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Tim McTiernan is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and a member of the board of directors of Universities Canada.

For most of us, Canada Day is time off from work, a red and white cake and fireworks as the sun goes down. Like any birthday celebration, it can be a bit inward-focused; celebrating "us" with barely a nod to the world Canada entered. This year, with the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission fresh in our minds, it's also an opportunity to reflect on the 148-year federation, how we all fit in and who we want to become through reconciliation.

The TRC has given us much to consider. It calls for a reset of the relationship between First Nations and non-indigenous communities. Canadian universities have a key role to play. The TRC specifically calls on educational institutions to engage with indigenous communities and be leaders in reconciliation.

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Canada's universities welcome the call. We're ready to do more.

Universities Canada, the national organization representing 97 universities across the country, will unveil this week new principles on indigenous education. These principles were developed by university leaders over the past year, to signal our shared commitment to enhancing educational opportunities for indigenous students – from kindergarten to postgraduate studies – and fostering reconciliation across Canada.

Higher education has much to contribute to a renewed relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada. The cohabitation of Western and indigenous knowledge on campuses has the power to open a dialogue among cultures, enhance our mutual understanding and make change happen.

There is a moral, social and economic imperative to act.

The aboriginal population in Canada is growing six times faster than the non-aboriginal population. Among them are 560,000 youths. Imagine the potential that brings. But fewer than 10 per cent of indigenous people in Canada have a university degree. That's about one-third of the national rate of 28 per cent. Potential doesn't go far without opportunity and nurturing.

Canada's education gap means that far too many aboriginal people are denied the quality of life that most of us have come to expect. Education has the power to transform lives, sustain cultures and strengthen communities.

Universities are committed to doing their part to close this gap. Among the 13 principles to be announced this week is institutional commitment at every level to develop more opportunities for indigenous students. That means everything from community partnerships to financial assistance, academic support and mentorship.

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The principles also recognize the importance of greater indigenization of the curriculum and enhanced indigenous education leadership at all levels of the university.

These commitments go beyond individual supports and acknowledge the need for a whole-of-community approach and meaningful interaction and dialogue. They recognize the importance of providing greater exposure and knowledge for non-indigenous students on the realities, histories, cultures and beliefs of indigenous people in Canada. And they underscore the need to foster deeper intercultural engagement among indigenous and non-indigenous students, faculty and staff.

The momentum is there. Many of these principles build on efforts already under way.

Throughout the country, there are now more than 350 university programs specifically designed for aboriginal students' access and success, with new initiatives coming on board.

Most universities in Canada partner with local aboriginal communities. In addition to supports on campus, many have successful outreach programs, providing educational support and mentoring opportunities to students starting as early as the elementary level.

Almost three out of five universities offer tailored counselling to meet the unique needs of aboriginal students. For example, the UOIT-Baagwating Indigenous Centre at my institution, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, has counsellors and elders available for supports on and off campus. Criminology student Angela Nagy, Algonquin, Migisi Odenaw, tells us, "This resource centre is a symbol to me, as a First Nations person that I am valued and celebrated here at UOIT and furthermore my culture is not forgotten and that is most important to me."

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We need to listen to young people like Angela.

In addition to my experience here at UOIT, I have witnessed the incredible potential of aboriginal young people through living and working in Northern Ontario, Yukon and British Columbia as a senior civil servant responsible for education policy. And I share with so many Canadians a newfound understanding of the power of reconciliation following the six years of hearings and the June closing events of Canada's Truth and Conciliation Commission. From both, I am left optimistic for the future.

Canada's universities will be the leaders the commission has called on us to be. And as we reflect on the multiple dimensions of what Canada Day really means, university leaders will do our part to help reset the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous communities, through education, dialogue and collective action. As we move toward Canada's sesquicentennial year in 2017, it's time to make things right.

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