Today, Candace Brunette is thinking of her great-grandmother who lived on a trap line. She is thinking of her grandmother who didn’t have the right to vote in Canada. She is thinking of her mother who had a Grade 10 education.
And, as she looks back on challenges she faced as a Mushkego Cree university student, she looks to her young sons and sees a hopeful future.
“I think of all of that, and I can see the change, and I can see the work that was collectively done and the direction we’re moving in. It’s overwhelming at times. We’ve come so far,” Brunette, Western’s Indigenous Services Coordinator, said following the approval of the Indigenous Strategic Plan by Western’s Board of Governors last week.
“When universities were being shaped and molded, Indigenous people were not included. And now we are trying to catch up. In the future, Indigenous people can come into an institution and our ways of knowing will be welcomed. It’s not about an assimilatory model anymore,” she continued.
“We can bring who we are to the institution; our ways of knowing will be welcomed; it will be a safer place for my kids. It’s not that it wasn’t a safe place before. It’s that there literally wasn’t a place for some of my relatives in the past. We’re in a different time.”
The approval of the Indigenous Strategic Plan is an historic occasion for Western, one that has been a long time coming, noted Janice Deakin, Western’s Provost and Vice-President (Academic).
Next up, a task force will be formed with the mandate, in the New Year, to recommend ways to implement the goals outlined within the plan, she said.
“It’s an important step toward fulfilling a commitment made in the university’s overarching strategic plan (Achieving Excellence on the World Stage) to improve accessibility and success in higher education for Indigenous peoples. It also provides some direction for how we will respond to the calls to action outlined in the 2015 report issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” Deakin said.
“Western stands among many postsecondary institutions across the country that are focusing greater attention on issues related to Indigenous education – something that’s profoundly overdue, and something to which we are strongly committed to achieving tangible results.”
“We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the members of the Indigenous Strategic Initiatives Committee who consulted with close to 700 campus and Indigenous community members over the course of the last three years to develop the plan,” she continued.
Western’s first-ever Indigenous Strategic Plan seeks to remedy the under-representation of Indigenous peoples as students, professors, staff and administrators in Canada’s postsecondary education system, according to university officials.
In consultation with the Indigenous Postsecondary Education Council, Western formed an Indigenous Strategic Initiatives Committee, which has been engaging and consulting members of the campus community and local/regional First Nations communities over the past two years to develop the draft strategic plan. Western has three local First Nations communities in close proximity – Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Oneida Nation of the Thames and Munsee Delaware Nation.
The document sets down eight strategic directions for the institution, including:
- Strengthen and build relationships with Indigenous communities;
- Nurture an inclusive campus culture that values Indigenous peoples, perspectives and ways of knowing;
- Enhance Indigenous students’ experience at Western;
- Achieve excellence in Indigenous research and scholarship;
- Excel in Indigenous teaching and learning;
- Indigenize Western’s institutional practices and spaces;
- Become a university of choice for Indigenous students; and
- Increase Indigenous representation in staff and faculty complements.
The plan calls for the university to “explore strategies to increase Indigenous content across undergraduate programs. (e.g. mandatory course and/or embedding Indigenous content into foundational undergraduate courses using common learning outcomes).”
As Western takes this step forward with the plan, it is showing its commitment to sharing the work and promise of indigenizing the institution, from which everyone will benefit, noted Western Geography professor Chantelle Richmond, an Anishinabe scholar from Pic River First Nation who sat on the Indigenous Strategic Initiatives Committee.
“Now that we have plans and strategies in place, I am hopeful people will take up the challenge broadly, and we will all share the work and reward. It’s not a university issue; it’s a Canadian issue. It’s the right time and it’s a good time for Western to take a leadership role in Indigenous matters,” she said, adding postsecondary education promises to be a more welcoming, inclusive space for all with these initiatives.
“All of it is important, even the symbolic forms – the naming of buildings, starting by introducing the traditional territory we are on. These remind everybody long before Western was here, this was not our territory. The beginning of Western was not the only beginning,” Richmond noted.
“When my son and daughter go to university, I don’t want them to be the ones always educating, taking the leadership role. Hopefully, it will already be in place.”
“It’s really exciting. It’s a big moment that we have a full Indigenous Strategic Plan that’s been adopted at the institutional level. It shows this university’s commitment to moving forward in all these directions that have included the voices of Indigenous people on our campus and in our surrounding communities,” added Rick Ezekiel, Director of Research, Innovation and Evaluation (Student Experience), who also sat on the Indigenous Strategic Initiatives Committee.
“Every item in the plan impacts our full campus community. It’s a good thing for all of our students, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, because it means our faculty complement will be more representative of our community and it will have everyone’s voices at the table.”