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Four Promising Practices for Decolonizing Post-Secondary Institutions

By Heather Burke, Sharon Hobenshield & Ariane Campbell

This post is excerpted from Lessons for Decolonizing Post-Secondary Institutions. You can find the full article on The Ripple Effect Project, the Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement’s blog.

Vancouver Island University partnered with the Mastercard Foundation in 2017 on the EleV Program, which aims to boost the success of Indigenous students at post-secondary. EleV is driven by Indigenous communities and young people and is tailored to each regional context, but broadly aims to support Indigenous learners throughout their post-secondary educational journeys and on to meaningful work, consistent with their visions of Mino-Bimaadiziwin (meaning “living in a good way” in Anishinaabemowin, the Anishinaabe language).

At VIU, EleV is focused on providing Nation-matched scholarships and culturally relevant programming and supports for Indigenous students using a co-creation approach. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action demand the elimination of educational gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. This encompasses a call to improve educational attainment levels and success rates for Indigenous students, as well as for post-secondary institutions to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods. The rich learnings from VIU’s EleV program have illustrated four key recommendations in how these aspirations might be furthered.

Through this powerful learning lens, some key insights and recommendations have surfaced which can inform the journey towards decolonization for post-secondary institutions: 

Incorporate Indigenous values and knowledges into the classroom

Educational institutions in Canada overwhelmingly reflect Western frameworks in their structures, processes, physical spaces, as well as what is taught and how it is taught. We’ve learned that incorporating Indigenous values into the classroom can make a real difference. Indigenous students feel seen and heard when values such as reciprocity, whole person learning, and recognition that knowledge transcends the intellectual to the physical, spiritual and emotional realms are incorporated into the classroom.

Decolonize student services by providing whole person networked support

Indigenous Education Navigators are an essential part of EleV’s successes at VIU. They provide holistic, wrap-around support to Indigenous students, including coordinating closely with Nations and other university and social services. They “decolonize” student services by providing individualized, culturally relevant supports; building authentic, trusting and family-like relationships; and providing comprehensive outreach to understand whole-student needs and support where they are at.

Rethinking university accommodation/withdrawals to recognize trauma and the healing journey

One of the key findings in EleV learning has been that for many Indigenous students, completing post-secondary education is a winding path rather than a straight line. Due to the systemic inequities caused by colonialism, trauma is more prevalent in the Indigenous student population and some are going through a healing journey alongside their learning journey. The Navigators have supported students in the withdrawal process to ensure they have set themselves up for success should they wish to return to school in the future. This includes following all withdrawal procedures correctly (e.g. no fees outstanding, not getting to the point where an F goes on the transcript) and understanding any future funding implications.

Building deep relationships with Indigenous communities for ongoing listening & co-creation

One of VIU’s fundamental values is working to build and maintain positive reciprocal relationships with Indigenous communities across the three language groups on Vancouver Island: the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwakwaka’wakw territories as well as the Métis Nation. Through EleV, VIU’s ongoing deep listening with communities has evolved into active co-creation – where community voice is integral not only to the design but also to the ongoing iteration and development of programming supporting Indigenous students. Co-creation with communities is essential not only for supportive programming, but also for educational content and curriculum.

Conclusion

As discovered through VIU’s EleV learning process, if we are to truly move toward Indigenization and decolonization at universities, we need to hear Indigenous voices within existing governance structures and see Indigenous people in faculty positions and leadership roles on campus. We still need Indigenous people informing university curriculum, teaching and learning, research, policies and program development writ large if we are to see systemic change impacting students.

Thirty years after Kirkness & Barnhardt (1991) wrote First Nations and Higher Education: the Four R’s – Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility we are beginning to see movement towards education for Indigenous students which “respect learners for who they are, that is relevant to their view of the world, that offers reciprocity in their relationships with others, and helps them to exercise responsibility over their own lives” (p.1); but much more momentum and faster progress is needed.

These are goals worthy of all our work and support.

Heather Burke is a Learning Facilitator with VIU’s Office of Aboriginal Education & Engagement.

Sharon Hobenshield is Director of VIU’s Office of Aboriginal Education & Engagement.

Ariane Campbell is a Program Partner at the Mastercard Foundation