Time to listen

March 9, 2017

In light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, universities across Canada have been discussing indigenizing education.

MacEwan students and faculty members discuss what indigenizing education means for the university

Words are powerful.

They give body to stories and emotions, and they can inspire action. But before we can act on or even express ourselves through words, we have to do the most important thing.


“One of the first questions I asked when I walked in the door a year and a half ago was what is the university—doing with regards to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?” recalls Amber Dion, assistant professor in Social Work.

More than 150 years of systemic abuse of Indigenous people has left a deep, jagged scar across generations of families who lived through the pain, neglect, and cultural assimilation of the residential school system, and it’s left a black mark on Canada’s history. In 2015, the same year Amber started at MacEwan, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published several documents sharing these stories and its Calls to Action—94 recommendations to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.”

Sharing her passion for Indigenous knowledge, Amber discovered that many people at the university are responding to truth and reconciliation in different ways. Many staff, faculty and students want to learn from the past, educate future generations and make the university a more welcoming and inclusive space for Indigenous students and employees.

From opening campus events by acknowledging that MacEwan is located on Treaty 6 land to championing Indigenous knowledge in classrooms, many people at MacEwan are off and running—but, says Amber, “We have to start figuring out how we can talk to each other better.”

Amber says a major consideration is ensuring that Indigenous voices are at the forefront of the process of truth and reconciliation at the university. “If we have non-Indigenous people defining that, we’re not making any movements. We’re going to go back 10 or 20 steps.”

A journey of understanding

The Indigenous Advisory Council is being established to support efforts to indigenize university activities, practices and policies, and to ensure Indigenous voices are not lost. According to the Indigenous Initiatives at MacEwan University document, the council “is intended to provide a forum for open and mutually supportive dialogue between Indigenous Groups and MacEwan University with the intention of fostering an environment recognizing the rich diversity of Indigenous culture as central to the University’s mission.”

Setting the groundwork for the council (which could be in place as early as summer 2017) and learning what others are doing is part of Dr. Valerie Henitiuk’s portfolio. In addition to being an English professor and executive director of the Centre for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence, Valerie was named special advisor to the university on Indigenous initiatives—one of MacEwan’s first official responses to the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

READ MORE: Valerie Henitiuk unravels translations of the “first Inuit novel”


Valerie says she has seen faculty members and staff who are actively engaged with Indigenous issues inside and outside the classroom, and others who are unsure, either due to a lack of knowledge or confidence, or because they haven’t fully realized the value of it. (There may not seem to be obvious approaches in disciplines like chemistry or statistics, for example, but “any kind of approach that has students learning through their own experiential way of living in the world is indigenization of the curriculum.”) Most fall somewhere in between.

“We’re all at different stages of the journey—myself included,” she explains. “I’m trying to learn and I’m trying, in my own small way, to make a contribution. None of us is going to change the world overnight, but as a group we can make a difference.”

And as the council gets off the ground to bring people together, others around the university are working to make a difference.

Harmonize and heal

“I was actually surprised that some people in our class had never heard of residential schools,” says Lisa Vallee, fourth-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing student. “It just goes to show we do need more education in this area.”

Student nurses in the Fall term of NURS 474: Future Directions in Nursing spent much of the course discussing the changing scope of their future roles.

“One of the things we focused on a lot was the TRC and how not just nursing, but all Canadians, all across the country, are trying to reconcile what happened with residential schools and trying to make our relationships with Indigenous people better,” says fourth-year nursing student Sarah Chorzempa.

After an Elder visited their class to talk about the impact of residential schools, the students decided to devote their class project to advocating that future nursing education be dedicated to addressing Indigenous health disparities. They named the project “Harmonize and Heal.”

“The TRC calls upon nursing institutions in Canada to have a class dedicated to topics such as this,” says Sarah, one of the students leading the Harmonize and Heal project. “We’re in our fourth year, and we have knowledge deficits about this population. I understand that we’re always learning new things, but our knowledge base would be a lot stronger if there was a dedicated course.”

