Earlier this month, Justice Murray Sinclair released the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). There are some elements of it that make for interesting reading from a post-secondary perspective.
(To international readers: for a period of roughly a century, the Government of Canada provided education to First Nations Students through a series of “residential schools”, which were mostly run by one of the main churches. These places were horrific; over that century, or so, tens of thousands of Aboriginal children were separated – often forcibly – from their families, and over 4,000 died while in the care of these residential schools. If you think of Canadians as being a polite, peaceable, and a threat to no one, do read the full TRC report for a healthy corrective.)
In any case, while there has been a lot of media focus on the report, specifically with respect to its use of the term “cultural genocide”, and its accuracy, much less attention has been paid to its recommendations. In point of fact, these are framed as “Calls to Action”, because while the federal government created the Commission, the changes the Commission recommended require action on the part of a range of different societal actors. One reason this section may have received comparatively less attention is that there are so many recommendations (92), and one can get lost amidst them. I’ve extracted the ones that relate to higher education, which I think will be important to monitor and track.
The first is Call to Action 11, which suggests that the federal government increase the amount of funding for post-secondary education. That’s fine, but upping the number of direct program dollars (for instance through the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, which sends $300 million+ to bands each year) doesn’t go nearly far enough. There are some significant changes needed in the way need assessment works, as well as a better understanding at the band level of how to use the Canada Student Grants program to stretch their budgets (most bands are leaving $2,000 per year, per student, on the table because of this – see my 2009 paper on funding options for Aboriginal post-secondary students here).
Call to Action 16 asks colleges and universities to create more degree diploma programs in Aboriginal languages. This is an interesting one. The main reason more institutions don’t do this is that enrolment in these programs – even in institutions where you’d think there would be substantial demand, like First Nations University – are usually too low to be self-supporting. Put simply, Aboriginal leaders are a lot keener on language programming than are Aboriginal students. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, but it’s an area where outside money would be necessary to make something happen.
Call to Action 62 (ii) asks governments to provide necessary funding to post-secondary education institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigeneous Knowledge (IK) into classroom teaching methods. Now, if there’s one thing you can’t do in Canadian higher education, it’s tell professors how to teach in their own classrooms; and IK is still pretty controversial, even though some universities – such as Trent – have gone some way to bringing it into the curriculum. My guess is that universities will be wary of doing too much here; the saw-off will be for institutions to ask for pools of money, which can be used by faculty who who wish to adopt these changes. In truth, institution-wide initiatives along these lines are quite unlikely.
Calls to Action 24 and 28. These are – I think – the big ones. They ask all the country’s law and medical/nursing faculties to introduce mandatory courses on Aboriginal law and health. If you’re going to be a lawyer in this country, you should know about the Treaties and Aboriginal-Crown relations. If you’re going to be a doctor, you should know about specific health risks to Aboriginal people, and their own conceptions of health and healing. Such things are not entirely new to the sector; I believe several nursing schools already make such courses mandatory, but can we expect all professional programs to accommodate new mandatory courses – especially rich, prestigious programs in urban areas, where Aboriginal numbers are low (e.g. Toronto, Montreal)? These are conservative academic cultures that aren’t obviously fertile soil for such ideas. It will be very interesting to see how they react.
The real issue, of course, is whether individuals in the PSE sector will react at all. There is nothing that binds institutions to react to these calls, let alone implement them. But it would behoove both Universities Canada and Colleges and Institutes Canada to provide a public response to the TRC, and to declare publicly what our higher education institutions are, and are not, prepared to do in order to further reconciliation. As a sector, it’s the very least we can do.
Meanwhile, as individual institutions announce their own reactions to the Commission, and announce changes to programming, I’ll be keeping track and posting periodic updates on the blog. More – I hope much more – to come on this file.