October is Mi’kmaq History Month, which began Sunday, October 1 with Treaty Day in Nova Scotia — an occasion which commemorates the key role of treaties between The Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq and the Crown.
Learn more: Mi’kmaq History Month events on campus
In 2017, those treaties are still of great import, but they are joined by many other key documents shaping the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.
In June 2015, for example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released its findings and 94 Calls to Action [PDF], spanning different sectors of Canadian society, all focused on redressing the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of reconciliation. Many of the Calls to Action focused on education.
“Education is what got us into this mess — the use of education at least in terms of residential schools — but education is the key to reconciliation,” said chair Murray Sinclair, just prior to the report’s release. "We need to look at the way we are educating children. That's why we say that this is not an Aboriginal problem. It's a Canadian problem."
That means Canadian universities have a crucial role to play in the path towards reconciliation. The same month as the TRC’s report, Universities Canada — the organization that represents 96 universities across Canada — released its 13 principles on Indigenous education. The principles are a guide of sorts to shape efforts to close the education gap that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
Creating a university-wide strategy
Since then, both the Dalhousie Board of Governors and the Dalhousie Senate have formally endorsed the Universities Canada principles. And now, work is underway to develop a broader Indigenous Strategy for Dalhousie.
Patricia Doyle-Bedwell, a faculty member in the College of Continuing Education, is co-chair of the Indigenous Strategy steering committee, together with former Dean of Science Keith Taylor (professor of Mathematics and Statistics).
“I’m so happy that this is happening,” says Prof. Doyle-Bedwell — speaking not just to the Indigenous Strategy process but invigorated efforts across the university to better support Indigenous education and research.
“I’m not expecting everything to change in a month or a year, but what’s happened so far has been amazing.”
In the past couple of years, Dalhousie has launched a minor program in Indigenous Studies; permanently raised the Mi’kmaq Grand Council Flag in both Halifax and Truro; launched the Elders-in-Residence program; improved the representation of Indigenous persons among faculty/staff; and hired its first full-time Indigenous Student Advisor. Later this month, the university will celebrate the opening of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Legacy Room in the Killam Library, as well as a new National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) Hub. [Editor's note, Oct. 12: These events have been postponed and wil be rescheduled for the near future.]
Providing a framework
The goal of the Indigenous Strategy steering committee is to develop a framework to guide the future work in all of these areas, as well as other new efforts across the university.
“[This work] has been really brought to the forefront by the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, their extensive report and their calls to action,” explains Dr. Taylor, “quite a few of which are aimed at higher education institutions to start a serious process to correct the lingering effects of the way indigenous peoples across the country have been treated.
“Dalhousie is morally obliged, I think, to respond to those calls to action.”
To help kick off its work, the steering committee invited two experts to host meetings across the university, taking stock of what’s happening and make recommendations:
- Marie Battiste, professor of education at the University of Saskatchewan, originally from the Potlotek First Nation. She is an internationally recognized Mi’kmaq scholar
- Michael DeGagné, president and Vice-Chancellor of Nipissing University. He is past director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
The steering committee will review their recommendations and determine next steps.
For Prof. Doyle-Bedwell — the first Mi’kmaq woman to earn tenure at Dalhousie and past director of both Dal’s Transition Year Program and the Schulich School of Law’s Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq Initiative — the energy around Indigenous topics at Dalhousie is inspiring.
“The interest is there, the recognition is there,” she says. “Now it’s up to all of us — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — to step up.”
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