With milestone investments in Indigenous initiatives, Western is steadily moving toward Indigenization.
This nod comes with the release of the 2020 Indigenous Strategic Plan annual progress report, which points to the initiatives advancing Indigenous priorities across campus, as well as future challenges.
The university launched its first Indigenous Strategic Plan in 2016, with an aim to “elevate Indigenous voices and agency to engage all faculty, staff, students and communities in advancing excellence in Indigenous research, education, and campus life.” Two years later, the Provost’s Task Force on the Implementation of Western University’s Indigenous Strategic Plan presented key recommendations.
Here, acting vice-provost and associate vice-president (Indigenous Initiatives) Candace Brunette-Debassige shares highlights of Western’s progress to date and the challenges ahead.
Since the release of Western’s first Indigenous Strategic Plan, how has the university advanced Indigenous priorities?
One of the most significant steps toward championing and sustaining Indigenization across the university has been changing the structure of the institution. That takes time, but we now have an Indigenous voice at the senior leadership table with the vice-provost and associate vice-president (Indigenous Initiatives) role. We also created an Office of Indigenous Initiatives which brings all Indigenous programs and the Indigenous Student Centre ‘under one roof.’ With a dedicated staff and budget in place, it will help our inaugural VP/AVP Christy Bressette, set us on a path to sustain the work.
We are so fortunate to have Christy joining us in March. She has been on this journey with us, as an Indigenous person from Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, as an alumna of Western and as the co-chair on the Provost’s Task Force.
You have also been part of this journey since day one in an advisory capacity and most recently as the acting VP/AVP. What stands out the most for you in Western’s progress to date?
I am part of a collective that has pushed this work forward. We could not have come this far without the faculty, staff, students and community members who gave so much to help make these changes. They sat on committees and contributed in so many ways.
One area I am especially proud to have been a part of is increasing support for our Indigenous students. We now have meaningful financial aid options, which helps remove a huge barrier. We have places for them to study and be culturally safe, and we have designated staff members to support them in ways we couldn’t before.
We know this support will not only help the students, but others, as they go back to their families and communities. When I think of the impact that can have over generations, I feel good.
You mention culturally safe spaces. Tell us more about the new Indigenous Learning Space set to open in 2021-22.
It’s a space for anyone and everyone to go and learn from Indigenous Peoples in the Indigenous ways of knowing. We hope it will be a place where people are doing exciting, innovative work – whether teaching a course or hosting a conference. It will be a hub where Indigenous ways of knowing are respected, celebrated and out front.
What other investments has the university made?
In addition to increasing the number of Indigenous staff that support Indigenous students, Western is undertaking an Indigenous faculty cluster hiring process, which has included bringing new faculty members into the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Education, Social Science and Law. This increased representation has a great impact on all Western students and goes a long way in bringing Indigenous perspectives across disciplines.
How do you define Indigenization of the curriculum and why is it important?
There’s a lot of debate around Indigenization, decolonization, and reconciliation. Our Indigenous curriculum and learning sub-committee is working hard to define these terms for us, and make recommendations.
In general, Indigenization of the curriculum is proactively working to include Indigenous ways of knowing across disciplines.
It’s not about replacing existing curriculum; it’s about bringing diverse and missing knowledges into classroom conversations to gain a deeper understanding and strengthen relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. This will help Western contribute to building the next generation of responsible and critical leaders who are respectful of Indigenous Peoples and their unique rights.
What are some of the challenges we face in moving Indigenization forward at Western?
We can make changes to structures, but we must continue to make changes at all levels, individual and systemic, and most importantly, keep Indigenous initiatives relevant. Indigenous education is urgent. This is not a check-list approach. Reconciliation isn’t a fad. We need to continue to embed responsibilities to advance Indigenous education and reconciliation into Western’s larger strategic plan.
We also need to figure out a system-wide approach to share the responsibility across the academy. Everyone needs to see themselves as responsible for doing Indigenizing work. At the same time, it can be a bit tricky, because we must follow the axiom, ‘nothing about us, without us.’ That balance is finding a way to share the responsibility while recognizing Indigenous Peoples must be involved in driving the needs and priorities.
We are making a lot of strides in this area, building relationships foundational to this work. Western’s Indigenous Postsecondary Education Council is an important advisory body that can support Western leaders. Western’s Head and Heart Program is a unique partnership between Western Research and the Office of Indigenous Initiatives that highlights the power of partnerships when doing Indigenizing work.
I’m excited to see this work deepen and look forward to watching it grow in the years ahead.
Western’s annual Indigenous Awareness Week (IAW) runs Feb. 1 – 7 with several virtual events.
A celebration of Western’s Indigenous presence, the purpose of IAW is to nurture relationships and facilitate collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples; to share information about Indigenous perspectives; and to engage the local London and regional Indigenous communities with campus.