(Written by Kory Wilson, this article originally published in Policy Options on February 18, 2021. Kory Wilson is Kwakwaka’wakw, a mum, an educator, and the Executive Director of Indigenous Initiatives and Partnerships at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.)
Building Indigeneity into the curricula at Canadian post-secondary schools requires more than just introducing Indigenous history and knowledge. To ensure systemic change, we must have the courage to engage in uncomfortable conversations with ourselves and in every classroom, boardroom, library, breakout room and theatre within the post-secondary system.
The true history of Canada, including its legacy of colonization and systemic discrimination across institutions, must be addressed. If educators, administrators and governments truly believe that Indigenous voices matter and say they’re committed to reconciliation, then authentic engagement and intentional actions must take place to close gaps in the current system.
As a proud Kwakwaka’wakw woman, my foundation and teachings come from the potlatch — our laws, culture and governance structure. Accountability and reciprocity are foundational, so you share what you have with others — including the sharing of knowledge — and no one goes without.
The post-secondary system was built not only on Indigenous land, but also on a foundation of exclusion. Systemic racism and other forms of discrimination exist in Canadian post-secondary institutions. Full stop. These places of higher learning and their many educators have not honoured and respected the land holders, their history and knowledge. This must change.
Truth begins in self-awareness
Truth and reconciliation is the work of countries and communities, but it is also deeply personal. To advance reconciliation, the post-secondary system and those within it must start by examining their own bias and privilege, so deep self-reflection is required. What lens are you using, or not, when evaluating assignments, lecturing to students, and determining budgets and allocating resources? What are you doing to listen and elevate all voices?
Admitting, then truly confronting your bias and privilege is the beginning of this journey. Confused? That’s fine. Uncomfortable? Explore why. Fearful? Be courageous. It’s all part of the process. The work of great educators is to reflect truth, and the work of the post-secondary system is to produce students who think critically. We must reflect reality and ultimately inspire students to better society. Indigenous experiences and voices are part of the Canadian landscape, and we cannot move forward without bringing these perspectives to the table.
When we debate or engage in posturing around semantics, we distract from the larger conversations surrounding inequity, systemic racism, loss of culture and intergenerational trauma. While these topics are sensitive, I urge educators to start from a place of curiosity, humility and courage rather than fear. Fear of using the wrong terms or pronouncing a Nation wrong ultimately stymies dialogue, and contributes to keeping Indigenous people on the periphery of the Canadian education agenda. We must push forward and act.
A path to Indigeneity
Clearly, there are financial, political, bureaucratic and personal barriers to action, but no single key exists to unlock all these doors. As executive director of Indigenous Initiatives and Partnerships at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), I am inspired by the 1,700 Indigenous students across our five campuses — many of them the first in their families to attend post-secondary school. These students contribute to a richer campus community and a greater diversity of insights within our classrooms, so having the scaffolding in place to support their learning is paramount. Elders-in-residence, peer mentors and designated advisors all work together to propel learner success. But Indigenous students are only one piece of the network.
With BCIT’s “An Indigenous Vision,” we have built a powerful example of a framework for academic action and accountability. When BCIT signed the “Indigenous Education Protocol for Colleges and Institutes Canada,” we committed to enriching our campuses with Indigenous wisdom, knowledge and traditions by building these values into the heart of our classrooms and services. Beginning with this commitment, we kickstarted the necessary conversations with funding partners, post-secondary peers and community groups to move ahead with focus.
We then tapped Indigenous champions to mobilize action within their departments. Indigeneity is going to look different for every classroom. Within BCIT’s nursing program, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action on health gave us a clear destination; together, the nursing faculty and my team developed a mandatory 63-hour first-year nursing course specifically related to understanding health disparities experienced by Indigenous populations in Canada.
First delivered in 2018, the course invites students to examine the impact of colonization on Indigenous communities, and to identify systemic disadvantages for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people that affect their health outcomes. This means exploring concepts of identity, politics, equity, accessibility, trauma, social justice and diversity – not just “Indigenous issues.”
In addition, our work must include administrators, staff and faculty. To date, around 1,000 people have participated in BCIT’s Indigenous 101 workshop, and more than 5,000 people have accessed BCIT’s three open-sourced Indigenous Modules. These forums create accessible, safe spaces to discuss constructive actions, and “gently correct” misunderstandings and antiquated beliefs. Along with increasing awareness and discourse, systemic change in the post-secondary system requires:
- Institutional Indigenous leads that are not “pretendians” but people with lived Indigenous experience;
- Indigenous initiatives that are part of the core budgets;
- Non-Indigenous faculty who engage with Indigenous people, and fact-check before teaching Indigenous content;
- The senior-most Indigenous employee at the institution has access to the president as needed;
- Ensure Indigenous people and knowledge are brought from the periphery to the institutional core;
- An expectation that advancing reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility across the post-secondary system.
To sum it up, “nothing about us without us.” Indigenous involvement is essential to ensure initiatives and actions are authentic, sustainable and relevant.
Together, we are stronger and can work to fulfil the promise of a richer educational journey for all. In cultivating partnerships and authentic relationships, we begin to build the momentum that leads to change. And yes, part of the learning journey is the acknowledgement that there is indeed much work yet to be done.
When education changes and evolves, people do too. It’s as simple (and complicated) as that.
Moving forward towards reconciliation
As we start a new year, after such a challenging one, I encourage people at all levels of the post-secondary system to commit to reconciliation. A commitment to reconciliation is also a commitment to inclusion – to the elevation, advocacy and championing of diversity in voice, knowledge and experience.
Reconciliation is the work of all in the post-secondary system — indeed of all Canadians. It’s about having the courage to challenge the status quo, and to re-envision education and the type of society we share.
So, post-secondary educators, here’s what I ask of you for 2021 and beyond: Consider what you can do to make your part of the world better, partner in reconciliation, and seek a world where all voices are heard, honoured, valued and incorporated.
Leaning in with open hearts and open minds will help us turn any challenge into new richer, learning opportunities.
This article is part of the Identifying the Barriers to Racial Equality in Canada special feature.