Reconciliation in Higher Education Contexts: Tensions and Challenges

Brock University

Universities and colleges are struggling to understand reconciliation, the calls to action and recognising issues with the very structures of the institutions. Dawn Zinga of Brock University discusses further

In August 2017, I wrote about how Canadian Institutes of higher education were taking up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. Almost a year later higher education contexts continue to face tensions and challenges in addressing those calls to action.  There has been a lot of talk of how to address the calls and some policy changes but it is clear that there are a lot of tensions and challenges around the implementation of any changes.  Lakehead University offers an example of how those tensions and challenges can be expressed. The university’s response to Recommendation 28 was to ensure that all law students were provided with opportunities to better understand Indigenous people and the law by weaving Indigenous content throughout the law curriculum. However, in practice there appear to be challenges with the implementation of significant changes.  Angelique EagleWoman was hired by Lakehead University as the first female Indigenous law school dean in 2016 but resigned citing systemic discrimination and racism in 2018. This unfortunate situation underscores the difference between a surface response to the calls to action and meaningful action.

Fundamental understanding

Universities and colleges are struggling to address the calls to action and to understand what reconciliation means. Indigenous scholars Marie Battiste, Jan Hare, Jackie Ottman, and Dwayne Donald spoke eloquently at the 2018 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences about reconciliation within a higher education context. Each of them retained hope that as identified by the Commission, education will be pivotal in putting Canada on the road to reconciliation. Battiste spoke about the importance of decolonizing and how everyone has been “marinated in eurocentrism” and that the tenets of eurocentrism that are characterized by superiority, hegemony, and a monopoly over all other knowledge systems stand in the way of reconciliation.  Battiste speaks about cognitive imperialism and how every Canadian student has been a victim and beneficiary of the same education system that has exposed them to eurocentrism and cognitive imperialism. These act as some of the greatest barriers to reconciliation and the serve to blind people to the colonialism embedded throughout education at all levels.

Dwayne Donald agrees that it is difficult to accomplish much when the very institution that claims to want to take steps towards reconciliation gets in the way when tensions arise. He argued that part of the problem is the tendency within higher education contexts to take shortcuts by attempting to makes changes without examining the embedded colonialism. When change is implemented in those contexts tensions quickly rise and the response to those tensions is to reassert “colonial terrain”. Jackie Ottman also spoke to the hidden curriculum and unconscious codes that are triggered by attempts to meaningfully address the TRC.  She stated that addressing while the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples issued its report in October 1996 and offered over 400 recommendations, the TRC’s 94 calls to action has engendered a more lasting response. However, she warned that the weight of addressing those calls to action within higher education contexts could not be left to Indigenous students and scholars to do all the heavy lifting but that non-indigenous students and scholars needed to walk alongside and share the weight and the work. Jan Hare agreed with her colleagues and called for a continued commitment to reconciliation that was grounded in an understanding of everyone’s roles and responsibilities.

Understanding the wider issues

The conundrum facing higher education is how to proceed to address the calls when institutions are having difficulty being able to recognize how the very structures of the institutions are getting in the way. Most institutions are implementing policies and directives but not doing the hard work of exploring what it will mean to actually implement those policies and directives. The end result is window dressing without any meaningful change or a resurgence of colonialism and a return to the status quo that hides behind claims of cultural inclusion or returns to pathologizing Indigenous students and scholars.

Reconciliation requires an examination and understanding of what has happened and how current structures, systems, and attitudes/biases that are conscious or unconscious continue to uphold colonialism and eurocentrism. University mission statements can include commitments to Indigenization but without a meaningful examination of what that terms means and an appreciation that decolonization is the first step such commitments will fail to produce any significant change other than putting a new face on a continued inability to engage in reconciliation.


Dawn Zinga


Department of Child and Youth Studies

Brock University


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