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) as the framework for Reconciliation. UNDRIP establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples around the world and elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous peoples.
Elder Dr. Shirley Ida Williams shares that in Anishinaabemowin, there are two words that can be used to talk about reconciliation:
aanji naakgonimon gaa-aanseg: to rebuild something that has been broken
aansewin: the art of change, recognizes that the change required for reconciliation will need to be part of a skillful and intention effort
In November 2019, Laurentian University began the process of rebuilding by initiating a Truth and Reconciliation Task Force responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Report issuing 94 calls to action for Canadians from all walks of life.
Faculty, staff, students, administration, and the community and surrounding Indigenous community members gathered to discuss and forge an actionable path forward for Laurentian University. The Task Force identified priority actions and developed a summary report providing the University with recommendations and guidance to begin the journey towards Reconciliation.
Based on the Truth and Reconciliation Task Force recommendations, the Indigenous led and ally supported Dibendaagziwin (We Belong to the Land) Committee was announced on the lands of the Anishnaabe people at Laurentian University on International Earth Day in 2022. With the full support of Laurentian University and the Executive team, the Dibendaagziwin Committee will work with community partners and allies in actioning land acknowledgement through land and water teachings, restoration, and care. “It was a special day for our community,” shares Dr. Susan Manitowabi, Associate Vice President, Academic and Indigenous Programs, who made the announcement, adding, “We have been on a journey these past few years, but that is not a new occurrence for the Anishnaabe people. We are strong and determined, and this is a landmark achievement in Laurentian University’s work towards reconciliation and self-determination on Anishnaabe lands.”
For Susan, staying close to the Task Force and the community is crucial when it comes to what matters most at the university, the students, and their experience. “When you’re not working with the community you lose your focus, and often your way. You are lost when you are alone - you can’t go too far ahead of your community”. Most universities are encouraged and rewarded when they act outside of their community; there is often pride in being busy and rushed in the Western World. Decisions are often made without consensus or alignment with the local community needs the university was intended to serve. “Laurentian is working with Elders and Knowledge Holders and taking a community-led approach to these initiatives” adds Dr. Kevin Fitzmaurice, Truth and Reconciliation Coordinator, Office of Academic and Indigenous Programs.
Working with Elders and Knowledge Holders in programs and course development and taking a holistic and integrated approach to Reconciliation are key to continuing to build an environment that supports Indigenous scholars and students. Following the University’s Tricultural mandate, Laurentian is proud to be introducing a groundbreaking new Indigenous curriculum this summer. Centered in Anishnaabe Knowledge and practice and the Anishnaabemowin language, the new programs and courses offer Anishnaabe earth-based courses in the four seasons that correspond with the four directions and center hub teaching model. The related courses offered will focus on oral, participatory, and immersive language learning. “Connecting western institutions to Indigenous learning requires non-Indigenous people to be open-minded and to leave their agendas at the door,” says Kevin emphasizing that creating respectful Indigenous spaces of learning within a university setting is an important pathway to reconciliation.
“We have a lot to learn from each other; humility, generosity, and reciprocity are not values commonly associated with hierarchical institutions,” adds Susan. She explains that teaching is about discovery for both the student and the teacher. “Extending the classroom to the outdoors, learning through the senses, from Elders and Knowledge Holders and in loving communities is Ceremony. When a western institution creates safe spaces for Ceremony, that’s a milestone moment on the path,” she shares.
Laurentian will continue to act on the recommendations provided by the Task Force and forge a path towards Reconciliation. Kevin shares, “the journey to Truth and Reconciliation is not about having a critical debate or mounting a plaque on a wall; it is about reciprocal discussions and respectful actions that promote self-determination and wellbeing for Indigenous people and communities. It’s about inviting the university community into challenging conversations, acknowledging uncomfortable truths, and being helpers to each other as we move forward through the implementation of critical recommendations. Reconciliation is a long-term process, but we’re beginning to take the steps to address it at an institutional level.”
Accepting the difficult truths in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people and moving towards reconciliation is not something that will happen all at once; it will require an ongoing commitment by the university towards respectful relationship building and renewal. As expressed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair, Justice Murray Sinclar, “education is key to reconciliation, education is what got us into this mess, and education is what will get us out”. “It is through education that we can recognize the underlying structures of exclusion that are inherent in existing institutional policies and procedures. Through education we will transform our learning environments into respectful and truthful places of knowledge sharing rooted in the principles of mino bimaadiziwin” adds Mary Laur, Director of the Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre.