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Equity Matters: Ideas can… build a more equitable Canada

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dr. Lynn Wells VP Equity and Diversity, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences
Vice-President Academic, First Nations University of Canada

It’s been some months since I’ve been elected to the position of Vice-President, Equity and Diversity, for the CFHSS, and I’ve been taking that time to learn about the excellent work of the Federation and of Malinda Smith, who held this position before me.  I’ve learned a great deal from her blogs and reports, and hope that I can follow, however stumblingly, in her footsteps.

My interests in equity and diversity issues relate to various elements of my background.  As a literary scholar specializing in recent British fiction, my research has focused on urban fiction and contemporary ethics, areas that have led me to explore questions of race, gender, class, and power relations in various aspects of society.  For the past seven years, I have held a number of senior administrative positions, including Associate Vice-President (Academic) at the University of Regina.  In that position, I worked closely with the Institut français at U of R on issues affecting the Francophone minority in Saskatchewan in its on-going efforts to preserve Fransaskois identity in an increasingly dominant Anglophone culture.  But it is my current role, as Vice-President Academic at First Nations University of Canada, which has most drawn me to work with the Federation on this portfolio.

As a non-Indigenous person who has been given the opportunity to work with First Nations people in the area of higher education, I am honoured and humbled to play a small role in the massive job of redressing the egregious historical inequities that have led to the profound challenges faced by people of Indigenous ancestry in Canada.  These social challenges—racism, inadequate housing, poverty, unequal access to good quality education, chronic and acute disease, addictions, violence, mental illness, suicide—relate in large part to the appalling legacy of the residential school experience, which has just begun to be revealed through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission over the past few years.  Like many non-Indigenous Canadians, I have felt impotent in the face of such enormous tragedy, and have wondered what I could do to promote the spirit of reconciliation and reform.

I believe the Federation has a key role to play in moving forward the crucial work of seeking equity for Indigenous people in Canada, and in turn creating a society that is more tolerant of diversity in all respects.  As students, scholars and researchers in the Humanities and Social Sciences, we can bring our critical perspectives to the issues facing First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) peoples, and can provide thoughtful, well-informed analyses of the policy directions that will shape future decision-making.  The Federation’s Strategic Directions: 2011-2015 document includes the following goals:

2.2          Articulate policy positions relevant to Canadian scholars in the humanities and social sciences and advocate on behalf of our constituencies by engaging in intellectual activism that connects our people with media (e.g. digital society, copyright, census, social inclusion and Aboriginal education, value of the humanities and social sciences).

2.3          Improve the depth, sophistication, integrity and reach of our positions on research, equity and diversity, particularly Aboriginal issues, and knowledge dissemination.

In order to fulfill these goals, I will focus my postings to this blog on Indigenous topics, and will invite contributors to provide reflections on issues of equity and diversity of interest to them, and to engage in dialogue on a range of topics.  Please let me know of any possible contributors of whom you know, so that I can make contact and invite them to post.  In particular, we would like to engage students in the social sciences and humanities to engage in these conversations, and to bring their perspectives to the issues.  I will also be working closely with the Equity and Diversity Steering Committee members to solicit contributors and articulate their own positions.

In addition to contributing to the blog, I will be working on policy articulations and advocacy efforts that will serve to engender non-partisan debate on the following two key issues: 

1)      Cuts to Indigenous health research—Over the past year, funding to dozens of Indigenous health organizations--including the National Aboriginal Health Organization, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Métis National Council and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami--has been partially or totally cut, leaving agencies struggling to continue their work with drastically reduced budgets or scrambling to find homes for researchers and publications.  With The First Nations Statistical Institute also having been affected by cuts, there is now a serious shortage of data on which to base policy decisions that will have an impact on the health of Indigenous communities and individuals across the country.  The effects of this reduced support for Indigenous health research will be felt in programs dealing with diabetes, youth suicide prevention, water quality, HIV/AIDS, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, and maternal and child health.  Dr.  Thomas Dignan, Chair of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons Aboriginal Health Advisory Committee, has declared, “The state of Aboriginal health is a national embarrassment and leadership is needed more now than ever”.  To date, public reaction to these cuts seems to be minimal.  One of my goals for this year will be to raise awareness of this issue and to advocate for policy reconsideration by the federal government.

2)      Reforms to Indigenous education—Earlier this Fall, the federal government proposed legislation that would overhaul First Nations education in the K-12 system beginning in 2014.  A number of chiefs, including Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, have rejected the proposed legislation on the grounds that there has not been adequate consultation with Indigenous leaders and that decisions were being unilaterally by the government.  There are also potential changes to the Post-Secondary Student Support Program funded by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) that could have a major impact on the accessibility of higher education for students of Indigenous ancestry.  The Federation can play a role in working with Indigenous leaders to ensure that open and informed dialogue takes place on this key issue.

With the input of Federation members from across the country, we can ensure that the insights of the humanities and social sciences are brought to these and other important social policy questions.  In keeping with the Federation’s new tag-line “Ideas can….”, we have the power to have a positive impact and contribute to a more equitable Canada.

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