For Candace Brunette-Debassige, it’s an opportunity to build on the momentum that has followed decades of work towards reconciliation.
This week, the former Director of Indigenous Services at Western was named Special Advisor to the Provost (Indigenous Initiatives), effective Sept. 1. Her term runs to June 30, 2020.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” Brunette-Debassige said. “It’s slow, and sometimes it can be frustrating for those it impacts the most. It can feel like it’s not moving – but we are moving and we have moved a lot.”
Brunette-Debassige, who is Omushkego Cree (from Fort Albany First Nation), played a leadership role in the development of Western’s Indigenous Strategic Plan, having served as the Director of Indigenous Services for five years before stepping down to pursue her doctoral studies in the Faculty of Education last year.
Working in conjunction with the Provost, alongside senior academic and administrative leaders, she will be responsible for advancing initiatives resulting from the Provost’s Task Force on the Implementation of the Indigenous Strategic Plan, which recently concluded its work.
“The whole sector is moving in this direction for Indigenous people to have more voices in how postsecondary education is delivered. Indigenous people have been contributing to universities for a long time, but not necessarily sitting at the table,” Brunette-Debassige explained. “I will be able to develop relationships and help the senior leadership team think about how we can do this Indigenizing work, and not just in Student Affairs, as I was doing before.”
Her key accountabilities in this interim role will include developing the terms of reference for a permanent senior university administrator to lead Indigenous initiatives at Western, as well as creating an advisory group of Indigenous scholars, staff, students, external Indigenous community members, and non-Indigenous allies to provide guidance for the implementation of the Indigenous Strategic Plan.
“It’s really a time of dialogue, stepping back, looking at and taking stock of what we’ve done, and where we are going, and trying to map that out for the next person. We need a senior administrator (for Indigenous initiatives) at Western and we need to see what that looks like,” Brunette-Debassige added.
“There are a lot of challenges. There is a real hunger for change, and because Indigenous communities are struggling, with that hunger, there is an urgency to make change. That is a lot of pressure for an institution and for people at the institution, when the appetite is across the sector. There’s this demand for more faculty members, for more administrators; we’re trying to grapple with that, which can be challenging.”
As a PhD candidate, Brunette-Debassige is researching the development and enactment of Indigenizing policies in Canadian universities.
Prior to joining Western, she was the Aboriginal Education Advisor for the Thames Valley District School Board and served in several roles related to the recruitment and support of Indigenous students at the University of Toronto, where she also earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in Aboriginal and equity studies and adult education.
The challenge, as she sees it, is managing the long-term vision, not only as it relates to appropriately Indigenizing the postsecondary sector, but also in paving a path that responsibly “makes meaningful change” for Canada’s Indigenous communities.
“Indigenous people live this urgency every day. They are more than ever engaged in those conversations. What’s going to be important is that we try and listen very deeply. There are a lot of systemic issues that might not be fully understood for people who have operated seamlessly in the institution. For Indigenous people who feel it every day, this can be frustrating. It’s about opening up that dialogue for truth-telling,” she explained.
“I’m so excited for the students. I’ve been working in the field for 15 years and I have seen such a shift – the young people who are coming, who are already here, they are movers and shakers. They are bringing new perspectives into disciplines, fields of study and research that are cutting-edge and innovative. And as an institution of higher learning, we have a responsibility to make those spaces and make room for those Indigenous voices. I’m really excited to see what the next generation has to bring to the world.”
Janice Deakin, Provost and Vice President (Academic), said Brunette-Debassige is uniquely qualified for this new role.
“Elevating Indigenous voices and agency and engaging our campus community in the advancement of Indigenous education and research are institutional priorities at Western. I am confident that Candace’s leadership will help Western move toward achieving these important goals in the months and years ahead.”