Arts aims to create more welcoming environment for Indigenous people

New strategic plan guides how faculty will strive for more respectful relationships.


A new academic strategic plan from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Arts aims in part to create a more welcoming environment for Indigenous students, staff and faculty.

The Indigenous component of the plan—approved by the Arts Faculty Council last November and released last March—has emerged from the success of a TRC Action Committee struck in 2015 following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report.

Called “Respectful Relations,” the goal is to “increase the presence and support the success of Indigenous scholars, staff, and students while enriching research, creative activity, and teaching that respectfully engages with Indigenous knowledges and communities.”

A new working group on Indigenous initiatives will be responsible for ensuring progress toward the goal beginning July 1. Many initiatives, however, have already been underway over the past few years.

In addition to increasing the number of Indigenous students by 28 per cent since 2015—from 145 to 185—and strategically hiring emerging and established Indigenous scholars, the faculty has also augmented counselling and financial resources for students, said vice-dean Michael O’Driscoll.

It’s not just about numbers, though, O’Driscoll insists. It’s about collaboratively designing the conditions for access, support and success.

Inviting elders to inform teaching and research is a crucial part of the strategy, said O’Driscoll.

The faculty is also investigating ways to integrate more Indigenous content into curriculum.

O’Driscoll cited one new creative writing course called “The Poetics of Treaty,” in which students learn what it means to honour and respect treaties, guided by a professor and local elder who focuses on nêhiyawwewin (Cree language) concepts that inform Indigenous understanding of those relations.

It’s the kind of team teaching the faculty would like to encourage, said O’Driscoll, “but we’re trying to sort out how to make that sustainable and such relationships must be carefully nurtured.

"One problem is the tendency to put too much pressure on certain elders to meet the needs of the university all the time. There's a legitimate concern about burning them out,” he said.

In the long run, however, increasing the Indigenous presence is only one part of responding authentically to the spirit of the TRC. The tougher challenge, said O’Driscoll, is facing down unconscious bias and ferreting out entrenched colonial practices to which many members of the university community may be blind.

That means if there are administrative or bureaucratic structures that hamper Indigenous scholars or students, they may need to be modified, said O’Driscoll.

It also means embracing different ways of knowing and pursuing research that may at first seem counterintuitive, added Kisha Supernant, a Métis scholar in the Department of Anthropology, because the reality is the academy “is still quite an alienating place for a lot of us.

"You can bring people in, but unless you're changing the culture around how we think about research, supporting the different kinds of research Indigenous people might want to do, then you're creating a structural inequity," she said.

"Certainly I think the arts faculty is moving in the right direction,” she said. “I was reviewing the previous strategic plan, and there's no mention of Indigenous faculty, students or staff at all.”

She cautioned against placing the burden of change on Indigenous members of the campus community rather than sharing it amongst all, adding that a culture shift that truly accommodates Indigenous people will likely make workplaces better for all.

"I actually think there's a lot we can all learn from Indigenous ways of being and knowing.”

While the university is pursuing reconciliation in good faith so far, with many initiatives across campus genuinely attempting to address past inequities, O’Driscoll warned against complacency.

"We can't be too self-congratulatory,” he said. “We have a long way to go. And by no means do we think we have this figured out.”

Neither can we let the TRC momentum fade, added Supernant.

"We have to keep it alive. There has been a flurry of activity since the release of the TRC report, but what I worry is it won't be a sustained. We do this for a few years and then move on to something else.

“We may make mistakes along the way, but if we continue to engage, things will get better."