Reconciliation Through an Academic Lens

The Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society begins its first semester of Reconciliation Studies this fall

Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society’s Reconciliation Studies students and staff in front of the classroom in G̱aaw/Old Massett. (Submitted)

As the nation continues to pursue reconciliation between Indigenous people and Canadians, post-secondary institutions seek to add to the conversation by discussing and re-examining Canadian history.

“There’s a number of things and different angles you could use to approach reconciliation as a study,” says Greg Younging, a professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. “Some of the models I’ve heard [include] trying to get back to a place where the relationship [between Canada and Indigenous people] was based on justice and fairness and equity and equality.”

He goes on to explain the importance of the treaty era, when models of coexistence were in effect, and cites the Haudenosaunee’s Two Row Wampum—a treaty and symbolic representation of coexistence between European settlers and the Indigenous people of Canada.

Younging was also appointed as the Assistant Director of Research to the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“In working at the TRC I had some valuable discussions with Dr. David MacDonald, who was looking into doing a lot of writing and studying on reconciliation, and we came up with this idea that one way to look at reconciliation was to try and imagine what it would be like today if that model of coexistence was followed and if there was no colonization,” says Younging. “You’d be looking at an era where the treaties were respected and Indigenous people would have had the opportunity to build their own civil societies and institutions. Indigenous peoples would have had the opportunity to incorporate or reject Western-European models and epistemologies.”

UBC Okanagan’s Indigenous Studies approach

Students enrolled in the Indigenous Studies program at UBCO look at three aspects of reconciliation—colonization, decolonization, and Indigeneity—as “three separate strands that don’t have any overlap,” according to Younging.

“We know what colonization is. Decolonization is getting the colonizing institutions out of our way, and Indigeneity is, in many ways, going back to the institutions that our ancestors lived by and developed,” he says.

Incorporating these topics into regular studies is a vital step in fostering a community of people who can admit that colonization has occurred and continues to occur today. It also helps to recognize the damage that colonial institutions—such as residential schools and the Indian Act—have caused Indigenous peoples for centuries.

“There has to be some sort of Indigenous perspective with Indigenous studies, ideally taught by Indigenous peoples or their allies,” says Younging. “We basically have to throw out all the history books about Indigenous peoples and let Indigenous peoples rewrite the true history of colonization and decolonization.”

The Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society’s Reconciliation Studies

This fall marks the first semester of The Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society’s Reconciliation Studies program, which was accredited by and created in partnership with the UBC Faculty of Forestry. The program is interdisciplinary and intended for third and fourth year undergraduate students from across Canada and beyond.

Planning for the program began in May 2015. A mix of Haida and other First Nations representatives met with scholars from SFU and UBC, as well as a few people from the provincial government, to build the framework for it. According to Carlos Ormond, Executive Director for HGHES, the meeting was “a three night, two day workshop where we answered these questions: What is reconciliation and post-secondary education? And what does reconciliation look like in professional development?”

Five main themes emerged from the workshop—First Nations and Canada (Re)Writing History, Law and Governance: Indigenous and European Traditions, Perspectives on Reconciliation, Reconciliation and Resource Management, and Reconciliation and Communities—each of which is now a course in the Reconciliation Studies program.

“Each course was developed by either a Haida or First Nations scholar and an individual that is not from First Nations or Haida heritage, but a scholar in their own right in that subject area,” says Ormond.

Funding for the program was provided by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development as well as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s Post-Secondary Partnerships Program. The funding allows the Reconciliation Studies program to continue regardless of whether or not it reaches its 20 student maximum.

“This program resonated with students across Canada and we now have a group of 18 students, which is fantastic,” says Ormond. “These are students from across Canada, both students with First Nations background and those that are not from First Nations background—students from journalism to anthropology to sciences.”

HGHES offers a few other semester-based programs in partnership with UBC, each touching on reconciliation in its own way. Student interest in exploring reconciliation on a deeper level is what led to their development.

Whether a student has First Nations ancestry or not, studying reconciliation provides them with an opportunity to gain perspective on Indigenous history and carry that perspective with them through their personal or professional lives.

“One of our students in the program who is of Haida heritage has said his hope is that this program will help provide him with the foundation to be in a leadership position with the Council of the Haida Nation,” says Ormond.

Building off of the support they’ve received, the HGHES hopes to offer a second semester of the Reconciliation Studies program, either as a continuation of the first semester or as a stand-alone. It also plans to create a Professional Development program for individuals working in industries or businesses that are looking to address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to share Indigenous history.

“This is by no means a ‘best practice’” technique. This is, in fact, a four month discussion on reconciliation with each course being a topic to talk about [regarding] reconciliation,” says Ormond. “The term ‘reconciliation’ has even been discussed as to whether that is the best term to be using for this program. There are many different perspectives and understandings of what encompasses reconciliation.”


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