Transforming our Educational Systems: Responding to the TRC and Federation’s “Igniting Change”

Blog
May 16, 2022
Author(s):
Lisa Semchuk, Acting Policy Lead, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

At Congress 2022, the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education hosted an interdisciplinary session in collaboration with the Canadian Society for the Study of Education and the Canadian Sociological Association, titled Transforming our Educational Systems: Responding to the TRC and Federation’s “Igniting Change.” A panel of top researchers, practitioners, and institutional leaders reflected on pathways to transformative action, equity, and justice in education. Panelists included Dr. Malinda Smith (University of Calgary), Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek (York University), Dr. Catherine Cook (University of Manitoba) and Dr. D-L Stewart (Morgridge College of Education, University of Denver).

“Now more than ever we must focus on that second ‘D’ [for decolonization] in EDID.”

Dr. Malinda Smith noted the trajectory that led to the Igniting Change report, including the racial profiling of Black graduate student Shelby McPhee during Congress 2019 and the resignation of the Federation’s Indigenous Advisory Circle in 2020 in response to the awarding of the Prix du Canada to authors Michel Bouchard, Guillaume Marcotte, and Sébastien Malette for their book Les Bois-Brûlés de l’Outaouais: une étude ethnoculturelle des Métis de la Gatineau. As former VP of Equity and Diversity at the Federation, Dr. Smith’s work included moving from EDI to EDID and publishing the Igniting Change report.

Dr. Smith shared that the complexity of EDID necessitates deeper engagement — this means going beyond appeasement and statements of conviction to embedding EDID as a way of practice. The Igniting Change report includes better practices for inclusive conferences, and was released shortly before the Federation’s endorsement of a Charter focused on the responsibilities of HSS disciplines in EDID. These documents not only outline the steps that the Federation is taking towards EDID, but also requires ongoing accountability from the Federation. 

Changing relationships and dynamics will take time, though scholarly associations can continue to push for these changes.

“We cannot transform a system that we do not fully acknowledge is rooted in ongoing colonialism.”

Deep transformative changes are needed to achieve reconciliation, Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek stated. But before we reconcile, we must unpack the history and ongoing legacy of colonization in Canada. These systems cannot be transformed if we do not first acknowledge the fact that residential schools were a key component of the Canadian government policy of cultural genocide. 

Dr. Cote-Meek's grandfather survived residential schools, but the ongoing legacy of colonization in educational institutions still lives on. We need to move beyond simply creating awareness to digging deeper, examining how systemic inequities persist despite our continued efforts. To do this, support from the highest levels of leadership is needed from within the Federation and post-secondary education. To address colonialism, we must also address issues related to land and resources.

It will take a long-standing effort to rebuild trust and relationships. In order to achieve reconciliation, the truth must be acknowledged — even when these truths are hard to hear. 

“Where might we be now, if Indigenous ways of teaching and knowing hadn’t been driven underground?”

Dr. Catherine Cook described the ways Canada has minimized and undermined Indigenous ways of being. Indigenous approaches to teaching and learning were deemed unworthy, and Indigenous people were forced into an education system that was never intended to be an education system. 

Changes to academia should play out at three different levels, Dr. Cook suggested. First, at an individual level, education and training are key for influencing actions and behaviours. Our responsibility in academia is to ensure that when students leave our systems, they have learned the true history of Indigenous people in Canada and are committed to being part of change.

At an operational or systemic level, we must review and revise policies to ensure equitable opportunities and access to education or culturally safe spaces. At an organization or governance level, there must be Indigenous representation and consultation with Indigenous communities to meet their needs. There must also be funding commitments to support Indigenous strategies with appropriate leadership. 

“How can we think of an otherwise beyond what we have already been given?”

Dr. D-L Stewart calls on institutions to resist exceptionalism and appeasement. Institutions should resist celebrating or seeking credit for publishing EDID statements, and instead move towards a realignment of goals. 

Dr. Stewart also challenges us to ask: what are we here for? We should not only re-examine the goals of academic institutions, but also our own goals as individuals within these institutions. We also must consider how we are going to realize these goals in ways that divest from the benefits of settler colonialism, and instead benefit Black and Indigenous communities. 

This requires moving from a perspective of “we are better than we were before” to asking “what more must we desire in order to achieve these transformations at individual, systemic, and organizational levels?” We must think about realigning and completely re-envision how we do our business, and we cannot allow institutions to force us into small thinking.


This deep, transformative action takes time and the rebuilding of relationships, as all speakers noted, but the depth of that commitment should not cause organizations to hesitate in implementing EDID practices. You can read more about the actions the Federation is taking in the Igniting Change report, and the Federation’s 2022 EDID Progress Update