Indigenizing education at MacEwan: A president’s perspective
Hi, I’m Deborah Saucier, president of MacEwan University.
Two weeks ago, I had the honour of addressing a room full of our graduates for the first time as president of MacEwan University. For those grads, I hope the ceremony marked an important moment in time in their lives—recognition of the educational journey they are on, celebration of what they have achieved so far and a chance to reflect on where they want their path to lead.
In many ways the presidential installation ceremony that was part of Convocation on November 21 was similar—an opportunity for me to reflect on the path that brought me to MacEwan, and the direction we need to take to become a contemporary undergraduate university.
Watch my installation address
If you were at the ceremonies or had the chance to watch online, you may have noticed a few new elements. In addition to the invocation offered by SAMU President Stephanie Nedoshytko, Roxanne Tootoosis, Indigenous knowledge keeper and facilitator with kihêw waciston, provided an Indigenous invocation. Our graduands were led into the Winspear with an honour song from Blackstone Drum Group, and several added an Indigenous stole to their traditional convocation regalia (check out the “Fall in photos” gallery below).
These changes, while symbolic, are firmly grounded in this university’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC’s) calls to action. And that makes them incredibly important.
Implementing the TRC’s Calls to Action
On November 30, I chaired a panel at the Conference Board of Canada’s Skills and Post-Secondary Education Summit. The purpose of the panel was to discuss how to indigenize the post-secondary campus, and I was joined by Mary Wabano (Canadore College), Alicia Blore (Métis Nation of Ontario) and Graeme Joseph (University of Saskatchewan). I mention the panel here because although it began with me discussing our efforts at MacEwan over the past five (!) months, there were a number of thoughtful discussions from the other panelists that I’d like to share with you, including: what does indigenizing the academy really mean, the tremendous breadth of Indigenous cultures across Canada, and that many institutions have approached this in the form of celebration and positivity. I’d like to take these ideas a bit further in this column, so bear with me.
What does indigenizing the academy really mean?
At MacEwan, we’ve recently made changes to the flags that fly outside the main entrance of our campus, are explicitly recognizing where MacEwan sits on the land (both in speech and at our entrances), and changing policy to allow Indigenous practice to occur more widely in our spaces.
We have spoken at the Academic Governance Council about language classes, and there are efforts underway to develop courses that will allow our learners to go out onto the land and experience traditional teachings.
But is this all indigenizing the campus means? Are there policies and practices elsewhere on campus that can be altered to fully implement the TRC’s Calls to Action. For instance, are there ways we can change our procurement practices or our hiring practices to ensure that these efforts also promote reconciliation?
How do we represent the cultural diversity of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples of Canada?
Indigenous Canadians are often portrayed as one nation with a single culture and point of view. Indigenous Canadians are neither.
In Alberta, for instance, many of us are familiar with Nehiyawetan (Cree), which has at least seven distinct dialects and is part of the Algonquian family of languages that includes Blackfoot and Anishinaabemowin (Saulteaux). However, Albertans also speak the Athabaskan/Dënesųłiné (Dene) languages—Beaver, Chipewyan, Slavey and Tsuut’ina (Sarcee)—and Nakoda (Stoney), which are part of the Siouan-Catawban language family. And this is just Alberta; some estimates suggest that there are more than 65 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada—not including so-called hybrid languages, such as Michif. To compare, the European Union has 24 official languages. Thus, efforts to indigenize the academy must honestly represent this diversity of culture, language and perspective. That many of these languages are endangered makes this work more urgent.
Promoting a resilient and positive image
Finally, many representations of Indigenous peoples in the media reinforce the notion that Indigenous Canadians are the “other,” and tend to use the vocabulary of woundedness or dysfunction. Dr. David Newhouse at Trent University asks that we use words like adaptable, strong, resilient and innovative when describing indigeneity, rather than continuing to emphasize negative perceptions (Newhouse, 2006).
I wonder, when thinking of ways to implement the TRC’s Calls to Action at MacEwan, if we can consider focusing on the use of images, words and practices that promote a resilient and positive image of Indigenous peoples, because in spite of everything, we are resilient.
One example that resonates with me is the graduation powwow that has occurred at the University of Saskatchewan for the last 30 years. Everyone at USask is invited to celebrate the academic achievements of their Indigenous students, and last year more than 1,800 students from across the province attended the powwow, alongside hundreds of dancers, drummers, and singers from across North America who took part in the celebration. What a way to showcase and celebrate Indigenous cultures!
