The practice of Aboriginal Reconciliation

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Jean-Marc Mangin, Executive Director, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Vancouver Island University has quietly built its reputation as one of Canada’s thought and practice university leaders in resetting its relationships with Indigenous peoples and students. A recent CBC Ideas program launching a national Aboriginal lecture series helped raise the profile of the work being done at Vancouver Island University.  During my short visit last January, staff proudly welcomed the increased national attention but were quick to point out that delivering real results takes time and commitment across the institution. There are no magic formulas, and no one size fits all solutions. The approach needs to be iterative and grounded in the local context. In the case of Vancouver Island University, this means with the Coast Salish people.  

Redefining the university as an institution serving all of its communities has meant investing in real and enhanced partnerships with First Nations and other Aboriginal communities. It has meant that these communities can see themselves reflected in the university and shape its directions. It has meant that the university is now helping to foster dialogue between Indigenous peoples, industry and governments and is willing to confront its past and lingering racism from individuals or groups also served by the institution. As a result, Aboriginal communities now fully expect to be consulted with any changes to the programmes and services being provided by Vancouver Island University.

The university’s protocols and ceremonies have been altered in powerful ways, notably around Convocation. Its First Chancellor was Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. The physical space is being indigenized, as is the curriculum through the Elders-in-Residence program and joint courses that integrate and recognize Indigenous knowledge. Co-creating this educational space in the University—but also in the community— is at the heart of the new Faculty of Arts and Humanities Strategic Plan. Non-Aboriginal students are increasingly exposed to Indigenous ways of understanding the world. Significant resources continue to be invested to prepare and support incoming and existing Indigenous students. The Vancouver Island University’ Senate is now reviewing an institutional Aboriginal Education Plan which integrates and formalizes these multi-dimensional efforts.

Despite the progress being achieved, huge challenges remain. Improving access to postsecondary education—even one that is being indigenized—does not solve retention issues and the serious economic and social issues that Indigenous students face every day. Many injustices remain. Misunderstandings continue: some faculty struggle to reconcile Indigenous knowledge in the peer-reviewed Western tradition in which they have been trained.

Postsecondary education must and will fully play its part in Aboriginal reconciliation but it is not a sufficient condition for creating a just and inclusive society.  Learning more about the experiences at Vancouver Island University in practising Aboriginal reconciliation was sobering: the journey will be long and hard. As importantly, my visit also left me full of hope about the possibilities that a new partnership, built on respect and ongoing dialogue, is already creating.  At Vancouver Island University, the future has already begun.


Equity and diversityEducation and EquityEducationAboriginal Education