Tetpawtihkene. Ilsu’teka’tiqw. A New Path, A Shared Vision, A New Direction.
After 6,750 witness statements, six years of hearings, and more than 1,000 pages in the final report, we now have the 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address one hundred years of abuse at residential schools.
To begin a process of meaningful reconciliation, Canadians must “hear” these Calls, and when we want a passage to register, we read it aloud. This is why STU held a public reading of the 94 Calls to Action. Students from our bachelor of arts program, the School of Social Work, and the School of Education—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students—read the Calls aloud in an event that was solemn and joyful.
We called our Public Reading of the 94 Calls to Action “A New Path, A Shared Vision, A New Direction.” The Wolastoqey word is “Tetpawtihkene” and it means “’let’s re-align our path towards a shared vision.” The Mi’kmaq Word is “Ilsu’teka’tiqw,” meaning “re-aligning our path and coming together towards a new direction.”
These are the same words in different languages. They embody the common aspiration that shared leadership, courage, and conviction can bring about meaningful actions that will heal the wounds of the past and start us on a path of reconciliation.
This gathering at STU, on traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik, also spoke to the role that education will play in reconciliation. The Commission has called on Canada’s universities to be leaders in re-setting the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities through education, dialogue, and collective action.
While STU has much to do in order to answer this challenge, we have a strong foundation on which to build. We have had a positive relationship with Indigenous communities since Andrew Nicholas graduated from St. Thomas High School in the early 1950s.
Since that time, STU has educated Indigenous students who have become teachers, social workers, lawyers, business leaders, community leaders, and leaders in a host of other fields. Today, we have 160 Indigenous students which is 9% of our enrollment. Indigenous professors make up 4% of faculty. Both of these percentages are above provincial and national averages.
STU was the first university in Canada to establish a Chair in Native Studies. Our Mi’kmaq / Maliseet bachelor of social work program has trained Indigenous social workers. Informative and rigorous courses are offered through our Native Studies program. The bachelor of education program offers a Native education course. In fact, last year, for the first time in the province, one of our education students graduated with her Indigenous language as a teachable subject. A language immersion program has been developed to address the decline in Native language fluency, and STU offers courses at St. Mary’s and Elsipogtog First Nations.
Our Advisory Council for Aboriginal Student Services includes representatives from Maliseet and Mi’kmaq First Nations, as well as First Nations faculty and students. Trenton Augustine and Wendy Matthews are recruiting Indigenous students and supporting those already enrolled. Our Elder-in-Residence Miigam’agan is providing support to students and is a link to First Nations communities. At the Wabanaki Resource Centre Indigenous students have their own space on campus.
Indigenous faculty and students have already made a tremendous contribution at St. Thomas, and we are confident that we can encourage more Indigenous students to pursue a post-secondary education.
Now looking to the future, what is STU doing to answer the challenge issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
Our Senate Committee on the Indigenization of the Academy is beginning its work to respond to the 94 Calls to Action. We have brought together professors, Indigenous student representatives, and our Endowed Chair in Native Studies to develop our response. After our public reading, a film series will present the history and plight of Indigenous peoples in Canada. A speaker series will feature community leaders from Indigenous groups. We will host a conference on what “Indigenization of the Academy” means and we will outline practical steps with accountable timelines.
These steps are our part in advancing reconciliation through education. We are a university, so there will likely be more questions than answers, but we have to be honest, ambitious, optimistic, and determined as we turn words into “actionable deeds.”
Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair famously said that education is “what got us into this mess, but education is the key to reconciliation.”
We have seen how a university education can change a life, now we have to multiply that benefit for a greater number of Indigenous students and do our part for reconciliation.
Hon. Graydon Nicholas is the Endowed Chair in Native Studies and Dawn Russell is the President and Vice-Chancellor of St. Thomas University.