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Engagement with Truth & Reconciliation: Role of Universities?

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“Universities can be sites for learning about and understanding truth—about our histories; they can thus create conditions for reconciliation amongst divided societies”, spoke Bob Rae (former premier of Ontario and leader of Liberal Party in Canada) at the inauguration of CUVIC 2014. Organised by the Institute for Studies and Innovation in Community-University Engagement at University of Victoria (Canada), the conference has brought together nearly 200 scholars and practitioners from across Canada and a dozen other countries to share knowledge for advancing community-university engagement.

Several interesting features have emerged in the deliberations of this conference. First, the history of indigenous communities in Canada has been allowed to be forgotten as civilisations that preceded European settlements. By denying this history, the early settlers also engaged in policies and practices that attempted to erase knowledge and culture of indigenous communities. In an attempt to re-claim that knowledge and history, a Witness Blanket created by Master Carver Carey Newman was also inaugurated at the conference.

Second, nearly a dozen Canadian universities have centres or institutes that are focused on facilitating as well as promoting community-university engagements. These centres also serve to analyse the impacts of engagements both on the community and university. A new network of Community- Based Research Canada is now attempting to weave a coalition of centres of excellence around Canada to improve both practice and policy in community engagements.

Third, there is a growing body of knowledge in improving practices of community-university engagements, especially in respect of knowledge partnerships. In articulating the essence of such partnerships, mutual respect, trust and benefit keep being re-affirmed. Some of the university-based researchers are seeking innovative approaches to ‘teach’ these principles to students and next generation of researchers.

Finally, the mechanisms of engagements demand significant transformations of universities and higher education institutions (HEIs) themselves. In order to be able to perform the functions of creating space for conversations about truth and reconciliation to take place in different societies, HEIs have to be able to critically reflect on their own policies, practices and cultures. If HEIs have to become the ‘safe’ space for speaking ‘truth to power’, they have to learn to give ‘power to truth’ as well. It is this manner that HEIs can contribute to, and leverage, community engagements in sustainable perspectives.

Rajesh Tandon May 21, 2014

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