By Dr. Annette Trimbee, UWinnipeg President; Dr. Neil Besner, Provost & Vice-President Academic; Dr. Wab Kinew, Associate Vice-President Indigenous Affairs; Peyton Veitch, UWSA President; Kevin Settee, UWSA Vice-President External; Sadie Phoenix-Lavoie, UWinnipeg Aboriginal Student Council Female Co-President
This week questions arose on our campus regarding the role of Indigenous spirituality at our institution, specifically concerning a pipe ceremony. An elder, who is also an academic, requested that women wear skirts, and another elder requested that the prayer not be photographed by media. We view this as a learning opportunity for everyone at The University of Winnipeg, one that is particularly poignant given the recent tabling of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) executive summary report.
The pipe ceremony itself was held as part of our consultations toward an Indigenous course requirement, a proposal made by students. We are now formulating a plan for implementing the requirement, which will be subject to Senate approval. The questions we are asking include “should this be one course for all students?” or “should this be a long list of different courses that students could choose from?” Student leaders requested that some of the consultations proceed with an Indigenous approach, such as a pipe ceremony, where following an invocation, everyone is free to speak.
To respond specifically to the concerns raised, we point out that photos of the pipe ceremony were taken and disseminated by the Winnipeg Free Press, in contradiction of the request made by the elder, and that no one was turned away from the pipe ceremony, regardless of dress. We see here an example of the inclusive nature of Indigenous cultures: even those who didn’t follow cultural protocols were welcomed to participate.
There are broader issues at play here as well. We are undertaking a process of indigenizing The University of Winnipeg at the same time that our nation is engaged in a process of Truth and Reconciliation, whose aim is to acknowledge the dysfunctional aspects of our past and present while working towards a mutually beneficial future. We endorse the TRC’s calls to action and commit to implementing those which apply to us.
The TRC recommends teaching all educators, doctors, nurses and public servants about Indigenous culture, history and rights. Other calls to action in the TRC report mandate the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by both the private sector and government. This means that everyone who is currently working or plans to one day work in Manitoba needs to have a baseline of knowledge about Inuit, Métis and First Nations peoples. We see this as a strong rationale for the Indigenous course requirement. What better role for a public post-secondary institution to play than to provide education directed at the public good of reconciliation?
Yet in the pursuit of that reconciliation, we must also tell the truth about the role the academy has played in getting us to this point in our collective history. Elements, and in some cases misinterpretations, of western intellectual traditions have been used to justify some of the worst acts perpetrated against Indigenous peoples, including residential schools. In some cases academic research went beyond providing a rationale and resulted in actual physical experimentation, such as nutritional experiments conducted on Indigenous children in the 1940s and 1950s which used banned food additives that resulted in harmful side effects.
We and many others in the academy have worked hard to reverse this legacy. We believe that everyone working with us today has good intentions. Yet, if we are being completely honest, the work of removing harmful attitudes and histories from post-secondary institutions is not complete.
We understand this process will be uncomfortable for some. For some non-Indigenous people, the challenge Indigenous Knowledge might offer to a worldview we have grown up with or spent a career investigating can be unsettling. For some Indigenous people the questioning of our beliefs and ceremonies, even if grounded in a desire to do right, calls to mind past eras in which privilege was used to justify the removal of our children and worse. We know these conversations for many, regardless of background, raise questions of identity, worth and equity.
Yet we also firmly believe in the premise that our nation is founded on: that people from all walks of life can come together on these lands to reach their full potential. We recognize this is embedded in our constitution which recognizes a broad equality for all, while at the same time affording unique rights to those who are Métis, Inuit and First Nations. We don’t have all the answers as to what that means. We are, however, convinced that this University should be one of the sites where respectful, informed and constructive conversations on this topic can take place.
In pursuing this agenda we believe that we can preserve the things that everyone loves about UWinnipeg – the strong academic standards, the liberal arts tradition, the smaller class sizes – while creating new space for the strength, wisdom and insights of Indigenous nations
So we stand together, acknowledging that we have come a long way, but also cognizant of the fact that our work is not done. We have more to do as an institution, and more to do as a nation.
The TRC has drawn us a map for how to move forward.
It is now up to all of us to set out on this journey. We as UWinnipeg students, administrators, faculty and members of the broader community commit to taking those steps together.