Last Friday, I had the pleasure of attending an inspiring exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta, entitled 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., hosted by the Faculty of Arts’ Truth and Reconciliation committee. As members of one of Canada’s most important early artist alliances, these artists stimulated a new way of thinking about contemporary Indigenous people, their lives and their art.
I was so pleased to see this event taking place, among other initiatives by the TRC committee, demonstrating that we are starting to take an active role in the process of reconciliation. But before we move too far down that path, it is vital we stop and ask: What, really, is reconciliation?
According to the TRC final report, reconciliation means coming to terms with the past and creating a new relationship between Canadian Indigenous peoples and settlers, one that is based upon mutual respect. Reconciliation depends upon piercing the collective consciousness of settler Canadians and coming to terms with complicity in the injustices of colonization. It requires us to draw a connection between past and present.
Ultimately, like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the TRC calls for a reset of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
As institutions that play a key role in educating engaged citizens, Canadian universities have an important role to play in reconciliation. In fact, the TRC specifically calls on post-secondary institutions to engage with Indigenous communities and to be leaders in the process.
What does this mean for the Faculty of Arts? Constructing a response to the TRC is a collective effort that involves all of us, no matter our discipline or role. Having just returned from two meetings of Canadian deans, I am struck by how far behind we are. Other Canadian universities and Faculties of Arts are well on their way to implementing strategic responses that include measures to support Indigenous students and curricular changes.
But at the University of Alberta, we are busy playing catch-up. Here in the Faculty of Arts, we have created a faculty-led committee, consisting of Indigenous and non-Indigenous faculty members from many departments. The Arts TRC Action Committee is paying special attention to the Principles on Indigenous Education proposed by Universities Canada.
The committee members are working together to make recommendations to the Dean’s Office and to organize initiatives to help lead their colleagues forward. The Provost’s Office has been an ally for us, providing funding for relevant initiatives.
We are also evaluating what we are already doing to ensure we offer an inclusive approach to hiring, student recruitment, curriculum development and research. To do this, we are consulting with Indigenous students, faculty and community members about the challenges of studying and working in the faculty and the university. Transformative change in the Faculty of Arts will only come about through increasing the number of Indigenous faculty members and students. And so, we are also increasing funding to Aboriginal students.
In the fall, we are planning to host a panel discussion and a series of retreats around the question of how to most effectively integrate Indigenous content into our curriculum.
We have a long way to go, but we are making great strides in the area of reconciliation. As my term as Acting Dean draws to a close, I am looking forward to becoming more involved with the TRC committee after June. I encourage any of you who may be interested to become involved in the committee, and to join with us in a spirit of unity as we move down this long — but hopeful — path, together.
Acting Dean of Arts