Thursday, February 22, 2018

Can Camosun reconcile? A look into what the college has done, what they’re doing, and what they need to do for reconciliation

September 5, 2017 by Felicia Santarossa, features writer

Part one
The legacy of residential schools

Canada was founded on colonialism. Indigenous people were swept aside as the European settlers made use of this land. Later on, there was an attempt to assimilate indigenous people through residential schools.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), these schools were underfunded, poorly resourced, and, above all, traumatic for the students. Physical, emotional, cultural, and sexual abuse occurred to hundreds of thousands of indigenous people across several generations. The TRC reports that many survivors consider the entire experience of residential schools “cultural genocide.” While attempting to “civilize and Christianize” indigenous people, the TRC says, the rest of Canadian society was taught—if indigenous people were mentioned at all—as if the indigenous cultures and people themselves were of no value. This dark part of Canadian history has slowly been brought to light over the past 20 years, but the impact will take generations to heal.

In 2015, the TRC put forward 94 calls to action for various levels of government and institutions with the hope of “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country” through “awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.”

Second-year Camosun Business student Canute Coleman says that it’s imperative to treat issues regarding reconciliation with sensitivity.

“These issues do exist, but it’s when they get exposed and how they get exposed; that’s how they get dealt with,” he says. “An elder once said that when going to school she felt that she was crawling to catch up to certain other races that were only walking. So the issues that we’re dealing with are quite sensitive. There always has to be that sensitivity, as well as the awareness, to First Nations issues, and it would be nice to make everybody aware of it. I think that’s what we do as students and as educators, to a certain degree.”

Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) First Nations representative and first-year Business student Thea Harris says making sure indigenous students “feel really culturally safe” is a huge component of reconciliation. Whether or not indigenous students practice their culture, she says, this means ensuring that they do not feel their culture is affronted.

“I think that making students feel safe to come to school,” she says, “is a really important step into breaking down that residential school legacy.”

Part two
What Camosun is doing right regarding reconciliation 

One thing that Camosun School of Access dean Ian Humphries wants to make clear is that the college was focused on making themselves relevant to indigenous people long before the TRC’s calls to action.

“When the TRC calls to action came out, we already had our four-cornerpost indigenization model,” he says. “We had 25 years’ worth of work towards indigenization, and we wanted to make sure we acknowledged and honoured all the work done prior to the calls to action. When we responded to the TRC’s calls to action, we tried to frame everything within the four-cornerpost model,” he says. (This model aims to bring “indigenous ways of knowing, being, doing, and relating” to all parts of the college, according to the college’s website.)

When students come to Camosun, there’s no shortage of reminders that they are on the traditional territories of the Lkwungen and WSÁNEĆ peoples. In many cases, instructors acknowledge the use of the territories at the beginning of the semester. Indigenous students are invited to gather at Na’tsa’maht, or the Gathering Place, the Coast Salish cedar log house located behind the Wilna Thomas building. There is also the indigenous peoples’ resource centre, Eyēʔ Sqȃ’lewen: The Centre for Indigenous Education and Community Connections, which is dedicated to helping indigenous students find careers and connect with their cultures. (Eyē? Sqâ’lewen hosted the S’TEṈISTOLW̱ [“Moving Forward”] conference from August 23 to 25; the conference focused on building reciprocal relationships and discussing indigenous adult education between indigenous people of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.)

This story originally appeared in our September 5, 2017 issue.

While Camosun has purposefully been indigenizing itself since 2007, says Eyēʔ Sqȃ’lewen director Janice Simcoe, the organization has been shifting since the addition of what was called First Nations Education in 1991, which is in some ways, she says, what is considered indigenization.

With the addition of Eyēʔ Sqȃ’lewen, indigenous students feel more welcome at school, says Coleman.

“They understand without even having to go really into great depth, they understand what it is to be a First Nations student; they understand a lot of the barriers,” he says. “That’s what’s nice about providing that safe place for a First Nations student—they don’t have to explain everything, they just have to go there and feel welcome. They feel they belong, and with that feeling, you won’t give up. It’s kind of like a home away from home.”

Consider the School of Access: it can be seen as necessary for indigenous people getting back into school and furthering their careers, especially with the help given through indigenous partnerships like the Saanich Adult Education Centre. First-year Indigenous College Prep student Adelaide Elliot says that the college has been “super helpful” to her lately.

“I’m new to all this, so I get a lot of support,” she says. “I have advisors who help me with this, I got sponsorship, and everyone has been super helpful. I’m going to the Saanich Adult Education Centre; that’s where I’ll be going in the fall. It’s basically just built to support indigenous students.”

