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The Globe and Mail

The promise of reconciliation: indigenous knowledge waiting in the wings

Cindy Blackstock is director of Equity and Diversity, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Stephen Toope is president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Toronto.

It wasn't until the early 1960s that indigenous peoples in Canada could obtain a post-secondary education without renouncing their status for themselves and their descendants. Education at all levels played a devastating role in colonization.

The post-secondary sector must take up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action to ensure all Canadians are equipped with the knowledge and skills to respect and learn from indigenous peoples, languages and knowledge.

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Many obstacles remain for indigenous youth trying to access their educational rights – most notably, the large funding gap in social services, including education, on reserves which has persisted for decades. This gap remains, despite the publication of countless reports and the January, 2016, ruling of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that found that the government was racially discriminating against children on reserves by not providing equitable child welfare services.

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and many other post-secondary actors have called for dropping the long standing cap on spending on aboriginal education, and moving urgently to equitable funding. Justice requires no less.

But access and support for indigenous students is only part of the equation. Perhaps less easy to acknowledge for a sector that prides itself on knowledge and expertise, is to recognize and respect indigenous peoples and knowledge. Our university and college scholars and institutions have a vital responsibility to educate Canadians about the important contributions indigenous peoples have made, and continues to make, to the benefit of us all.

Much work remains: A recent Environics public opinion poll showed that, while there is increasing awareness of indigenous peoples and an openness to learning more about their cultures and experiences, Canadians' perspectives are still skewed by negative stereotypes.

As we consider the challenges facing Canada on its 150th birthday, the possibilities for all to benefit from increased engagement with indigenous communities and knowledge are clear. Kudos to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna for underscoring this in a recent speech at the Assembly of First Nations annual meeting, where she insisted that indigenous knowledge is key in assessing resource projects and climate effects. Indeed, it has the potential to positively shape many aspects of society.

Aboriginal scholars such as John Borrows, Canada Research Chair in indigenous law at University of Victoria, are exploring ways to improve the Canadian legal system by drawing on Indigenous traditions. Non-Aboriginal scholar Nancy Turner, ethno-ecologist at University of Victoria and 2016 Canada Prize winner, collaborates with indigenous communities to document and promote traditional knowledge of botany and ecology.

There is a growing number of first-rate indigenous faculty in Canadian universities, and increasing examples of Elders – in residence programs from Dalhousie to Lakehead to Vancouver Island University. But there is too much work and pressure on the shoulders of too few. The government of Canada should take note of the need for this expertise in its ongoing plans to review federal support for 'Fundamental Science' and to appoint a Chief Science Officer.

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To be clear, indigenous knowledge must not become the next 'bandwagon' of expertise; we must avoid expropriation of knowledge without the informed consent of indigenous peoples. Universities have to open themselves to include indigenous knowledge across all of teaching, research and administration, with indigenous peoples as guides – while ensuring non-indigenous peoples are active learners and allies in the reconciliation endeavour.

This is a huge and complex task, but one we can and must take on. As then prime minister Stephen Harper stated in the June, 2008, federal government apology for the Indian Residential Schools system, "The burden is properly ours as a Government, and as a country."

Blackfoot scholar Leroy Little Bear argues that, as the gatekeepers of knowledge, universities and colleges should reflect on how Western thought has shaped them, and work to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing the world. At Congress 2016 in Calgary, he laid out an eloquent challenge: that indigenous knowledge is "waiting in the wings" for its chance to be valued to the benefit of all.

It's time this agenda moved to centre stage.

Cindy Blackstock is executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, and professor at McGill University. Stephen Toope is director at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

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