Durham College’s acts of Truth and Reconciliation

Laurel Blue stands outside of Durham College with a picture of her family. Photo credit: Meagan Secord

“I want people to understand that Indigenous people exist today, Indigenous people are often talked about in terms of history, but we are still here,” says Durham College (DC) student Laurel Blue, who is of Anishinaabe descent.

Almost five per cent of Canada’s population is Indigenous and almost eight per cent of the nation under 14 years of age is of Indigenous descent.

Yet Canada has not always been fair to Indigenous peoples. One of the country’s dirtiest secrets is the residential school system.

Established in the 1880s, residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools created to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture.

Indigenous children had their heads shaved and then doused in DDT. They were not allowed to speak their own language, eat traditional foods or wear their own clothes.

“Residential schools were not just government sponsored, but it was government policy under the Indian Act that all school age ‘Indians’ attend residential school,” Julie Pigeon, Durham College Indigenous Coach, says.

The Indian Act was created in 1876 and it allowed the government to control most aspects of aboriginal life from Indian Status, land, resources, wills, and education to band administration. The act was amended in 1985 and separated Indian status from band membership yet Indian status continued under government control. By 2002, over twenty major changes have been made to the Indian Act.

But in 1920, one of those amendments made it mandatory for “status Indian children” to attend residential schools. Parents who hid their children could be imprisoned.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established on June 2, 2008, was created to document the history and lasting impacts of the Canadian Indian residential school system.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released a report of its 94 Calls to Action to address the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation in 2015.

The goal with these calls to action is to help guide and inspire First Nations, Inuit, Metis and settler Canadians in a process of truth and healing towards reconciliation.

There is a list of recommendations that concern education.

When it comes to the calls to action, is Durham College doing enough to address reconciliation?

“I do believe Durham College is doing enough when it comes to meeting the calls to action. As an education institution, Durham College has the power to promote education on Indigenous Issues and reconciliation, and through the FPIC (First Peoples Indigenous Centre) they are making amazing strides,” says Blue says, who is a work study student at the Indigenous Centre.

“I would not say that DC has incorporated numerous courses…they have made only one Indigenous Course in the broadcasting program mandatory, they also have the third-year (journalism) course and a few electives,” Pigeon adds.

The TRC’s 86th call to action is a direct call to journalism schools.

“We call upon Canadian journalism programs and media schools to require education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations.”

“Of its 94 Calls to Action, 12 of them deal directly with the criminal justice system and how it pertains to Indigenous people in Canada,” says Bandini Sethi, a professor in the School of Justice and Emergency Services at DC.

Although Indigenous people make up less than five per cent of the adult population in Canada, they represent nearly 30 per cent in the adult male prison population.

When looking at numbers like that, it’s clear there is a larger unknown problem in Canada.

Durham College has the power to promote and educate people on Indigenous issues and reconciliation.

With the creation of the FPIC, formally known as Suswaaning Endaajig, which was created in 2011, they’re able to do just that.

“I think Durham College has made significant strides when it comes to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by signing the Indigenous Education Protocol,” Sethi says.

The Indigenous Education Protocol was founded by Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) in 2014 and is based on seven principles which underscore the importance of structures and approaches required to address Indigenous peoples’ learning needs. The aim is to support self-determination and socio-economic development for Indigenous communities.

DC’s Indigenization Council, formed in 2017, has written DC’s Indigenization Statement based on the seven principles.

“With the work of Indigenization Council, there has a push for Indigenizing curriculum with assistance from Julie Pigeon and Peggy Forbes at the First Peoples Indigenous Centre,” says Sethi, who added to the Canadian Criminal Justice System course in 2016 to include the calls to action from the TRC.

“I think the Indigenous Education Protocol is an important step in recognizing the TRC. In addition, the First Peoples Indigenous Centre has been an important resource for educators and students in ensuring that the calls are being carried out,” Sethi says. “The school can improve their goals as an institution and ensure that the curriculum provides a strong understanding of Indigenization, and we can therefore, renew and strengthen our programs, and provide educational opportunities for our students.”

Mary-Anne Hoggarth is an Education Advisor at the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nations. She believes people are committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and communities.

“I do think well-meaning people are working to improve the relationships with Indigenous Peoples in Canada. There are tons of pushback and, for some reason, it brings racism to the forefront,” says Hoggarth, who was a key player in the creation of an Indigenous room at Port Perry High School.

This room was a joint proposal project between the school board and the Mississaugas of Scugog Island.

“With Port Perry High School’s room, we’ve had push back from some teachers and students, but it demonstrates that more work is needed, more relationship building is needed, but it can be done,” says Hoggarth.

With the Port Perry High School having this room and Durham College having a First Peoples’ Indigenous Centre this shows that there are some schools who are trying to make a difference. But as Hoggarth points out, there is still racism that has been seen surrounding these spaces.

“First Nations are working on initiatives for well-being to ensure healthy communities (and) also working on projects to ensure successes within our youth. With the overall goal of building capacity in all members for community sustainability,” Hoggarth says.

First Nations communities alongside the school boards are working on initiatives to ensure healthy communities.

“I want people to understand that education is a priority, and necessary to promote healing and reconciliation. I want people to take time to educate themselves on the calls to action, and then take action,” says Blue, who came to DC from Kitchener, Ontario.

Durham College has incorporated numerous courses when it comes to the TRC and the 94 Calls to Action, and they have made sure the Indigenous community feels welcomed in the space.

Going forward, Durham College has many opportunities to keep this growing and by doing so there are chances for students to reconcile with the past and present.