dr. linda manyguns
avp, indigenization and decolonization, mount royal university
medicine trail coordinator, iniskim centre, artist
dr. tim rahilly
president & vice chancellor, mount royal university
in calgary, alberta, the campus of mount royal university is alive with the indigenous knowledge of the niitsitapi blackfoot territory on which it sits. the university has committed to a path toward indigenization and decolonization that’s redefining higher education in canada.
to say that the relationship between canada’s indigenous people and institutions of learning is complicated would be an unforgivable understatement. with the dark history of residential schools and unmarked graves in the forefront of canadian consciousness, the spirit of truth and reconciliation now requires an especially empathetic commitment to progress and healing from our nation’s colleges and universities. in calgary, mount royal university (mru) is putting everything on the table in pursuit of a truly inclusive and culturally responsible environment for understanding and learning.
with a charter dating back to 1910, the mru campus sits on niitsitapi blackfoot territory, treaty 7 land. appreciating, revitalizing, and reintegrating the knowledge of that land and the people it belongs to is essential to the future of the university, according to dr. linda manyguns, mru’s associate vice-president of indigenization and decolonization.
“this is where our histories are,” says dr. manyguns. “the most important hope is that through indigenization, with the help of all our faculty and students, everyone who comes to the university will understand indigenous knowledge and the indigenous history of canada in a way that has not historically been taught. colonizers write their own history books, and indigenous history has long been specifically and intentionally removed from the text. this has directly led to the current state of confusion and suffering, and that’s what we are trying to address at mount royal university. decolonization and indigenization are two sides of the same coin.”
indigenization and decolonization at every level of university life
the school’s indigenization and decolonization efforts are evident in the classroom, where instructors and elders-in-residence are incorporating invaluable indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing into teachings from literature to physics and from geography to botany. the commitment is evident on the campus grounds, where ceremonial spaces have been created and a hundred saskatoon bushes are being planted. and the philosophy is also evident in the administrative offices, where mru president dr. tim rahilly has been championing the institution’s overarching indigenous strategy.
“through the implementation of our indigenous strategic plan, we will continue to indigenize and decolonize mount royal university,” says dr. rahilly. “there were many consultations that helped articulate the goals and there’s more important work that remains ahead of us but it’s essential that we start with a broad acknowledgement of the truth.”
truth, after all, comes before reconciliation. indigenous truths have too long been buried in this country, often under the guise of education. but indigenous truth and knowledge is profoundly resilient. “we know that indigenous knowledge has its own power,” says dr. manyguns. “the knowledge survived the residential schools. it survived the devastation, the damage, and the focused attacks of assimilation and destruction of culture that have persisted since the 1800s here in canada. it survived because there’s a deep value of respect and honesty and truth that animates that knowledge. everybody can understand that. the simplicity of the knowledge is what makes it malleable enough to fit into these academic places. as former senator murray sinclair said: education got us into this mess and education will get us out.”
nothing about us without us: indigenous stewardship of indigenous knowledge
for this reinvention of education to take root in earnest, it’s necessary that it be planted in the soil of empathy and inclusion. indigenous ways of knowing belong to the indigenous peoples, and the principles of belonging, respect, and truth dictate that they must come to mainstream canada through indigenous stewardship.
“i believe we’ve made great strides here at mount royal campus and that students are understanding the importance of building a relationship with indigenous peoples and indigenous history,” says dion simon, medicine trail coordinator at mru’s iniskim centre. “the goal is to have graduates walk into their chosen fields with a level of indigenous knowledge that they can apply practically to assist their work in the community. we want to give our students a traditional indigenous experience, so that they can use those tools and concepts to collaborate with indigenous peoples in their field.”
as a potent symbol of that collaboration, jill bear chief, daughter of elder-in-residence roy bear chief, has crafted a design giving visual embodiment to ten indigenous teachings to guide the future of education and land-based learning at mru. the design and teachings encompass philosophies that have been illuminated over the course of many years through consultations between elder-in-residence roy bear chief, elder grandmother doreen spence, one of canada’s first licensed indigenous nurses, and an mru honorary doctor of laws recipient, and others in the indigenous community. this design conveys the power and importance of indigenous ways of knowing, and it represents a vow of understanding between the university and the indigenous communities.
a promise not made lightly
it’s through gestures like this that we make the possibility of truth and reconciliation tangible. but even the most compelling image of the future is without substance unless we put in the hard work to make it real. the administration at mru understands the weight of this responsibility and is committed to following the guidance of indigenous knowledge in the ongoing indigenization and decolonization of the university, its curriculum, and its culture.
“i’m proud that mru is a place that embraces indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing through supporting indigenous learners and sharing indigenous experiences with the many students, faculty, and staff that make up our campus community,” says dr. rahilly. “instructors are rethinking how they teach by considering a culturally responsive curriculum. leaders are being thoughtful about what we’re trying to accomplish as a university and providing necessary direction. mount royal is a university that responds to the needs of our community. i believe that the difficult conversations and work required around truth, reconciliation, and decolonization is part of a commitment we have made as a nation that includes those who choose to come to mru.”