By Susan Porter and Jo-ann Archibald Q'um Q'um Xiiem

Why is Canada committed to Indigenization?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was established in 2008 to document the history and lasting impacts of the Canadian Indian Residential School system and to articulate pathways forward for reconciliation. The background to the commission was described succinctly in the summary of the TRC’s 2015 final report:

For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal[1] policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”

The residential school system, which lasted for over 100 years, was established primarily to separate children from their families in order to assimilate them into the dominant culture – they were forbidden to speak their languages and to practice their cultures, and barriers were frequently put in place to prevent interaction with their families. The conditions in many of the schools were deplorable, and sexual and physical abuse was not uncommon. The legacies of this system and the long history of disempowerment, persecution, and theft against Indigenous peoples continue to this day, and include poverty, addiction, violence, and ‘the loss of pride and respect of Aboriginal people, and the lack of respect that non-Aboriginal people have been raised to have for their Aboriginal neighbours.’

Reconciliation is understood as ‘establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples’, founded on ‘awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.’ The TRC also recommended 94 Calls to Action. Together with the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), it has been enormously influential in spurring changed attitudes and actions in government, the educational system, and society at large.

What does reconciliation mean?

Reconciliation as described in the TRC and UNDRIP reports include such actions as public truth-sharing, providing reparations (including closing educational gaps), ensuring Indigenous self-determination, culture, and language revitalization, treating Indigenous and Western perspectives with the same consideration, and addressing ongoing legacies of colonialism in structures, attitudes, and relationships. As educational institutions were at the source of troubled relations, the Commission believed they were also key to reconciliation. Notably relevant for higher education include the following calls:

  • Development of curriculum on history and legacy of residential schools, Treaties, Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada, (Calls 24, 28, 62, 63);
  • Sharing information and best practices on teaching curriculum related to residential schools and Aboriginal history (Call 63);
  • Development of students’ intercultural understanding, empathy, mutual respect, and understandings of conflict resolution, human rights and anti-racism (Calls 24, 28, 63);
  • Development of degree programs in Aboriginal languages (Call 16); and
  • Research that advances understandings of reconciliation (Call 65).

Universities have responded to these calls with increased, concerted efforts to ‘Indigenize the academy’. The University of Regina’s Indigenous Advisory Circle described this as:

the transformation of the existing academy by including Indigenous knowledges, voices, critiques, scholars, students and materials as well as the establishment of physical and epistemic spaces that facilitate the ethical stewardship of a plurality of Indigenous knowledges and practices so thoroughly as to constitute an essential element of the university. It is not limited to Indigenous people, but encompasses all students and faculty, for the benefit of our academic integrity and our social viability.

Indigenizing and Reconciling Graduate Education

In response to the TRC Calls to Action and in relation to Indigenizing the academy, in 2019, the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) began a national project about Indigenous graduate education within its 58 member graduate schools, which constitute 90% of such schools in Canada. In this context, CAGS is interested in how the concept of reconciliation is or is not taken up in graduate education for all students and how the needs and interests of Indigenous graduate students are addressed. The first phase of this project includes a literature review, an environmental scan of graduate school websites, and engagement of CAGS members in discussion groups and individual interviews. A CAGS Task Force on Truth and Reconciliation in Graduate Education will be convened as the next phase to develop a CAGS national strategy about Indigenous graduate education based on this and other research, as well as task force members’ knowledge and experience. The terms reconciliation and Indigenizing the academy have many connotations and include a diversity of approaches.  

One framework developed by Gaudry & Lorenz (2018) positions Indigenization at universities on a spectrum where inclusion is at the beginning, reconciliation Indigenization is towards the middle, and decolonial Indigenization is at the opposite end. Inclusion focuses on increasing the numbers of Indigenous students, faculty, and staff engaged at the university, without any substantive change to university culture and policies to address their distinct needs and interests and where Indigenous knowledge remains on the margins. Reconciliation Indigenization moves to altering university administrative, learning, and research structures to include Indigenous people in advisory and reconciliation committees, the development of Indigenous courses and programs, an Indigenous course requirement for all students in their discipline, and where Indigenous engagement is one of the university’s strategic priorities. Decolonial Indigenization aims to drastically transform the academy by expanding and re-orienting its structures for knowledge production through partnerships with Indigenous communities and ensuring that Indigenous knowledge is addressed through decolonized and authentic approaches.

