It is only a start to the conversation – but it is an important start.
This fall, Western will distribute 5,000 new guides intended to help faculty, staff and administrators support the educational and cultural needs of Indigenous students. Built on the foundation of the university’s Indigenous Strategic Plan, the Guide for Working with Indigenous Students is a primer that outlines contextual reasons and practical ways to make the campus and classroom more receptive spaces.
“This guide is only scratching the surface, giving people some context,” said Candace Brunette-Debassige, the guide’s lead co-author. “It’s kind of like a 101 (course) – it’s an introduction, it’s a support and hopefully it inspires people to take a deeper look.”
The guide details Indigenous Peoples’ geographic connection to the land; their relationship to community and family stories; their history with European colonialism and intergenerational trauma; and the contrast between Indigenous ways of knowing and learning and the Euro-centric education system.
More than 400 Western students are Indigenous, about double the number enrolled even decade ago.
Chantelle Richmond, the other co-author of the guide and director of the Interdisciplinary Development Initiative in Applied Indigenous Scholarship which led the report’s creation, said the guide has been a collaborative effort involving dozens of faculty, staff and Indigenous advisors. It’s another step towards decolonizing campus and towards improved understanding and better relationships with Indigenous students, she said.
For generations, Indigenous children in Canada were wrenched from their families, placed in residential schools and legally barred from speaking their languages or practising their spiritual traditions. Until the 1960s, the Indian Act required that Indigenous people who attended university relinquish their identities and their memberships in their First Nations communities.
That legacy of trauma and enforced assimilation is often echoed, and sometimes amplified, during students’ university years.
“I’m still shocked when students tell me they’ve never learned this before,” Richmond said.
“We need to have these really open, really honest places of truth-telling. Unless you start to learn about that historical or colonial past, you’re just complicit in it.”
The new guide offers appropriate language and terminology (including pronunciation guides for the historical territories on which Western sits); details the key role of elders in Indigenous society and on campus; and introduces additional resources and information to learn more about Indigenous Peoples.
“I’ve been working in Indigenous education pretty-much my whole adult life and that’s one of the biggest things for people who don’t have a familiarity with us: Why are we doing this Indigenous work and why does it matter?” said Brunette-Debassig, who becomes Special Advisor to the Provost (Indigenous Initiatives) on Sept. 1.
Assumptions, stereotypes and erroneous expectations take their toll on Indigenous students and increase their sense of culture shock and isolation. “It actually interferes with learning,” she said.
The intent is to build healthier relationships and better learning, not just for Indigenous students but for everyone who learns, teaches and works on the traditional lands of the Anishnaabek, Haudenosaunee, Lunaapewak and Attawandaron people.
Providing a valuable education has always been about more than teaching subject and supervising research, Richmond added; it’s about relating to students in authentic, welcoming ways.
Being responsive to Indigenous needs, challenges and contributions can in turn reduce the culture shock and identity loss many First Nations students experience when they arrive at Western.
While universities are considered places of learning and possibility, the guide says, “They can also be challenging and even unwelcoming places for marginalized groups, including Indigenous students.”
- There are important ceremonial times and obligations, which may not appear on any academic calendar, that require Indigenous students to be in their home communities;
- Many students come from communities where co-operation, kinship and a relationship to the land are core values – far different from the highly individualistic, competitive atmosphere they may find among their fellow students; and
- Indigenous students tend to be older than the average student and may have family obligations and financial issues most students don’t have.
“This guide isn’t telling faculty what to teach. It’s telling them what might be happening in the classroom and giving it relevance and context,” Brunette-Debassige said.
Understanding more about the Indigenous context, including what they contribute as well as what they need, can help everyone, she said. “The classroom is dynamic. There are lots of different perspectives coming into the classroom. They diverge and converge at different points and that’s what makes it such a rich environment.”
Print copies of the guide will be available at, and distributed through, faculty offices, as well as various other service areas of campus. A PDF version can be downloaded at the Guide for Working with Indigenous Students website.