A learning experience for the provost
Last August, Provost and Vice-President, Academic, Michael Benarroch, attended a four-day institute in the Yukon, along with School of Nutrition professor Sandra Juutilainen. Perspectives on Reconciliation, hosted by the McConnell Foundation, Yukon College and Vancouver Island University, was the first of its kind where presidents, vice-presidents and reconciliation leads from 31 colleges and universities across Canada gathered to explore ways to advance reconciliation with Indigenous communities.
Benarroch sat down with Ryerson Today to share what he learned from the trip, how those lessons can be applied at Ryerson and why there isn’t a straight path to reconciliation.
RT: You mentioned upon your return, external link about wanting to cultivate relationships with the Indigenous communities around campus. Can you please expand on what you meant by that?
MB: I think universities are structured in a way where we become focused on our work inside our borders. We teach our classes, we bring in students and we work with them; people do research and then they go out into the world to test those ideas, to collect data or to work with communities. If we really want to serve our community and the Indigenous community of urban Toronto, we need to go out and connect with them to find out what they need from the university.
It's really important to build relationships with Indigenous communities and to build trust over time. I think we need to do that as an institution, as a first step to being a place where Indigenous students want to come and study, where Indigenous faculty want to come and teach, where Indigenous staff want to come and work.
RT: What are the most recent actions the university has taken in line with moving those steps forward?
MB: One of the most recent things we've done is create a new role for the Elder of the university, Joanne Dallaire, and have her come to senior executive meetings at the board. It’s really important to have her voice at that table. One of the lessons I learned from Yukon College is that the role of Elder is very extensive in the education process and they have a number of different Elders.
We also committed to double the number of Indigenous faculty – we hired nine in 2019 – and we're working on a program to hire eight Indigenous staff in different areas of the university. Those eight staff members will help to develop a support program to ensure their success. We reintroduced the powwow – this was the second year, and that evolved from one day the first year to one week of education last year. We've established a series of working groups on many different things, including spaces on campus. We're working on curriculum matters through the Aboriginal Education Council. And there's an Indigenous caucus of faculty members now looking at Indigenizing our curriculum, plus we're allocating budget on a permanent basis to be able to do this.
RT: Providing a support system on campus sounds like more than changing policies, but also creating a culture of change on campus, which can be the hardest part.
MB: We want people to be able to come here and succeed. To give you an example, the hiring of nine Indigenous faculty is not an easy thing to do. Our existing Indigenous faculty worked very hard behind the scenes to help create an environment that is attractive to other Indigenous scholars and to share the kinds of things that we're trying to accomplish here. Our aim is to create a really positive environment where people's voices are heard and where we're empowering our Indigenous students, faculty and staff to take leadership roles in their work.
RT: How has attending the institute changed you as a leader?
MB: It's strengthened my resolve around the Indigenization of the university. It's strengthened my resolve around the importance of education – that's the world I come from, the world I work in, and the world that I can have an impact on. I think one of the things that I really understood when I was there was the importance of the leadership of the university, making this a priority and then putting resources behind that. The other thing that really changed me was gaining the understanding that we have to allow our Indigenous community to become empowered. To do that, sometimes we have to change the rules and the systems in which we work.
RT: I was curious about that, because you placed a lot of emphasis on the Elders, and all the knowledge that they hold and share with their community. Some of them have never had formal education. Is there something to be said about that cross section?
MB: Absolutely. At Yukon, we saw that amongst the different Elders, some grew up on the land and their stories were sometimes difficult to hear. Some of them haven't gone to formal post-secondary institutions, but the wisdom and knowledge is incredible. We have so much to learn from the Indigenous Peoples of Canada – the way they live, the harmony with the land, the way they view relations, the way they view their relationship with the world and their spirituality. There's so much wisdom there.
In universities, we've often defined that wisdom by getting a paper published. I think that's one of the things we’re challenged with – how do we bring that into an institution, value it, and understand that we're dealing with knowledge that has been acquired over hundreds and thousands of years? It's critical knowledge that we have to start listening to. The storytelling is knowledge that we can't lose, and I think one of the responsibilities of universities is to keep knowledge advancing and growing.
RT: What does reconciliation mean to you?
MB: I think reconciliation can mean a lot of things. To me, it actually means the first step towards helping – and in a university setting, the first step towards helping Indigenous communities become empowered within our educational system, the first step towards them achieving what their communities want to achieve within our higher education systems, and everything that then goes along with building the environment for that to happen. The step beyond that is allowing the Indigenous communities within our institutions to have control of the education that they provide. I think the control is a much more difficult challenge.
RT: And in the process of working towards reconciliation, do you think that's a linear process?
MB: No. None of this is linear and it changes every time we hire another Indigenous person; they bring a fresh perspective. Every time we bring new people on campus, they introduce new knowledge, new perspectives, new ideas, and so we shouldn't be stuck. It has to be a fluid process as the community grows. Hopefully, as those people come, new ideas will come forward, new discussions, new opportunities. As long as we don’t stop, as long as we don't move backwards, we’ll continue in the right direction.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This is one in a series of stories marking the two-year anniversary of Truth and Reconciliation at Ryerson: Building a Foundation for Generations to Come, the university’s community consultation report drafted in response to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2015 report.