The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada calls on post-secondary institutions to respond to the 94 Calls to Action, and to take a leadership role in education. Many academic institutions have since undertaken a process to examine the ways in which they are providing education to Indigenous, as well as non-Indigenous students. In my current leadership roles at the University of Toronto, I have been encouraged by the acknowledgement of the university’s “responsibility in contributing to the plight of Indigenous peoples,” and also by its efforts to build pathways for reconciliation in a number of key areas, including Indigenous spaces, curriculum, faculty hires, student access, and engagement with Indigenous communities.
However, the challenges of answering the Calls to Action are not simple, or easy. As noted by Eve Tuck, associate professor of critical race and Indigenous studies at the U of T Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, “universities don’t become different just by wishing for it… University administrators say ‘Indigenization’ and what they mean is, simply bringing more Indigenous people into the same structures, into the same buildings without much thought about what universities can learn from Indigenous communities.” This statement resonates deeply, as an essential learning, for me, has been the importance of honouring and including Elders and knowledge keepers in every issue related to the key areas listed above. Without Elders and knowledge keepers, an authentic understanding and transmission of Indigenous philosophies, values, and ways of living and knowing is not possible.
Furthermore, it is important to be honest and recognize the entrenched discrimination across the primary, secondary, and post-secondary education systems. Sheila Cote-Meek, associate vice president, academic and Indigenous programs, at Laurentian University emphasizes the persistent lack of understanding among educators of Indigenous peoples, histories and culture. She proposes that, in order to “(bring) about deeper systemic, transformative and reconciliatory change… four intersecting aspects (are to) be considered: addressing the systemic under-representation of Indigenous peoples in the academy; providing sufficient resources to any program or change that is put in place; changing the structure by way of decision-making; and changing the culture of the institution.”
Landscape Architecture programs and professional practice alike are critically under-represented by Indigenous peoples. After many conversations, lectures, workshops with and by Indigenous peoples within and without the academy, I realized that, in order to have meaningful change to our institutional culture, it is necessary to support the hiring of Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers, scholars, and professionals, and support the enrolment of Indigenous graduate students. Yet, in order to do so, it is necessary to support the enrolment of undergraduate students. And since Indigenous students are nearly absent in either our graduate or undergraduate programs, it is necessary to focus our attention on youth.
In Winter 2018, I had the honour to meet an Anishinaabe Elder, and together with two other incredibly dedicated women, we co-developed a new Indigenous youth program which provides employment, mentorship and a pathway to postsecondary education. The program, which was later named by the participating youth, Nikibii Dawadinna Giigwag—Flooded Valley Healing in Anishinaabemowin (Manitoulin dialect)—is designed for high school youth, ages 15-18, living in the Greater Toronto Area. The interdisciplinary curriculum foregrounds culture and spirituality as a path forward and interweaves Indigenous teachings, landscape architecture, and environmental conservation.
The program’s motivation is, first and foremost, to provide the space for intergenerational learning of ancestral knowledges: a connection between youth and Elders. Second, to provide with a transformative and reconciliatory experience for the youth and the mentors involved. The youth are inspired to define their future education and cultural path. Non-Indigenous mentors increase awareness, learn how to best support Indigenous students, and build relations with Indigenous peoples ‘in a good way.’ Indigenous mentors have the opportunity to listen and learn from the youth and share their own experience in the unique context of this program. Ultimately, youth gain confidence, become role models in their own communities, and hopefully see themselves represented in environmental – and community-building work.
Bringing about a systematic change to academic institutions and professional practice requires deep and sustained commitment of human and financial resources. As an educator and administrator, I have the privilege and responsibility to engage in reconciliation, walking side by side with my Indigenous colleagues, together. I invite each of my students, academic peers, and professional colleagues to ask of themselves ‘what Calls to Action can I respond to?’
I WOULD LIKE TO ACKNOWLEDGE NIKIBII DAWADINNA GIIGWAG’S CO-CREATORS ELDER WHABAGOON, SHEILA BOUDREAU AND LUCIA PICCINNI, AND EXTEND MY GRATITUDE FOR THE YOUTH AND ALL THE INDIVIDUAL MENTORS, FIRMS, AND INSTITUTIONS WHO PARTICIPATE AND SUPPORT THIS RECONCILIATION WORK.
TEXT BY LIAT MARGOLIS, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, AND DIRECTOR OF THE MASTER OF LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE PROGRAM.