Harris says that when it comes to Camosun and reconciliation, the college has definitely acknowledged the past and put forward some great initiatives in changing their behaviour; as an example, she points to new college initiatives like cultural camps (courses based off campus focusing on indigenous culture with the land; an example of this is QĆÁSET Indigenous Cultural Camp (IST 250).

Along with this work, she says, education is a major part in making sure everyone has the facts and knows the harm done to First Nations people by the residential school system; she says that if people aren’t aware of what happened, they’re not going to care.

“It’s not that long ago,” she says. “For me, it was my grandfather; for some other people that attend the school, it was their parents. So it’s not that far behind us. Awareness is so big to me.”

Elliot agrees that providing non-indigenous people with information on indigenous issues is a necessity.

“I think it’s very true [that] a lot of it can be really harsh; stuff that’s happened in residential schools, a lot of it still isn’t spoken about,” says Elliot. “It’s horror stories, but people really need to hear it. It may not be easy to hear, but it’s the truth, and it needs to be heard and told.”

The most important thing non-indigenous students can do to improve relations with indigenous students, says Simcoe, is learn.

“Learn about us, learn about Canada’s history, learn about this land,” she says. “Learn about the people of this land. If non-indigenous students and others know more, then that helps to facilitate relationships, so learn.”

Part three
What Camosun needs to do better

Harris says there have been some challenges for indigenous students in the Indigenous Business Leadership program due to a lack of knowledge, which fuels her passion in advocating for First Nations education. She says she doesn’t know if the School of Business is “quite there in terms of indigenization” compared to other parts of the college.

“Just a lack of education, lack of awareness of indigenous issues, on indigenous history,” she says about where the School of Business falls short. “I think most indigenous students can struggle in school. It wasn’t an easy ride for any of us; there were some huge challenges, so in talking to my peers and my fellow students and hearing what they had to say, it made me really passionate about making sure that these students got every tool that they needed to be successful in the classroom. Again, I think the indigenous people have had a very tumultuous relationship with the education system, to say the least, so to see that kind of perpetuated in any degree, if it’s a tiny bit or a large amount, it’s troubling to me, and so it makes me want to stand up and do something about it.” (Camosun Business dean Richard Stride was unavailable for comment before press time.)

Lack of awareness about indigenous issues—for example, residential schools—can be traced back to a lack of education for those who grew up in a different era, says Humphries.

“There are many people at the college around my age or so that, when we went from K-12, there was no reference to residential schools,” he says. “A lot of people don’t have a lot of information, so the more information you can provide to employees in this case, there’s great value in that.”

Humphries points to the TELŦIN TŦE WILNEW – Understanding Indigenous Peoples course that is available for employees to take to help them better understand the history of residential schools; for students, there are courses like IST 120 (Introduction to Indigenous Peoples).

“They’re able to take [IST 120] as an elective in many of the programs, with respect to helping people understand what’s going on with the impact of residential schools, which is really hard to overstate,” he says. “It’s huge, with intergenerational impact, so what can we as an institution do about that?”

Humphries says that he’s even thinking of offering IST 120 to students before they step foot on a Camosun campus: he wants to include it in the South Island Partnership’s dual credit secondary-school program.

“It’s a hope at this point,” he says. “It’s something we want to do in the future. We wouldn’t have this in place in September or anything. We’ve had some initial discussions with those in the South Island Partnership office, and had some discussions with schools such as Stelly’s and Claremont and Parkland, and we haven’t been able to pull it off yet, but it’s something we’d like to do in the future,” he says.

Additionally, the college’s Indigenization and Reconciliation Project Task Force is hoping for more indigenous artwork on the Lansdowne campus. Humphries says that he intends to do something with artwork in regard to the Young Building, which, he points out, is potentially problematic for indigenous students.

“The Young Building looks like a residential school, unfortunately,” he says. “I am aware of indigenous students that have difficulty walking past the Young Building and will take a different route so as to not actually go past it or go in it, because it has a trigger effect. We have students that are residential school survivors themselves, or certainly have had family members [in the system], and it can trigger some students. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to overcome that.”

Part four
Issues regarding indigenous education 

Camosun was an early leader at making schools a safe place for indigenous students, Harris says, but she feels there’s always more work to do and that the school can always improve. One of the main challenges with indigenous students, she says, is the concept of  “double work,” where indigenous students must educate others on their issues with education while trying to gain an education themselves.