The CAGS research has identified Indigenous-oriented approaches, programs, policies, and student services that exemplify aspects of Gaudry & Lorenz’s Indigenization framework. However, the emphasis of the CAGS endeavour is on the meanings and practices of reconciliation, since 2015. At the same time, the CAGS research has recognized that current-day Indigenization and reconciliation processes have roots in Indigenous university approaches that began in the 1970s (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996; TRC, 2015). A few promising actions that address both Indigenizing and reconciling graduate education across Canada include:

  • Indigenous student centres, which are common in Canadian universities, can be a separate unit within a building or a distinct building that reflects Indigenous architecture such as a Longhouse. Usually, these centres provide holistic services (heart, mind, body, and spirit) for both Indigenous undergraduate and graduate students. Staff may include counsellors, academic advisors, Elders-in-Residence, student service coordinators, and tutors. Spiritual or ceremonial areas and cultural activities are integral parts of the Indigenous student centres. These units often provide inter-cultural learning opportunities for non-Indigenous students, faculty, and staff.
  • Indigenous-based masters’ and doctoral graduate programs in the fields of Indigenous studies, education, Indigenous language, social work, health, law, resource management, business, governance, and community development are sprinkled across various universities; as well as university access programs that ladder from an Indigenous certificate or diploma program to graduate studies. Indigenous courses related to these disicplines and Indigenous methodologies are also emerging. Many of these Indigenous programs are fairly recent.
  • The predominant situation for Indigenous graduate students is that few Indigenous graduate students may be enrolled in Indigenous programs or in programs that do not have a concerted Indigenous component. Indigenous graduate students may feel marginalized and find that the learning environment is hostile to Indigenous perspectives (Johnson, 2016; Pidgeon, 2016). To address this marginalization and to facilitate inclusion and connection, an inter-institutional, multi-disciplinary, peer-support, and faculty mentoring network for Indigenous and non-Indigenous graduate students engaged in Indigenous research has been established at some universities: Supporting Aboriginal Graduate Enhancement (SAGE). SAGE began in 2005 in British Columbia through an international collaboration with another Indigenous peer-support graduate network based in New Zealand: the Maori and Indigenous program (MAI). The distinguishing features of SAGE include: a student-driven approach; cultural-based sharing and support; opportunities to learn from each others’ methodologies and research; and opportunities for faculty mentorship (Pidgeon, Archibald & Hawkey, 2014). SAGE sites are in a few universities across Canada with a growing interest in expanding this network.

In this new era of reconciliation in Canada, its universities and professional education associations, including the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies, have recognized the need to examine, discuss, take action, and share successes and challenges related to Indigenizing the academy through reconciliation efforts that include all people engaged in education. There are many different possibilities and challenges for reconciliatory engagement. It is not a short-term endeavour nor is it a ‘one-size-fits all’ undertaking. Instead, Indigenizing and reconciling graduate education in Canada has been and continues to be an important long-term commitment that is gaining momentum and promise.

[1] The term ‘Aboriginal’ has been used as the collective noun for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples in Canada, and was the legal term used in the Constitution Act of 1982. The term ‘Indigenous’ has since become the preferred term. It is increasingly the chosen term of Indigenous peoples of Canada, and has significant international meaning and legal ramifications.


Gaudry, A., & Lorenz, D. (2018). Indigenization as Inclusion, Reconciliation, and Decolonization: Navigating the Different Visions for Indigenizing the Canadian Academy. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 14(3), 218–27.

Johnson, S. (2016). Indigenizing Higher Education and the Calls to Action: Awakening to Personal, Political, and Academic Responsibilities. Canadian Social Work Review, 33(1), 133–141. 

Pidgeon, M., Archibald, J., & Hawkey, C. (2014). Relationships Matter: Supporting Aboriginal Graduate Students in British Columbia. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 44(1), 1-21.

Pidgeon, M. (2016). More Than a Checklist: Meaningful Indigenous Inclusion in Higher Education. Social Inclusion, 4(1), 77-91.

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. (1996). Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Volume 3: Gathering Strength. Ottawa: Canada Communications Group.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from