Written by: Sofia Watt Sjöström, Lives for Literacy Intern
Educating children is important, but we mustn’t stop there. Reconciliation has a very important role to play in higher education – especially, I’d argue, in the professional sphere. Three professional disciplines involve a particular responsibility towards Indigenous lives: politics, medicine, and law. In this article, I will discuss these and other disciplines which ought to be decolonized.
First, politics. It is essential that government officials know who they represent and serve. When it comes to Indigenous people, this means knowing your history – especially because that history has important implications today (“Honouring the Truth” 219; 212-214). No, I don’t just mean morally; I also mean legally. Already in 1763, the Royal Proclamation states that there is to be “mutual trust and respect” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples (“Honouring the Truth” 212-214). The 11 numbered treaties (signed from 1871 to 1921) exhibit a willingness to “share the land in a spirit of peace and coexistence” (Currie 5). Finally, the Canadian Constitution (originally from 1867, officially from 1982) declares that the Crown has “a special duty to deal fairly with, and protect, Aboriginal peoples and their lands” (“Honouring the Truth” 212). Then, there was the Indian Act of 1876, and the residential school system… In other words, the government did not stick to their promises of sharing, respect, and fairness (Currie 6). However, just because the government failed to keep their word, it doesn’t mean that those promises have ceased to exist. Nope. They still have legal value. Don’t you think this would be good for government representatives to know?
Next, it is essential that doctors and nurses be aware of Reconciliation. As I’ve already covered in previous posts, the residential schools did great harm to students’ physical and mental health (“Honouring the Truth” 158). They also created a “double denial of health care”, through lack of access both to traditional healing practices and to ‘Western’ medicine (“Honouring the Truth” 159-160). Unfortunately, this continues today, because many Indigenous communities are isolated from healthcare services (“Honouring the Truth” 160). Indigenous peoples also suffer terrible “gaps in health outcomes”: infant mortality, diabetes, substance abuse and suicide occur at rates double, or even higher than non-Indigenous ones (“Honouring the Truth” 160-161).
Just last year in Quebec, the death of Joyce Echequan, who filmed the racist insults hurled at her by hospital staff hours before her death, provoked an uproar (Shingler et al.). However, her treatment wasn’t an isolated event, as members of her community have endured similar events at Joliette hospital for years (Shingler et al.). If we want Indigenous health to be on par with non-Indigenous health, we need systemic change. This means investing resources and infrastructure into Indigenous communities (“Honouring the Truth” 163). It also requires new training for doctors outside of Indigenous communities, who deal with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous patients.
Med School was never meant to be just about the acquisition of ‘neutral,’ objective facts. Patients are human beings, and human beings are complicated. Giving Indigenous patients access to the best healthcare services will require greater historical and cultural knowledge on the part of all doctors. Also, many would argue that it necessitates an approach that integrates and recognizes Indigenous medical traditions, too (“Honouring the Truth” 163-164). ‘Western’ medicine cannot just be imposed unilaterally. If there is to be anything near Reconciliation, we will need a collaborative and mutually respectful approach (“Honouring the Truth” 164).
I think change is in the air. In fact, Med Schools recently made a collective promise to increase Indigenous enrolment and provide “culturally safe training for all” (Monkman). Also, in science more generally, Indigenous knowledge is legitimately being sought out. I was impressed by a program called Two-Eyed Seeing at the University of Manitoba, developed by a Mi’kmaw Elder. It integrates Indigenous and non-Indigenous sciences (“Two-Eyed Seeing”). For example, when it comes to water: “The Indigenous view is to find a way to care for the water and its environment so the water remains healthy. Western science view is more focused on treating water after the damage is done” (“Two-Eyed Seeing”). Although the Indigenous perspective is more useful for conservation, the ‘Western’ point of view has merits, too. Now that the Climate Crisis is basically upon us, we need all the approaches that we can get.