“A lot of indigenous students jump through a huge amount of hoops just to even get to school,” she says. “When you’re there, having again to have to educate everyone around you when you yourself are just trying to be educated and you want to enjoy school can be a huge challenge.”

Education of non-indigenous people on indigenous issues is seen as a priority in regard to indigenization and reconciliation at the college, says Humphries.

“We want to make sure that all Camosun graduates graduate with a better understanding of how to work with, know and relate, be with indigenous peoples,” he says. “Coinciding with some of the recommendations from the TRC calls to action, we are going to have mandatory Understanding Indigenous Peoples courses in programs like Criminal Justice, Nursing, Early Learning and Care, and Pre-Social Work.”

Simcoe explains that while the TRC’s education-focused calls to action have a focus on K-12 education, these calls also refer to professions, making them relevant to post-secondary education.

“All the calls to action that are related to education in general—or related to development of professional learning that will result in professions but will result in changes in the areas that the TRC addresses—post-secondary education has a role in it,” she says.

Now that educational services for First Nations students have been made available, one of the next steps that students and educators I spoke with would like to see with reconciliation is the expansion of these services. Coleman says that growing up First Nations means having to find out not only what you want to do for a career, but also how you’re going to get there. He says making spaces like Eyēʔ Sqȃ’lewen and other services more noticeable is a step in the right direction.

“If I can see, and other people can see, a success rate that’s different from not having that safe space created for First Nations people—to know that there’s other First Nations students, whether they’re from a neighbouring tribe or the same tribe—that’s key to First Nations education success,” he says.

Camosun Indigenous Studies chair Todd Ormiston says that while Camosun is doing well in developing indigenous programs for both indigenous and non-indigenous people, creating more spaces for students to gather on their own will help them feel culturally safe, as students have a greater sense of belonging within their group identity.

“I think we need to create more spaces where indigenous students can gather on their own, and be able to feel culturally safe, and also travel through programs as a cohort, like they do in the Indigenous Studies program, where they can feel a sense of belonging and identity as indigenous students together as they go through courses and other disciplines,” Ormiston says.

“To me,” Harris says, “the next step—especially in the Business school—is indigenous business education for all people, not just indigenous people. I think that we’re seeing all of the need to consult now, [with] all of these land settlements and claims and things like resource development, so the need to be aware of how to conduct business with indigenous people in a really productive and really respectful way is going to be so imperative in the coming years. I want to see indigenous business education be a little bit more mainstream and not be so niche for indigenous people. You’re seeing that in a lot of other places, in other schools in the college, so for me it’s like, let’s do the business school too, indigenize the actual curriculum.”

When talking about indigenizing the curriculum, Humphries notes that certain courses lend themselves to indigenization more readily than others. Harris says, however, that it’s mandatory for indigenous people to know how to walk in both the indigenous world and the non-indigenous world. The benefit is through having multiple worldviews, she says.

“You learn more and you see through someone else’s perspective and their lens; I think that it just makes you a better person,” she says. “We’re all better off when we acknowledge more than one worldview. I think the same goes for every subject in the college, so for me to see that happen in the Business school, it would be incredible to see an indigenous way of doing business, because I think the indigenous people were incredible business people. They were so entrepreneurial and they still are. So let’s discuss that; that’s exciting to me.”

Simcoe says that as long as there is a divide between indigenous and non-indigenous people there is a need for reconciliation. There are indigenous people who see reconciliation as being so far away that they’re not supportive of it, she says, adding that she honours that perspective.

“At the same time, I think that reconciliation occurs in stages. Talking about it and interacting, thinking together, about how we accomplish this is the first stage,” she says. “I don’t expect it to be completed in my lifetime, but if we can step up from one phase to another to another, then we’ve started a good thing.”

Coleman says that being sincere with reconciliation is key. Otherwise, he says, people will just try to achieve the bare minimum of reconciliation standards, defeating the purpose entirely. He remembers receiving a bursary after answering a question about reconciliation on the application.

“This was one of the questions for a bursary and scholarship application: ‘What does reconciliation mean to you?’ I answered it bluntly, but it was the complete truth: reconciliation means everything and nothing to me at the same time,” he says. “Reconciliation, in its truest form, means everything to me, but reconciliation, if you’re just going to pass it off just like corporate social responsibility and meet things at their bare legal minimum, then you can’t even term it ‘reconciliation’; you’re just trying to cover your bases. And I think in order to understand and get true reconciliation—whether it’s for an institution or the country—you have to be sincere in what you’re thinking about and calling reconciliation,” he says.

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