A year before James Bird came to U of T in 2010, he testified at the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission about his experiences in a residential school in the Northwest Territories. Among other things, he spoke about running away and being returned by police. When the commission released its report last June, Bird read the 94 calls to action aimed at reconciling the relationship between Canada’s indigenous and non-indigenous people with interest.
Now Bird is a member of a 14-person committee comprising staff, faculty, administration, students and elders charged with taking action on the commission’s educational recommendations. “Starting this dialogue on reconciliation is so important not just to the university, but to the rest of Canada,” says Bird, an Aboriginal Studies major who has been studying part-time since enrolling at U of T through the Transitional Year Programme.
Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo, director of aboriginal student services at First Nations House – and co-chair of the committee with Munk School of Global Affairs director Stephen Toope – says U of T has a strong foundation of programs related to indigenous people. “Now it’s time to look at the commission’s calls to action and advance the work that’s already happening here.”
Hamilton-Diabo cites the support and outreach offered by First Nations House – established in 1992 – as one of the university’s existing strengths, and believes it has contributed greatly to encouraging indigenous students to attend U of T. Since he began working at the university in 2000, he has witnessed a growth in indigenous faculty members, academic programming and research, and resources such as the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health. “The interest in indigenous issues has increased at all levels of the university, and it’s opened a lot of doors for me as a staff member,” he says. “It just wasn’t on the radar for some people when I started.”
But Hamilton-Diabo and Bird stress that there is much work to be done to meet the challenges presented by the commission. Many, but not all, faculties have expanded the representation of indigenous people in their curricula, teaching staff and student body. “It shouldn’t be about adding one aboriginal course, or only setting up programs that are aboriginal-specific. It should be a constant presence of indigenous voices across the institution,” says Hamilton-Diabo.
While they agree that the committee’s work will be a long-term, complex process, they are optimistic about it. The group began meeting in February and will present an interim report by July 1. The final recommendations are due December 31. “There’s a window for reconciliation now, and I don’t think it’s going to stay open forever,” says Bird. “We’re in an important time when we can do the work to make this real.”
Read the latest edition of U of T’s First Nations House magazine.