And the NURS 474 students are not the only ones taking steps toward indigenization at MacEwan. In 2016, the School of Business first responded to the TRC by hosting the Aboriginal Education Forum. It was a step toward educating the school’s students and faculty members about the TRC’s calls to action and strategizing ways to address action 92, “Business and Reconciliation.”

“We wanted to put together an Indigenous strategy for the business school,” Associate Professor Michael Roberts, chair of International Business, Marketing, Strategy and Law, told Aspire Magazine last year. “But we felt that we weren’t in a position to do that without reflecting on the kind of needs, positions or the understanding of what the Indigenous community would like to see or would need.”

READ MORE: Allard Chair Nicole Bourque-Bouchier inspires future entrepreneurs

The Aboriginal Education Forum invited Indigenous business leaders, including then Allard Chair Nicole Bourque-Bouchier, to share their perspectives, and was an opportunity to talk about how to move forward with addressing the TRC.

Indigenous knowledge by degree

Well before the TRC’s recommendations began inspiring many on campus, the Social Work department saw a need to integrate Indigenous knowledge into its new degree program—and its work in this area matched Amber’s passion.

READ MORE: New Bachelor of Social Work focuses on Northern Alberta


“When I came to do my interview, I was told to speak about whatever I was passionate about, and I spoke about Indigenous knowledge,” recalls Amber. “I’ve always stood very firm in that Indigenous knowledge needs to be part of social work education. It needs to be part of everyone’s education.”

Her interviewers agreed. “It was very meaningful to me to know that the people I could potentially be working with cared about something that I cared about as well.”

But, Amber says, there are many ways to define Indigenous knowledge.

“I can only speak from my place and for me, Indigenous knowledge has always been about land-based learning, spirituality, ceremony and good relationships—whether they be inside the Indigenous community or outside,” she says. “It’s always been about healing, about the preservation of teachings and language. You name it. It’s so vast. It’s not a theory, it’s not a method, and it’s difficult to apply because again, there are so many different ways that a person could present Indigenous knowledge.”

Defining Indigenous knowledge is challenging, and that is likely part of the reason why people may feel overwhelmed discussing it—and why progress stalls.

Response times may vary

The MacEwan community is not alone in wondering how well it’s doing in terms of responding to the TRC.

“The institutions that were early adopters, in some cases, may be regretting their hasty actions,” says Valerie. “It’s a tightrope walk. You have to move slowly because Canada has a history of doing it wrong and of settler-Canadians thinking we know best. Or that we have all the information when we don’t. We have a history of poisoned relationships.”

But, she continues, we have a window of opportunity post-TRC.  “There’s goodwill. Everybody wants to respond and there are resources available. So we need to act while we have that moment.”

She says it’s important to follow a process—meeting and engaging with people, taking the time to speak with others. “And most importantly, taking the time to listen.”

The student perspective

William Woodford and Marlisa Brown, the current and past presidents, respectively, of the Indigenous Students Club, are part of the working group establishing the Indigenous Advisory Council, sharing their perspectives as Indigenous students.

“I definitely feel being part of the working group is something that will not only bring meaning to me, but more importantly bring meaning to everyone at our university as well,” says Marlisa, a third-year Bachelor of Arts student majoring in Anthropology.

Both say that they saw the need to represent the youth perspective as the group establishes its plan and develops the Indigenous Advisory Council. One of the first actions of the group, says Marlisa, has been to look at a policy for smudging on campus.

“Other things I would like to see come from this would be more self-reflection by faculty members about how courses are taught when it comes to Indigenous matters,” says Marlisa. She would like to see more education about cultural sensitivity and Indigenous history in Canada. “A lot of my professors have included Indigenous knowledge in their courses and showed how it’s just as valid as Western knowledge. Seeing that implemented at an institutional level has given me a whole other perspective on what Indigenous knowledge means.”

But even before the students take a seat in their classrooms, William says there needs to be ways of encouraging high school students to choose post-secondary education and be set up for success once they’re here.

“When I first came to university, it was by the skin of my teeth, but by year two, I got the idea, and that’s when you realize you have more options for what you want to study,” says William, a fourth-year Bachelor of Arts student majoring in Anthropology. “The biggest impact for Indigenous education is being able to get people in the door.”

