University seeks input into draft indigenous plan

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.

“Universities play an important role as partners in reconciliation, following the pervasive impact that colonization, the residential school system and systemic oppression have had on Indigenous Peoples in Canada,” said Jana Luker, Associate Vice-President (Student Experience). “Working towards goals outlined in this plan will ensure Western is an active partner in the national dialogue and movement.”

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.

Released last week, the plan outlines a number of directions for the university, including:

  • Strengthen and build relationships with Indigenous communities. Western will look to sustain existing youth outreach programs, such as the Mini University program, and develop new youth outreach programs. A focus will be on underrepresented areas such as science, technology, engineering and medicine disciplines, day programs for youth under 12 and indigenous male youth outreach;
  • Nurture an inclusive campus culture that values Indigenous Peoples, perspectives and ways of knowing. Develop informal and formal learning opportunities for all Western students to learn more about Indigenous peoples, cultures and histories. Create an ‘Indigenous Purple Guide’ to assist staff and faculty members in working with indigenous students;
  • Enhance indigenous students’ experience at Western. Increase culturally relevant counselling supports for Indigenous students with special attention on mental health needs; increased resources to support counselling available through Indigenous Services. Support and grow academic transition programs for incoming Indigenous students at the undergraduate and graduate levels;
  • Achieve excellence in Indigenous research and scholarship. Establish a cross-faculty and/or collaborative Indigenous Research Centre. Create and enhance opportunities for undergraduate students to conduct community-based research of indigenous communities;
  • Excel in Indigenous teaching and learning. Explore strategies to increase Indigenous content across undergraduate programs;
  • Indigenize Western’s institutional practices and spaces. Strike a Provost Task Force to explore the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations and affirm institutional commitment. Encourage representation on an Indigenous community leader on Western’s Board of Governors;
  • Become a university of choice for Indigenous students. Dedicate core funding for staff positions to support indigenous student recruitment initiatives and develop a comprehensive strategy to increase indigenous student applicants, with expanded focus on graduate students locally, provincially and nationally; and
  • Increase indigenous representation in staff and faculty complement. Develop an indigenous employee recruitment and retention strategy, including aspirational targets and benchmarks over the next five years. Western will explore hiring an indigenous human resources consultant to support targeted outreach, partnership building, training of hiring managers, and recruitment of Indigenous Peoples in targeted areas.

With demographic trends showing younger aboriginals seeking higher levels of postsecondary education than previous generations, Western needs to be prepared, Luker said.

“It is unfortunate universities, and the education system more broadly, still have a lot of work to do to eliminate gaps and barriers faced by Indigenous Peoples as learners and scholars,” she said. “For much of our recent history, in the place we now call Canada, education has been used as a tool of assimilation and oppression of Indigenous Peoples. Rebuilding relationships with indigenous communities and ensuring that indigenous voices are at the forefront in our efforts to indigenize our institution will be essential to the success of this plan.”

Situated on the traditional land of the Anishinaabeg, Haudenausaune, Lenape and Attawandaron peoples, Western developed its plan in response to the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which set down 92 recommendations to contribute to truth, healing and reconciliation following the individual, inter-generational and socio-political impacts of residential school systems in Canada.

Justice Murray Sinclair repeatedly highlighted how “it was the educational system that has contributed to this problem in this country, and it’s the educational system that will be the solution.”

The commission made 11 recommendations specifically for postsecondary institutions, with heavy emphasis placed on the development of curriculum in medical and law schools.

Five months ago, university presidents from across Canada met with indigenous leaders, student leaders and scholars to discuss how universities could respond to the commission’s calls to action.

“Enhancing relationships and partnering with indigenous communities will be absolutely essential in moving forward with our planning efforts and implementation of goals outlined in this plan,” Luker said.

The draft plan is aimed at creating systemwide cultural change by engaging all members of the campus and surrounding Indigenous communities where, in the past, efforts to educate students, faculty and staff on campus, and create safe spaces for Indigenous Peoples, often fell on the backs of a relatively small number of indigenous staff, faculty and students.

“Every member of our campus community will have a responsibility to play in accomplishing the goals articulated in this plan. Through its implementation, we hope to equip people with the knowledge and tools they’ll need to fulfill this responsibility,” Luker said.