For many immigrants, Canada has been a true El Dorado. My family, who arrived in this country with virtually empty hands in 1924, in the person of my grandfather, saw the opening up of absolutely exceptional prospects for education, professional advancement and personal development. It is therefore difficult for me to reconcile this Canada which is so generous to my people with the Canada which has deprived many Aboriginal people of these same prospects.
Today, September 30, marks the very first National Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada. This commemoration is for all of us a call to reflect on the legacy of residential schools, which had long-term and often disastrous consequences on Indigenous families and communities. We must recognize that Canadian institutions have contributed to the suffering inflicted on generations of Aboriginal people or, at the very least, have shown lack of understanding and indifference.
If asked what these institutions are, most Canadians would likely name organizations related to the state, church, child welfare, and justice. In Quebec, those of us who, a year ago, saw the video showing the verbal abuse of nurses against their patient Joyce Echaquan, screaming in pain just hours before her death , would undoubtedly add the health care system to the list.
For my part, I became more aware of the role that universities have played – or failed to play – in the lives of Indigenous peoples in Canada thanks to the Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Education which, in 2017, issued 52 calls to action at McGill University. Since then, we have embarked on the path of reconciliation, like many other universities in Canada. However, this is only the start of a very long journey.
An essential step
In most Canadian universities, this process has two parts. The first concerns greater representation of aboriginal people in our students, teachers and staff. The second concerns our campuses, which we want to be more welcoming to the Aboriginal members of the Canadian population. This second part is a prerequisite for the first in the sense that, to make post-secondary studies more accessible to Aboriginals, we must absolutely question ourselves without complacency about the potentially alienating or exclusive nature of the university environment for the members of the aboriginal communities. In addition, we must take concrete steps to counter systemic racism in order to make our campus a more inclusive place to live and learn.
To describe this type of process, we sometimes speak of the “decolonization” or “indigenization” of higher education. Personally, I would say that we are taking decisive action to make a difference through open dialogue and the creation of lasting ties with Indigenous communities. The measures implemented must survive the changes at the head of the University and make the student and faculty members as well as the staff aware of the historical truth, since it is they who will make our campus a welcoming environment. We need to rethink all aspects of life on our campuses: representation within the faculty and management of the University; design of programs and courses; teaching and research partnerships with communities; landscaping, architecture, images, languages and emblems on our campuses; support for students (finances, health, studies, social support), especially if they are far from their relatives and their community; and participation of Indigenous leaders in curriculum activities, consultative processes and ceremonies held on our campuses.
This fundamental review of university life is certainly not an easy task. However, it is an essential step: Canadian universities must engage in this exercise to achieve their common objective, namely to provide equitable access to higher education for all.
On this first National Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada, restraint is in order for many reasons. We recognize the profound injustices committed in residential schools and pay tribute to the children who perished there or who survived the suffering inflicted on them in these institutions, as well as on their loved ones. On this day of commemoration, we also recognize that residential schools in Canada were the site of a tremendous loss of potential, intelligence and talent.
However difficult to imagine this collective loss, universities are particularly well placed to remedy it. They must meet this challenge with an energy and a resolution that will be matched only by their humility. The task is colossal, but it will have immeasurable benefits not only for some students, communities or campuses, but for the entire country.