Paving the Way to Reconciliation through Education

Trent University students sit with Aboriginal elders. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations was to provide necessary funding to postsecondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.

Universities are doing their part to improve the well-being and opportunities for Canada’s Aboriginal peoples – to enhance all levels of education and training with the stories, traditions and perspectives of our First Nations, Métis and Inuit people – so that we may all understand.

Over the past 20 years, the efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) have strengthened public will to foster a deeper understanding of Indigenous ways of life.

More is needed, but there is a growing base on which to build.

Canada’s 97 universities adopted a set of common principles that commit to the integration of Aboriginal history, culture and values more strongly into the courses, spirit, and space of their universities. Some universities, like UWinnipeg and Lakehead U, for example, have established mandatory indigenous course and content requirements, respectively, for all students.

In partnership with Ontario’s universities, the Council of Ontario Universities also recently launched Let’s Take our Future Further, a strategic communications initiative aimed at shining a spotlight on the achievements of Aboriginal learners and alumni at Ontario universities and highlighting the contributions that they are making to build stronger communities across Canada.  The campaign features a website, video and print materials that profile 13 Aboriginal role models who share their stories with the hope that their experience in finding their path at university will inspire other Aboriginal youth and adults to believe that they can do the same. And with almost half of the province’s Aboriginal population under 30, these students represent one of the only segments of the population with demographics projecting growth of young people – they will be crucial to Ontario’s future prosperity.

In addition, all faculties of education in Ontario have enhanced their programs to include training on the culture, histories, and perspectives of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. And just as important: all new educators will have an understanding of how to integrate these learnings into their teaching, and how the experiences of Aboriginal youth impact areas like mental health and special education. Not only does educating new teachers help shape our children’s learning, but it will inform and inspire the next generation of teachers – including Aboriginal teachers.

Moreover, Faculties of Education are developing dynamic ways to help students engage with Aboriginal culture both inside and outside the classroom. For example, students at UOIT recently participated in smudging ceremonies and workshops on traditional crafts led by a Traditional Knowledge Keeper of the Mi’kmaq. Similarly, those at OISE can engage in community activities, cultural events, as well as leading policy research through the school’s Indigenous Education Initiative.

Other teachers get first-hand experience teaching students on-reserve. Laurentian, for example, has a long-standing partnership with the M’Chigeeng First Nation, and all students spend time at a band-run local school and learn from Anishinabek Elders how Ojibwe culture is incorporated into their curriculum. Students at Windsor have similar experiences with the Walpole Island reserve.

Some Faculties of Education, like Lakehead, Nipissing, or Western also offer dedicated programs in Aboriginal education. Trent, in fact, will launch a new concurrent program in 2016 aimed at self-identified Indigenous students, with a unique curriculum that includes both Indigenous and traditional learning. The immersive Aboriginal Teacher Education Program at Queen’s specializes in training teachers to work in Indigenous communities, including experiences with traditional plants and foods drawn from their own medicine garden.

Education is a powerful agent of change and the work that’s been done so far is only the beginning. Ontario’s universities welcome opportunities to create a better future for all Ontarians by fostering a deeper understanding of Indigenous peoples.

It is our shared challenge to ensure that all First Nations, Métis and Inuit students can achieve their potential through education, which will bring meaningful change to our communities and to society as a whole.