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Decolonisation in Practice: The University of Victoria Releases its First Indigenous Plan

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We read much in the news of higher education around the world about decolonisation.  We have heard of the struggles in South Africa where political apartheid was ended, but epistemic apartheid was not. We have heard of the debates about taking down the statues of colonial figures at universities such as Oxford.  Perhaps less is known about the decolonising efforts underway in the field of higher education in Canada.  Stimulated by the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Report in 2015, Universities along with nearly every structure of government, culture, law and society have been responding to the call to action. This blog reports on the first Indigenous plan released by the University of Victoria. The University of Victoria has taken the responsibilities to Canada’s Indigenous People seriously for many years, but the new plan takes its commitment to a deeper, more detailed and comprehensive level. The action taken by the University of Victoria and increasingly by other universities across Canada represent a critical and positive development to the challenges of epistemic justice and as a correction to over 150 years of cultural genocide. The Indigenous Plan is an illustration of what decolonisation, often a rather vague concept, looks like in practice.

In the introduction to the plan an important acknowledgement is made to the role that post-secondary institutions have played in the perpetuation of colonial systems.  This is true for Canada as it is true in all parts of the world.

“As this is the University of Victoria’s first Indigenous Plan, it is important to begin with an acknowledgement of the role that educational institutions, including post-secondary institutions, have played in the perpetuation of colonial systems, both historically and in
contemporary times. One hundred and fifty thousand Indigenous children were sent to residential schools in Canada and many others attended Indian day schools. Between 1876 and 1985, Status Indians in Canada automatically lost their federal recognition upon earning a
university degree or becoming a professional, such as a doctor or lawyer. The intergenerational impacts of these decisions remain the legacy of many Indigenous students who seek higher education today. The University makes a commitment to reconciliation that involves recognizing how colonizing structures and relationships impact Indigenous students.”

The Indigenous Plan is presented as a cedar weaving. The cedar tree is a sacred tree for the Indigenous People of Western Canada.  Its bark makes baskets and ropes.  It was historically woven as cloth. It is medicine.  It is used to carve house poles and other sacred symbols.  It is used for carving canoes.  The strands of the Indigenous Plan include: students, academic and administrative staff, education, research and governance.

Included in the plan are a myriad of actions that are being taken up across every sector of the University of Victoria. In my own School of Public Administration where I teach community development, we have created a Committee on Decolonisation and Indigenisation of the Curriculum.  Other actions being implemented include:

  • Increased recruitment, retention and success of Indigenous students
  • Increased recruitment, retention and success of Indigenous academic staff
  • Recognition of Indigenous approaches to research based on community identification of issues
  • Increased academic programming for Indigenous students
  • Increased opportunities for all students to learn about Indigenous centred ways of knowing
  • Increased institutional resources and support for Indigenous students, academic and administrative staff

In Canada’s case, we have had 150 years of formal colonial governance resulting in cultural genocide through the breaking of hereditary linkages in the use, preservation and safe-guarding of Indigenous culture and language.  The transformation of Canada’s universities remains an extraordinary challenge that will take scores, perhaps hundreds of years.  But in a world where hope is often in short supply, the steps taken by the University of Victoria can be seen as concrete, positive and hopeful.

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