The president of the University of Victoria says its inaugural Indigenous Plan is part and parcel of efforts to help reverse the legacies of colonialism.
UVic president Jamie Cassels told an audience some 100 people that the “history of colonization, the associated attitudes, policies, laws and institutions” created barriers for Indigenous people to access higher education. “And we are committed to removing and resolving these barriers as best we can,” he said.
Audience members included UVic chancellor Shelagh Rogers, faculty members, students and representatives of several local First Nations. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the late morning presentation held at First Peoples House was emotional speech by Ron George of the Cowichan Nation, a member of the university’s Elders’ Voices.
In the speech, he described his experiences in Canada’s residential school system, called on audience members to help protect the local environment by planting a cedar tree, and performed a prayer song. He also used the speech to stress the importance of education for Indigenous people but also warn against broken promises.
“I have been involved one way or another with Indigenous education for 40 years, both as a participant and in the delivery of our educational programming,” he said. “I have seen many great ideas and plans fall by the wayside. We hear those words. Sometimes, they can become so hollow, because there wasn’t the political will to move them forward. So while today may be an historic day at UVic with the launch of the plan, I want to remind us all, that in order to become reality…we need to work together.”
Robina Thomas, interim executive director, indigenous academic and community engagement, said the plan consists out of five strands: students, faculty and staff, education, research and governance.
Among other measures, the university hopes to increase the current indigenous student enrolment of around 5 per cent across campus by raising the number of reserved seats, access programs, preferential selection and other opportunities. The university also commits itself to “ensuring our curricula do not perpetuate colonial and/or racist content or perspectives.”
The university plans to increase the current number of indigenous faculty and staff. It currently employs 90 indigenous people, including 25 faculty members. Its overall number is under 900.
The university also wants to ensure students in professional programs become knowledgeable about Indigenous history, culture and the impact of colonialism if they will serve and interact with Indigenous peoples and communities. The university also aims to review existing programs and develop an Indigenous Studies Major, complementing the existing Indigenous Studies Minor among other measures under the rubric of education.
Turning to research, the university sets out to “establish and promote culturally appropriate and inclusive definitions, guiding principles and protocols” involving Indigenous research participants, communities or lands among other measures. They include the identification of resources for Indigenous research chairs, graduate student scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships.
Turning to governance, the university plans to review and potentially revise the governance structure for Indigenous programming, initiatives and engagement. Under this heading, the university plans to develop an Indigenous Community Engagement Council to provide a forum for discussion among UVic leaders, local chiefs and community leaders.
Thursday’s announcement marked the conclusion of UVic’s Indigenous Week of Welcome. Held every September and January, UVic’s holds a series of events and activities to orient and support self-identified Indigenous students.