This is a conversation that I hope you will join. If you are interested in learning more about Indigenous initiatives at MacEwan, please visit kihêw waciston—I know Terri Suntjens and her team would be happy to meet you.
And watch for the many great things our students, faculty and staff are working on to indigenize and decolonize education, including (but certainly not limited to):
Several departments and faculties across the university, including the Academic Integrity Office, are looking at ways to incorporate restorative practices and including Indigenous perspectives in the process.
William Woodford, BA ‘17, was one of the first students to wear a new Indigenous stole as part of his regalia at the Fall Convocation ceremony.
I was honoured to take my oath of office in front of graduates, their parents, faculty, staff and board members, my personal friends and family, and representatives from other post-secondary institutions.
We talked about what it means to be Edmonton’s downtown university at my first town hall meeting on November 1. I hope you’ll join me for another town hall in March. Watch your email for details.
Keestin O’Dell, student advisor/recruiter with kihêw waciston, Lucio Gelmini, assistant professor of chemistry, and I were happy to share a bit about MacEwan with high school students at the 25th annual Dreamcatcher Conference in late October.
This fall, we’ve celebrated the official openings of Allard Hall, the John and Maggie Mitchell Art Gallery, the Betty Andrews Recital Hall and the Triffo Theatre—but we’re not finished yet. The year of celebration will continue in the Winter semester.
Roxanne Tootoosis, Indigenous knowledge keeper and facilitator with kihêw waciston, joined Early Learning at MacEwan (ELM) for a smudging ceremony on October 20 to rename their classrooms after birds indigenous to Alberta: Hummingbird, Chickadee and Partridge.
It was great to walk the halls at Open House on November 4 and see our student, faculty and staff volunteers in action. We welcomed 8,857 attendees this year—our highest-ever recorded attendance.
Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild raises the Treaty 6 flag. On October 18, MacEwan University raised the Treaty 6 and Métis flags for the first time in their new permanent home at the institution’s clock tower entrance.
Celebrating Jersey Day on November 17 with Marg Leathem, chief of staff, and Linda Karenko from Sport and Wellness.
Considering our values
In order to be create a strong vision and to be able to make big statements about who we are as a university, I believe we need to clearly know and understand what we stand for.
While we have a set of university pillars—important statements of principles—they are neither a set of values nor a vision.
One of the steps in creating a strong vision, I believe, involves asking questions about our values as an organization. To do that, we are seeking input from students, faculty and staff in the form of focus groups that will run early in the new year.
As the process of developing and refining a vision for MacEwan continues, I look forward to sharing our progress with you.
Continuing the conversation
In spite of a few technical difficulties and a brief period of time when I sounded alarmingly like a chipmunk, our first Facebook Live event in October (a smaller, virtual version of a town hall) was an opportunity to connect and invite your questions.
We answered some—but not all—of those questions at a live town hall meeting in the Triffo Theatre on November 1. As I mentioned that day, and in my responses to several of the emails I received, many of the questions that were asked are best answered by other members of our leadership team—the vice-presidents, directors and deans who address these issues every day.
In recognition of that, our vice-presidents have agreed to answer several of the questions we received as part of the town hall meeting in a separate column.
I hope you find their answers about everything from plans for study space in the library and how Web Services prioritizes projects to the naloxone crisis and plans for new degrees valuable. And I hope you’ll save the date for our next Town Hall meeting on Wednesday, March 7, 2018. Watch your email and Today at MacEwan University for details.
READ: “Your questions, answered,” a new column from the university's vice-presidents to address student, faculty and staff questions.
When it comes to social media Twitter (@DocSaucier) and Spotify are my favourite channels. I spent some time last week putting together my holiday playlist. I hope you’ll check it out.
The final word
As we head into a time of year that is incredibly busy for us all, I want to finish with a note of thanks to each of you. Please know that the work you do, the passion you show and the difference you make are noticed and sincerely appreciated.
The Office of Sexual Violence Prevention, Education and Response is hosting its first Ending Sexual Violence Student Research Forum. Students from across campus are invited to submit papers they have written during 2017 that relate to sexual violence. The deadline for submissions is December 23.
Treaty 6 land acknowledgement signs are being placed in each of our 11 buildings in December.
Our first TEDxMacEwanU event, Laying Down Tracks, is happening on January 19. Seating is limited, so visit MacEwan.ca/TEDx to see the speaker lineup and get your tickets.
We acknowledge that the land on which we gather in Treaty Six Territory is the traditional gathering place for many Indigenous people. We honour and respect the history, languages, ceremonies and culture of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit who call this territory home.