As an incoming McGill Law student, I love that my school genuinely seems to care about bringing Indigeneity into the curriculum. I am excited to get involved in related internships and courses throughout my degree. Yet, even if I didn’t personally care, I would be obliged to take Indigenous Legal Traditions – this course is now mandatory, alongside old classics like Contracts, Crim, Property and Torts (“Required”).
Indigeneity is just as vital in the domain of justice as it is in society and health. When residential school abusers were put on trial, “many lawyers did not have adequate cultural, historical, or psychological knowledge” to help their clients process difficult memories in court (“Honouring the Truth” 168). Today, I hope that lawyers will know enough about residential schools to effectively deal with their inter-generational effects. Yet I think it is equally important that lawyers understand Indigeneity in other ways. Whether it is through treaties or through the Indian Act, much damage has been legitimized by way of Law. However, as I mentioned earlier, it is also the Law that forces us to acknowledge the government’s continuous obligations towards Indigenous peoples. And I sincerely believe that Law has the power to do good. I hope that we, the next generation of lawyers, can bring greater cultural and historical sensitivity to our work – and see that good play out, for real. Senator Murray Sinclair, Chief of the TRC and a famed Ojibwe/Métis lawyer, said that we up-and-coming young people are “not just the bearers of burdens of history, but […] also the beneficiaries of our new awareness” (71). In other words, armed with knowledge, we have reason to hope.
Indigeneity has an important role to play in other disciplines, too. In history and literature, new methods of criticism are welcome. In other areas, like economics, change is slower to come, but arguably, just as necessary (Battiste et al. 89-90). For Reconciliation to be successful, no domain can remain insulated from Indigenous voices, history, and insight.
So, the ball is in your court. Whether I mentioned your profession or not, it is time to engage. What could you do to Decolonize and/or Indigenize at work? You, too, have the power to make Canadian society more just.
I also want to thank Professor A. Khatchadourian from Marianopolis College for her insights, recommended readings, and help!
Battiste, Marie, et al. “Decolonizing Education in Canadian Universities: An Interdisciplinary, International, Indigenous Research Project”. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 26 (2), pp. 82-95.
Currie, Raymond F. “Respect, Trust, Treaties and Reconciliation.” Circles for Reconciliation, 2020, https://circlesforreconciliation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Respect-Trust-Treaties-Reconciliation.pdf.
“Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf.
Lunny, D., Maisonville, D., Marquez, J., Racevičiūtė, R., Steenbergen, C.,
Viqar, S., & Young, R. (2017). Decolonizing pedagogy: Guiding principles
for CEGEP teachers. John Abbott College, August 2017.
Monkman, Lenard. “Canadian medical schools commit to increasing Indigenous student admissions.” CBC News: Indigenous, 25 May 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/medical-school-indigenous-admissions-1.5148916.
“Required and complementary courses: Enrollment as of 2020”. McGill Student Affairs Office: Faculty of Law, https://www.mcgill.ca/law-studies/bcljd-studies/structure/courses.
Shingler, Benjamin, et al. “Racism at Quebec hospital reported long before troubling death of Atikamekw woman.” CBC News: Montreal, 01 Oct. 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebec-joliette-hospital-joyce-echaquan-1.5745150.
Sinclair, Murray. “From the 2017 Convocation Speech”. Whose Land is it Anyway?, Federation of Post-Secondary Educators, 2017, pp. 69-72.
“Two-Eyed Seeing.” University of Manitoba: Faculty of Science: Wawatay, 2020, https://sci.umanitoba.ca/wawatay/two-eyed-seeing/.
About the Author:
Sofia is an incoming McGill Law student, passionate about writing and justice. She feels that it would be relevant to state that she herself is non-Indigenous. Although she has done research and interviews to inform this series of articles, she wants to acknowledge the limitations of her point of view. However, she believes that Reconciliation is an issue that concerns all of us, non-Indigenous and Indigenous both.