Education essential to reconciliation efforts, says expert

September 23, 2021

Education must lead when it comes to reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. Education professor Candace Brunette-Debassige described the importance of education and how it can assist reconciliation efforts during the International Leadership Association’s (ILA) podcast, Phronesis: Practical Wisdom for Leaders.

Out of the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 13 address the need for education.

In particular, Brunette-Debassige highlighted the commission’s emphasis on revitalization of Indigenous languages. Many Indigenous languages in Canada are endangered because students were prohibited from speaking their language in residential schools, and when they did, they were beaten for doing that, Brunette-Debassige said.

"My grandmother was apprehended by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. She was physically removed from her home at the age of seven and she was forced to attend this school,” Brunette-Debassige said. “She was prohibited from speaking Cree and she was taught that to be Cree was backward because the purpose of residential schools was to assimilate Indigenous Peoples into the dominant society."

Education is also important because most Canadians don’t know the history of residential schools. At the same time, most Indigenous Peoples and the general population are geographically and socially isolated from each other, which prevents relationships and conversations about these issues from happening, Brunette-Debassige said.

“Whether they're new immigrants or their families have been here for a long time, we all benefit from Treaties and the silence and historic amnesia that the country has when it comes to its responsibilities to Indigenous Peoples,” Brunette-Debassige said. “When we have Indigenous Peoples in the driver’s seat and helping to inform what we're being taught and the stories that we’re sharing in our classrooms, we can start to undo the historical amnesia that is pervasive within society and the education system.”

Brunette-Debassige is a leader in education. She was recently appointed as the Teaching Fellow for Indigenous learning at Western University. She’s also been Western’s Acting Vice-Provost & Associate Vice-President (Indigenous Initiatives). With more than 15 years of experience serving Indigenous students and communities in educational settings, she has served as Director of Indigenous Services at Western where she was involved in the development of Western’s first Indigenous Strategic Plan.

Prior to joining Western, Brunette-Debassige was the Aboriginal Education Advisor for the Thames Valley District School Board and served in several roles related to the recruitment and support of Indigenous students at the University of Toronto.

Brunette-Debassige also stressed higher education has a responsibility towards reconciliation, especially decolonizing the academy. Deconstructing the Eurocentric view of the university and including Indigenous knowledges as part of research – and how it contributes to the nation – are important for reconciliation to occur.

While decolonizing the university is a work in progress, there’s been some success. At Western, Indigenous Peoples can wear their traditional regalia during convocation.

“That was a huge moment for us the first time we could do that, and to see what it meant to Indigenous students makes it all worth it,” Brunette-Debassige said.

But, there’s still more work to do, especially recruiting Indigenous students to Western. Brunette-Debassige said Indigenous students currently make up 1.5 per cent of the student population while they should be around five per cent, which is approximately their percentage of the total population.

“I'm even talking about going deeper than that – what are the policies and how do they support Indigenous Peoples, maintaining who we are and still contributing to the university environment,” Brunette-Debassige said.

The ILA was created in 1999 to bring together professionals with a keen interest in the study, practice, and teaching of leadership. 

Listen to the podcast.