Decolonizing post-secondary institutions: VIU leads the way

Vancouver Island University releases report showing how education can appropriately support Indigenous student success and nurture reconciliation.

VIU launched EleV in 2017. Photo from the launch event, courtesy of the Vancouver Island University.
VIU launched EleV in 2017. Photo from the launch event, courtesy of the Vancouver Island University.

Educators and learners at Vancouver Island University (VIU) have provided input into a new article that shows how inclusive reconciliation practices can shape a future where more and more Indigenous students develop fulfilling careers.

Lessons Learned from VIU’s EleV Program: Four promising practices for decolonizing post-secondary institution was co-authored by members of VIU’s Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement in collaboration with the Mastercard Foundation.

VIU partnered with the Mastercard Foundation in 2017 on the EleV program, which is driven by Indigenous communities and young people and aims to support Indigenous learners throughout their post-secondary education (including providing scholarships) and onwards to their chosen careers, consistent with their visions of Mino-Bimaadiziwin (meaning “living in a good way” in Anishinaabemowin, the Anishinaabe language).

To be effective in decolonizing classrooms and continue fostering reconciliation, the article says, other educational institutions can consider enacting the following practices:

Incorporate Indigenous values and knowledges into the classroom, so that Indigenous students feel seen and heard “when values such as reciprocity, whole person learning, and recognition that knowledge transcends the intellectual to the physical, spiritual and emotional realms are incorporated into [their learning].”

Provide continuous, personalized, authentic support through the student journey, as the Indigenous Education Navigators do at VIU.

Understand the impact of colonialism on learning in the Indigenous community, and that due to the systemic inequities some are going through a healing journey alongside their learning journey.

Build deep relationships with Indigenous communities for ongoing listening and co-creation. VIU says one of its fundamental values is working to build and maintain positive reciprocal relationships with Indigenous communities across the three language groups on Vancouver Island, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwakwaka’wakw territories as well as the Métis Nation. They believe community voice is integral not only for supportive programming, but also for educational content and curriculum.

The article’s conclusion reinforces what VIU’s journey through reconciliation has been about: hearing – really hearing – and including Indigenous voices on campus, both in faculty and among the student body.

A values-based approach to learning

Dr. Sharon Hobenshield
Dr. Sharon Hobenshield, Director of Aboriginal Education and Engagement at VIU.

Dr. Sharon Hobenshield, VIU Director of Aboriginal Education and Engagement, co-authored the article, alongside Heather Burke and Ariane Campbell. Dr. Hobenshield is a member of the Gitxsan First Nation.

She is proud of the co-creation approach of the EleV program, noting that the collaborative and inclusive model has enabled them to be responsive and adaptive as the program itself develops.

“An example of this adaptation, she says, “is opening our scholarships to be inclusive of trades programs, certificates and diplomas, as communities identified the need to build capacity in this area. At first, the scholarships applied largely to degree programs.”

The EleV program has enrolled 181 scholarship students to date and 53 have graduated since 2017. In 2020, they say, they are likely to meet their target of 255 students accessing VIU programs through EleV scholarships. Dr. Hobenshield notes that through the front line work of the Education and Employment Navigators, “we are learning from these students’ experiences, the micro and macro challenges that persist in pursuing their education and finding creative ways to support them and create positive changes.”

When asked whether the report’s findings affirmed her own experience working with students, Dr. Hobenshield says “I appreciated how through the students’ voices and experiences, we could extract the values and beliefs that are necessary for decolonization and Indigenization, such as care, compassion and respect. I think the lesson that I took away is that we take these words and overthink their application, to the point where we become immobilized, when in reality we can all find a starting point and way in through our expressions of being good relatives to people in our community.”

For Dr. Hobenshield, “the best part of this work is seeing students walk across the stage with pride wearing their traditional regalia and with their parchment paper in hand. I do recognize it is another transition point for them and often they are tentative about the next stage, so I tell them to fly and know VIU will always be part of their family and community.”

VIU’s long-term vision for reconciliation through education

VIU attracts Indigenous students from across Canada, with the largest group coming from within Vancouver Island and the west coast of BC. Dr. Hobenshield says those Indigenous students who come from outside BC do so because Indigenous alumni have spoken so highly of their experience at the university. “VIU, from the faculty to the staff in registration and throughout, cares about students. [Our senior leadership] work hard to engage locally and nationally, ensuring our collaborations and the voices of Indigenous students and communities are promoted and celebrated in their extensive networks.”

The university says it has taken the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action to heart. The Commission exhorts schools to eliminate educational gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, improve educational attainment levels and success rates for Indigenous students, and integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods.

VIU’s journey alongside Vancouver Island’s Indigenous communities began in 1970 with the launch of a lecture series by Indigenous leaders, and has included building Shq’apthut, VIU’s Aboriginal Gathering Place, creating the Elders-in-Residence program and the ‘Su’luqw’a’ Community Cousins Aboriginal mentorship program, and enacting a series of events and activities called Reconciliation Road: Join the Journey. In 2006, their first Aboriginal Recognition Ceremony to celebrate Indigenous students completing degrees, diplomas and certificates was held. In 2008 VIU became the first university in BC to appoint an Aboriginal chancellor: Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, a member of the Ahousaht First Nation, who became National Chief to the Assembly of First Nations in 2009.

This year, prominent local Indigenous leader, sustainable development advocate and passionate educator Kekinusuqs, Dr. Judith Sayers, became the third Indigenous Chancellor of the University of Vancouver Island, assuming the role from Louise Mandell (one of Canada’s foremost Aboriginal rights lawyers). Sayers is President of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.

Dr. Sayers works alongside Dr. Deborah Saucier, President and Vice-Chancellor of VIU. Dr. Saucier is a Métis neuroscientist and long-time psychology professor and winner of the 2020 Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business Indigenous Women in Leadership Award.

Much has been done, but more work is necessary, says VIU President

Dr. Deborah Saucier
Dr. Deborah Saucier, President and Vice-Chancellor of VIU

Dr. Saucier feels the university has done much to create welcoming spaces and an inclusive community but there is still work to be done. “I think we can do more programming in community. Working in partnership with the Nations, we can rebuild trust in the value of education and thereby co-create opportunities with our learners and their Nations. We can also do more to address the transition to work, to ensure that the hard work that our learners do results in fulfilling careers.”

VIU is currently working on a five-year strategic plan. Dr. Saucier says their ongoing commitment to reconciliation will be woven throughout that plan. “We know that we need to build a broader community of Indigenous employees, continue to build our connections with Nations and create more opportunities to bring more employees and students into the truth and reconciliation process. Finally, we need to remain open to doing things differently – that is what is at the heart of EleV. A willingness to step outside the way we have always done things, to look instead at how we can do things in a way that is inclusive; that not only opens the doors of post-secondary but ensures success, both during the time that our learners spend at VIU and when they leave with their credentials.”

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