The University of Saskatchewan is leading the charge to become a kind of Reconciliation U, committing to change in areas including scholarship and governance, and envisioning itself as an institution of “knowledge-keeping,” as well as research and learning.
The trend has its detractors, who call it “redwash” at best and assimilation by a different name at worst. Aboriginal scholars say that colonial education philosophies and aboriginal theories of knowledge are incompatible.
“Here students are really getting developed to be trained capitalists,” said Priscilla Settee, a professor of indigenous and gender studies at the University of Saskatchewan. “We need to build curriculum that builds community and strong connections, in the context of Western development and capitalism that’s marginalized many of us.”
Even Peter Stoicheff, the university’s president, recognizes the challenges.
“Universities are so inherently white and Western, when you start to push against it, you realized how intractable a lot of that is,” Mr. Stoicheff said.
“Everything is based on reading stuff,” he explained. “Everything is laid out in a hierarchical and linear fashion. Look at the aboriginal ways, from visual expression to the wampum belt, dances and oral storytelling. It’s not linear. Everything is based on the circle.”
Supporters of the effort, though, say that no matter the challenges, or the motives, a university degree is a long-term cure for many of the insidious ills afflicting aboriginals — poverty, unemployment, addictions, poor health, incarceration, hopelessness.
Those ills, the commission found, can often be traced to the residential schools, where the government used education as a weapon of assimilation for over a century by pulling more than 150,000 aboriginal children away from their families and cultures and educating them to be Western workers. Many were physically and sexually abused.
After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings were released in 2015, universities across the country publicly vowed to close the graduation gap between mainstream Canadians and aboriginals, only 9.8 percent of whom have university degrees. By comparison, 26.5 percent of nonaboriginal Canadians have degrees.
“These are the changes the whole country needs to make,” said Blaine Favel, the former grand chief of Saskatchewan’s 74 First Nations, or indigenous groups. He was appointed the University of Saskatchewan’s chancellor in 2013 — an act of reconciliation in itself, he added.
“It hopefully will reverse and remedy the damage done by residential schools,” he said.
The University of Saskatchewan and its president seem, at first blush, unlikely candidates to lead this movement.
Mr. Stoicheff, 60, who calls himself “as white as you get,” arrived on campus in 1986 from Toronto as an English professor. He had a doctoral thesis on Ezra Pound, a passion for playing acoustic guitar and admittedly no knowledge on aboriginal issues. But he quickly learned that Saskatchewan was home to a large aboriginal population, and has festered with racial tension since Canadian troops quashed the North-West Rebellion in 1885.
Just one month into his presidency in October 2015, Mr. Stoicheff became co-chairman with Mr. Favel of the country’s first university forum on reconciliation.
“If it’s not going to be us in a province like this, leading the universities’ response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who is it going to be?” Mr. Stoicheff said. “If not now, when?”
The university’s existing plans to increase aboriginal student and professor numbers were bolstered, and a new focus was added for university research to be useful to aboriginal communities. Mr. Stoicheff’s mantra has become “nothing about us, without us” — something he has heard repeatedly from aboriginal communities.
Last year, the academic governing body agreed that all of the 17 colleges and schools, from dentistry to engineering, should include indigenous knowledge. Once that is added to the official Learning Charter this fall, deans will be expected to fall into compliance within one to two years, according to Patricia McDougall, vice provost of teaching and learning.
But so far, only a few new courses have been developed, including “indigenous wellness” for kinesiology students, which includes sharing circles, oral storytelling and participation in ceremonies.
The university’s law school pushed forward its planned mandatory indigenous law course until 2018, because its faculty of 24 included just two indigenous professors, one of whom was on leave.
To date, 4.6 percent of the university’s faculty identify themselves as First Nations, Metis or Inuit — which is high compared with the national average at universities of 1 percent, but still too small to become a tipping point and far below the province’s indigenous makeup of 16 percent.
“Who has the authority to determine what is indigenous content?” said Mr. Stoicheff, who is in the process of hiring the university’s first vice provost of indigenous engagement to oversee the university’s larger, strategic changes. “That’s a fraught issue.”
So far, most indigenous students on campus, who make up about 11.7 percent of the student body, seem to wearily approve of the university’s efforts and plan.
They love the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Center, the campus’s new flagship aboriginal building, designed by Douglas Cardinal, an architect of Metis and Blackfoot ancestry. It opened last year as a physical symbol of the university’s commitment.
The graceful, east-facing building has quickly become the campus home for the university’s 2,830 aboriginal students, drawn by regular cultural events, from beading sessions to Monday morning smudges, a spiritual cleansing of spirit and place. The university passed an official smudging and pipe ceremony policy in 2015.
“I see the university making efforts,” said Jennifer McGillivary, 23, a single mother and nursing student who dropped out after her first year because she felt purposeless and lonely on campus, so different from her Cree reserve of Muskeg Lake.
A year later, she re-enrolled in one of the growing programs that offers first-year aboriginal arts-and-science students smaller classrooms, mentoring, flexibility and cultural activities. She graduates next year, but brought her 4-year-old daughter, Alexa, to dance in this May’s graduation powwow.
“It’s inspirational for other aboriginal students to see,” Ms. McGillivary explained.
But is it really possible for a university, born from a view that all knowledge — like land — is conquerable, to deeply incorporate an aboriginal philosophy, which values nature, relationships and balance?
“Universities are intrinsically colonial,” said Mylan Tootoosis, 30, a doctoral student and co-chairman of the university’s Indigenous Graduate Students’ Council. “They are not set up for indigenous students. The way to solve indigenous problems is not getting a salary. Why not get our land back, get the indigenous lifestyle back?”
That’s a question that many aboriginal scholars are asking and that Mr. Stoicheff is open to debating.
The first residential school was opened in Canada in the 1870s, and the last, 140 miles southeast of Saskatoon, finally closed just 21 years ago. Generations of aboriginal children were stolen, and many returned broken. It will take generations of effort to address and change that legacy, Mr. Stoicheff said.
“If you can’t talk about these things at university,” he said, “where can you do it?”
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