When University of Saskatchewan (USask) alumna Jacqueline Ottmann was appointed as USask’s first Vice-Provost of Indigenous Engagement in 2017, she couldn’t wait to get started.
“I feel that this position sends a message to Indigenous communities — not only within Saskatchewan but across the nation and indeed internationally,” says Ottmann, who is Anishinaabe (Saulteaux) and a member of Saskatchewan’s Fishing Lake First Nation. “Indigenization is a priority for USask. We’re responsive to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action and are being respectful of the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
But even more important, Ottmann emphasizes, are the new dreams and aspirations that she hopes having someone like her in a position of such prominence might ignite in Indigenous youth.
“It opens the door, in essence, for Indigenous students to aspire to these positions,” she says. “If we have Indigenous students aspiring to these positions, then again, I think we’re working toward a stronger university and society in general. What’s good for Indigenous people is good for all people.”
Her aspirations for USask are becoming a reality with the implementation of USask’s plan to shape the institution through to the year 2025.
Ottmann and her team are supporting the key pillar of Indigenization that has been woven throughout the entire new strategic plan unveiled in October 2018 to be the University the World Needs. It was that level of commitment in the new university plan — gifted by Elders the Indigenous names nīkānītān manācihitowinihk (Cree) and ni manachīhitoonaan (Michif) for “Let us lead with respect” — that helps drive Ottmann’s passion to support students and move the university forward.
“I was very excited about the university plan from the outset,” says Ottmann. “What I was witnessing and being engaged in was something that I’d been looking forward to experiencing at some point in my career. I’ve explored and helped develop Indigenous strategies and university plans for the last 13 years and I think the difference here is that concepts of Indigenization, reconciliation, and decolonization are weaved throughout the document, and Indigenous languages (Cree and Michif) frame the strategy. The University Plan 2025 is a foundational document, which is noteworthy. It’s not a separate Indigenous strategy. Indigenous concepts and languages are embedded right into our backbone document.”
The plan has built on the foundation of USask’s commitment to Indigenization and reconciliation. USask hosted the first national forum in 2015 in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report. That forum — Building Reconciliation: Universities Answering the TRC’s Calls to Action — was the first of what has become an annual gathering for Canadian university leadership teams working together with First Nations and Métis leaders, Indigenous scholars, and student leaders.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action have sparked change for universities across the nation and some are related to education,” says Ottmann. “A goal within the university plan is ‘embracing manacihitowin or manachīhitoonaan.’ This goal invites us to developing respectful, reciprocal relationships, so we can work together to renew our educational landscapes.”
Ottmann says the university has an opportunity and an obligation to learn and respectfully share Indigenous stories and histories to develop deeper understandings of concepts like manacihitowin.
“Indigenous stories, teachings, and songs will inspire and strengthen our campus community and people beyond our boundaries,” she says. “Indigenization has to be felt within the entire fabric of the university, from procurement to teaching, learning, and research, and experienced by our students, staff, and faculty. Each day, we all need to consider how decolonization, reconciliation, and Indigenization will unfold in our spaces, interactions, and work.”