Small actions, big impacts

Indigenization at the university does not need to be complicated. As Valerie explains, it really comes down to the simplest actions.

“Any kind of approach that has students learning through their own experiential way of living in the world is indigenization of the curriculum,” she says. “Statistics can do that, chemistry can do that—the way social work can do that. It’s just a matter of shifting perceptions and giving people, especially faculty members, the tools they need to understand that indigenizing doesn’t mean throwing out everything they know. Nor does it mean they’re suddenly not qualified to teach a course. Everybody has expertise to bring, but there are other elements we can include.”

Amber references the Indigenous Initiatives document. “Things that may seem small are quite significant,” she says. “Telling the Indigenous narrative and ensuring that it is present and available, and honouring Indigenous ceremony, protocol and practice. There are so many things that we still are yet to do, but we're having conversations. We're at this place of ‘how do we do this? How do we do this better? And how do we ensure that indigenous voices are at the forefront of truth and reconciliation at this university?’”

For more examples of diverse avenues to indigenization, Valerie recommends 100 Ways to Indigenize and Decolonize Academic Programs and Courses by Dr. Shauneen Pete, the executive lead of Indigenization at the University of Regina.

Eagle’s nest

For students like William, just knowing that kihêw waciston (formerly the Aboriginal Education Centre) exists has helped him adjust to university life.

“You can go in there when it’s open and the staff will ask how your day is going,” he says. “Something small like that can have a big impact on your day.”

“This past summer, through a spiritual ceremony performed by Elder Rick Lightning, the centre changed its name to kihêw waciston, a Cree name that means ‘eagle’s nest,’” explains Magen Alexis, administrative assistant in the centre. “Basically what he wanted the message to be is that it’s a home away from home for students, and they’re the little eagles that come to the nest.”

Kihêw waciston provides personal, academic, financial and cultural support to students, as well as a place to study and socialize. Staff are also available to answer questions and offer guidance to non-Indigenous students, staff and faculty as well.

“Using a Cree word is a way of using our language and showing who we are as people,” says Keestin O’Dell, student advisor in kihêw waciston. “It’s important for people to know that this language is still on this land and a part of our centre.”

Indigenizing with integrity

Amber says that one of the questions her non-Indigenous Social Work students ask her is how they can work appropriately, effectively, honestly and courageously with Indigenous people—knowing the history of social work in most communities. “Social work has left a very bad taste in people’s mouths,” she says. “A lot of my students are very aware that when they go out and work with our people that they’re going to face some barriers.”

Her students want to know how they can work with integrity with Indigenous people, and Amber admits that it’s difficult to answer. “At the same time, one of the things I will often say is that it really comes down to us learning some language.”

She describes the story of one non-Indigenous student from her days at the University of Calgary. The former student was now working as a social worker in a hospital and thanked Amber for teaching her one simple thing.

The social worker walked into a hospital room to speak with an older Indigenous man and greeted him by saying, “tansi!”—which is “hello, how are you?” in nehiyawewin (Cree). “She said his eyes lit up and he looked at her—it instantly changed the relationship right then and there. She was coming in as an ally, as a friend,” says Amber. “I was so deeply impacted knowing that it was the teaching of one word and its meaning that changed a relationship between a white social worker and an Indigenous man.”

Amber is quick to credit the student’s phenomenal skills and ethics as a social worker—combined with her commitment to having a bit of Indigenous knowledge. Just one word changed a relationship. Imagine what the entire university can do by bringing more knowledge and understanding into our work, research, lessons and studies.

It’s important for all areas of the university to indigenize, but also to share what they’re working on, connect with the Indigenous Advisory Council  and listen to what others are doing—and most importantly, what MacEwan students need.

“As an institution, we are nothing if not centred on our students. We are a teaching institution, so our students are front and centre to everything,” says Valerie.

Words are powerful. It’s time to listen.

“We’re having conversations, we’re talking, we’re brainstorming, we are starting to decide what the next steps look like,” says Amber. “I think we're moving in the right direction. It’s just so slow sometimes. But, as our Elders say, we have to ensure that what we do today will facilitate the healing of the next seven generations.”

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