Indigenizing KPU Requires Collective Action

The community needs to work together to honour the First Nations on whose land the university resides

KPU’s Elder in residence, Lekeyten. (Mark Stewart)

Canada’s history is one of colonization, meaning that our nation is built on the attempt to assimilate and disempower the Indigenous people who lived on this land long before confederation. That’s one of the main reasons why all non-Indigenous Canadians need to work together to create space for reconciliation with the First Nations community. And in order to be conscious of both the collective and individual role we play in active reconciliation, we need to examine the institutions we pay and trust to educate us.

KPU takes its name from the Kwantlen First Nation, but often, recognition of its history and culture plays a very minimal role in our educational experience. Creating an environment in which Indigenous perspectives are more integral to our schooling can go a long way to honouring the name of the institution we attend, and the land upon which we are situated.

According to Richard Watts, a writer for the Times Colonist, a large conference was held at UVic to discuss the university’s role in reconciliation in November. It hosted 250 leaders from Indigenous communities.

“The theme of the two-day forum, the fourth of its kind, is ‘Ts’its’u’watal tseep’ which means ‘Helping one another’ in the Hul’q’umi’num language,” he explains.

One of the key speakers, Jean-Paul Restoule, is an Anishinaabe professor and chair of Indigenous education at UVic. In regards to how KPU students can become more conscious of the reconciliation movement, he offered a list of recommendations. The first of these was “knowing the land you’re situated on, knowing whose territories you are on and acknowledging that.”

“It also includes developing relations with the people of that land, discover[ing] their dreams and aspirations, and thinking about where you can best help them be realized,” he says.

KPU has some events geared towards celebrating Indigenous culture, like the PowWow, but is it enough? (Braden Klassen)

He also recommended that students, staff, and faculty “know the original languages spoken in the territory you’re on, and try to learn it and speak it more often,” in addition to “asking for the Indigenous perspective on whatever topic you’re learning about, or find out on your own.”

“Make it a point to be the one (or form a group with others who do so) that asks the question, ‘What are some Indigenous perspectives on this? Why are we not hearing about it? Where can we find out more?’” says Restoule. “Overall, make space for Indigenous knowledge, and invite knowledge keepers into official roles.”

He feels that one of the most significant setbacks to making progress with reconciliation within university culture is “trying to leapfrog to reconciliation before finding truth.”

“One needs to know what happened in the relationship between Indigenous people and Canada before trying to work towards reconciliation,” he says. “Another setback is assuming that reconciliation is an event with an endpoint. It’s a process, and it’s never truly over. The relationship has to be attended to on a regular basis in order for it to function well for both parties.”

He adds that “finding the right balance for the [Indigenous] communities” involved with university administrators is another challenge to overcome.

“They have to be partners with the universities, but they can’t be expected to play support roles constantly. The universities have to do some work on understanding, and then approach the communities as partners instead of as people needing help or in some dependent role,” he says. “They also can’t be token partners. Their input has to be real and listened to.”

Finally, he recommends that more Indigenous people must be welcomed into post-secondary institutions as faculty, staff, and students without having to “give up who they are at the door or as they walk onto the campus.”

“As their bodies, voices, and presence increases, it provides a model for other Indigenous individuals that this is a place where they too can come, be accepted, and ultimately succeed,” Restoule explains.

A luncheon held in the Aboriginal Gathering Place on KPU Surrey Campus. (Kristen Frier)

A political science major at KPU, Samantha Gately, is Mowachaht of the Nuu Chah Nulth First Nation and lived on the Ruby Creek Reserve of Sto:lo First Nation. As a university, she feels that “we could be doing so much more.”

“We barely have an Indigenous studies program here at KPU, with only two classes that make Indigenous culture and history their main focus: ‘Intro to Indigenous Studies’ with Melinda Bige and a fourth-year criminology course that somehow just got put into the Indigenous studies section,” she says. “That’s too low, especially from a university that uses the Kwantlen name.”

Although she acknowledges that KPU has “taken great steps” towards Indigenizing—such as creating the on-campus Aboriginal Gathering Place managed by Lenn Pierre—she also feels that “it needs to go further than that.”

“We have Lekeyten, the Kwantlen Elder in Residence, but at the First Nations University of Canada, they have all sorts of different Elders of different First Nations and different bands coming together to pass on this Indigenous Cultural knowledge,” says Gately. “They even opened up an a traditional campus, hosting classes in traditional Indigenous environments such as inside giant Tipis.”

As an Indigenous student who is not a member of the Kwantlen First Nation, she suggests that the university “offer more diversity in [its] Indigenous education.”

“I do feel their support as an Indigenous student, but I think that it would be great for myself and other Indigenous students to have Elders in Residence that we could relate to, that were a part of and understood our cultural history, because that’s something that I have been teaching myself.  There’s no access here for us to understand our unique traditional practices.”

It is important to start defining the boundary between recognition and tokenization. (Mark Stewart)

She envisions genuine representation for Indigenous people at KPU as starting with defining the boundary between recognition and tokenization.

“Having this Indigenous name is a great way to step forward into this new reconciliation era, but I feel that without the real work behind it and the real effort, it just becomes this tokenization, like, ‘Oh look, we’re having a ceremony, and there’s an Indian present! Everything is fixed now.’ I don’t think that it is realized that, to fully support the Indigenous students and Indigenous revitalization, that so much more needs to be done,” she says.

Gately agrees with Restoule’s suggestion that Indigenous governance will be crucial to moving forward.

“The way that our different identities interact as part of a larger system needs to change. We need to be able to come together as equals with settlers,” she says. “This would help Indigenous peoples to overcome the oppressive system of us telling them what we want for ourselves, and them basically deciding for us.”

On a personal level, Gately says that she has “often felt an unspoken bias” against her in the classroom, particularly when historical issues are being discussed. For instance, she says that she has been made to feel as if she should “just get over it” when she speaks about colonization at school.

“Capilano University has taken initiatives where RA’s have to take Indigenous sensitivity training before they start their work. They have a person that’s Indigenous to that area to teach about the history there, the brutal hardships that Indigenous people have encountered there, such as being displaced onto tiny, impoverished reserves, being forcefully assimilated into residential schools, dying of smallpox, and even being hunted for sport,” she says, noting that the last residential school in Canada was closed in 1998, the year after she was born.

Having an Indigenous Dean at KPU would “be an immense step forward as far as reconciliation goes” as well, according to Gately. As would holding roundtable discussions between students, faculty, and Elders.

“A lot of institutions don’t fully recognize the value of Indigenous knowledge. They don’t consider it a real source of intelligence, otherwise there would be more courses based around it,” she says. “There should be, though, because such knowledge is full of wisdom that Indigenous peoples have lived by for centuries. We need to establish it as a legitimately important part of our culture.”

While non-Indigenous professors “can study and honour the culture secondhand,” she says that having “someone who lives and breathes the culture [to] teach about it” would be incredibly valuable.

“Nothing compares to that,” she says. “That’s resurgence. That’s revitalization. That’s reconciliation, because it’s honouring that they are the masters of their culture.”

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