Blaine Favel is chancellor at the University of Saskatchewan, a Calgary lawyer and a former grand chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. Peter Stoicheff is president of the University of Saskatchewan.
In what is believed to be the first provincewide commitment of its kind in Canada, Saskatchewan's 24 postsecondary institutions have pledged to work together on closing the aboriginal education gap – a gap largely due to the residential school system and its intergenerational consequences.
The accord was announced on the eve of a significant national forum held last week at the University of Saskatchewan – the first time university presidents and aboriginal leaders from across Canada have gathered to discuss how universities will address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) calls to action for postsecondary education.
The joint statement acknowledges the importance of building reconciliation and of working in consultation with aboriginal communities. It's a sign of the momentum building across Canada for universities and colleges to help reset the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples and address the education gap.
That gap is wide: Less than 10 per cent of indigenous people aged 25 to 64 across Canada have a university degree – about one-third the national rate of around 27 per cent, according to 2011 Statistics Canada data.
In the wake of the TRC's calls to action last June, Canada's universities are examining how they can make changes within the core of their institutions, engage more effectively with indigenous communities and become leaders and partners in building reconciliation.
"Education is the key to reconciliation at all levels," Justice Murray Sinclair, chairman of the commission, told the University of Saskatchewan forum, echoing a statement he made a few years ago that "education, or what passed for it, got us into this situation, and education is what will get us out."
Reconciliation, which is fundamentally about engendering mutual respect, is imperative if we are to make Canada a better place for us all living and working together. To its credit, the new federal government seems to see this clearly. Carolyn Bennett, the new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, reminded the forum that "reconciliation is not an aboriginal issue; it is a Canadian issue."
We all have a role to play, and it is imperative that the country's leading cultural change institutions – the nation's universities – take up the challenge issued by Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, to "do more to bring about a reconciliation in Canada."
With their research, teaching and community engagement mandates, universities are uniquely positioned to change the national conversation.
Universities are the places where tomorrow's influential teachers, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, journalists and other professionals are trained and educated. These graduates will be change agents.
Closing the education gap is particularly important at the University of Saskatchewan, where we have one of the largest aboriginal student populations in the country, with almost 2,500 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students in 2014-15 –12 per cent of our student body.
The disparity in educational outcomes makes a huge difference for the economic prospects of indigenous peoples. With a university degree, indigenous graduates can earn 50 per cent more than their peers with only a high-school diploma.
And we need to see much higher aboriginal graduation rates in all parts of the university, not just the traditional ones of education, nursing and law.
Two-thirds of Canada's universities now offer programs to help indigenous students transition into university studies. But once they arrive on campus, the curriculum often does not feel welcoming and respectful of aboriginal history, languages and ways of knowing.
The many innovative ideas generated at our forum on how to make universities a more welcoming place for aboriginal students and how to better enable aboriginal students to succeed and excel will be captured in a report to Universities Canada.
It is encouraging that this critical conversation between university presidents and aboriginal leaders will continue; the University of Alberta plans to hold a similar forum next year.
Meaningful change and rebuilding trust in the education system will not happen overnight, but it must happen.
Universities must be at the forefront of valuing the many ways to be Canadian. We need to do a better job of educating all students about the treaties, the residential school system and indigenous rights.
Dr. Bennett recalled that when she was at university, everyone had to swim a length of the pool to graduate. "I don't think it's too much to ask that everyone graduating from a Canadian university should have some exposure to indigenous studies," she said.
We cannot deem our role in the fostering of a civil society a success unless we become demonstrably, and with commitment, the best place we can possibly be for the aboriginal people of this country.
The question is no longer "why," but "how" and "if not now, when?" Canada's 150th birthday is coming up in 2017 and we must be sure that there is something for the country's indigenous people to celebrate.