You have a role to play in indigenous education – even if that role is not clearly defined just yet.
“Sometimes, when we look at indigenous initiatives, we think it’s just for indigenous students, and it is about increasing their representation, about helping people get through, and transition,” said Candace Brunette, Director, Indigenous Services. “But it is also about increasing our indigenous faculty and staff, indigenizing our curriculum, creating research that is responsive to indigenous communities. It is about all of those.
“When it comes to engaging indigenous people in postsecondary education, it requires a collective effort across the institution.”
Launched November 2014, the Indigenous Strategic Initiatives Committee seeks to answer this challenge. Currently, the group is developing Western’s first-ever, multi-year Indigenous Strategic Plan in order to meet the goals of Western’s Strategic Plan, Achieving Excellence on the World Stage, which pledged to improve “the accessibility and success in higher education for Indigenous peoples.”
With this plan, Western is attempting to strengthen its approach to engaging indigenous peoples at every level of the university – study, work and research.
“We have seen very positive outcomes in terms of retention and graduate rates for indigenous students, thanks to the high quality of our programs and services,” said Janice Deakin, Provost and Vice-President (Academic). “The Indigenous Strategic Plan is another important step forward to ensuring we continue to develop the kinds of academic programming, outreach and services in place to fulfill our commitments for this particular constituency while at the same time contributing to the cultural diversity of our campus community.”
To date, the committee has developed a draft vision statement, purpose and guiding principles, all grounded in feedback gathered in recent years from the Indigenous Postsecondary Education Council, Gathering Our Voices Talking Circles and Indigenous Graduate Student World Café.
“This is a good process to undergo because it helps us collaboratively think through and indentify some key priorities that will take us to the next level of serving local communities,” Brunette continued. “We have a shared responsibility – indigenous and non-indigenous – in moving this forward. We all play a role.”
With that framework in place, organizers have been – and will continue – seeking input from the public.
The committee held off-campus focus groups with indigenous partners, including the London District Chiefs Council, and a session engaging aboriginal urban organizations held at N’Amerind Friendship Centre. There will be a focus group in Six Nations later this month.
On-campus efforts started with Residence teams this week, and will be followed by meetings with the Faculty of Law, Faculty Councils, as well as focus groups with indigenous staff and students, in the coming month and a half.
Anyone not included in those meetings is encouraged to visit the Indigenous Strategic Plan website, indigenousstrategicplan.uwo.ca, to provide feedback. Deadline is Nov. 30.
Sociology professor Jerry White, a member of the committee and head of Western’s Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Initiative, stressed how key this stage of the process is. Given the “important academic questions” on the table, and how those solutions will be delivered, White wants hard questions from the community.
“We need to hear from people,” he said. “We would like to know what tools people need; we would like to know what preconceived ideas they have about what should be going on; what doesn’t make sense; what does make sense.
“Those are the kind of things we are looking for – a dialogue needs to be a dialogue. This really is an investigation.”
In the last 10 years, Western has seen a steady increase in its indigenous student population, nearly doubling its total since 2005. In 2014-15, the university reported 402 Indigenous students studying at Western of which 335 were at the undergraduate level. The indigenous student population comprises of approximately 1.17 per cent of the total student population, yet Aboriginal Peoples account for closer to 4 per cent of Canada’s total population.
“We need to do more,” Brunette said. “That (number of students) is not huge, not good enough in my mind. Aboriginal Peoples are the fastest-growing group in Canada – almost 50 per cent are under the age of 25. We have to respond to this. There is a lot of potential there.”
The 2011 Census reported only 10 per cent of Aboriginal Peoples attain a university degree compared to 27 per cent of non-Aboriginal Peoples. When compared to 2006 Census data, the gap grew by 2 points.
Those numbers are disheartening for Brunette, however she sees momentum building.
“There is a lot going on in different areas. This is not new; postsecondary institutions have been doing this,” she said. “In Ontario, it is becoming more common practice. There is a real opportunity for Western to start to look at our own backyard. We focus a lot on internationalization, on raising our profile in a global context – and that’s great. But let’s not forget about our responsibilities in our own backyard. This is about balancing our vision as an institution.”
A draft plan will be shared with the university community for final input in March 2016; the final plan is expected to be released in November 2016.
“I am looking forward to people stepping up to the plate on this. We don’t get many chances to do this,” White said. “We are behind, historically, in this country. Although it has nothing to be ashamed of, Western is not as advanced on these issues as some universities. We have got to get moving.”
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