September 2022 Spotlight - Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux
Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux is Lakehead University's inaugural Chair on Truth and Reconciliation.
Q: For those that may not know, can you provide a synopsis of what the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its Calls to Action are and why they are important for universities?
A: The TRC was established through the Indian Residential School Survivors Agreement (IRSSA) which began to be implemented in 2007. The 94 Calls to Action represent the voices of over 7000 people who testified in the national TRC hearings and whose contributions were tabled with Canada in 2015 at the conclusion of the commission's mandate. The Calls to Action are important for universities because they provide a comprehensive guide for the resolution of historic grievances and demand/require public and organizational education for all Canadians. Universities Canada was prompted to develop and table 13 principles to ensure educational institutions were committed to addressing the truth and furthering the reconciliation process.
Q: What does it mean to now have a federal national day, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, on September 30?
A: Making the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation an official holiday was introduced as a private member's bill by Saskatchewan MP Georgina Jolibois in 2017. It was intended to recognize the legacy of Indian Residential Schools, the children who attended them, and those who never made it home. It coincides with Orange Shirt Day, which was created by Phyllis Webstad in 2013 out of her personal experience at an Indian Residential School (IRS).
Q: Why did you get involved in this work, and what does your work at Lakehead involve as the Chair on Truth and Reconciliation?
A: I have been involved in truth and reconciliation for almost 40 years, although it wasn't called that until more recently. Between them, my parents spent 20 years in IRS, and my asking, “Why?” set me on a dedicated learning journey: why were they sent there? Why were there so many addictions in Indigenous peoples around me? Why was there so much suffering? My work at Lakehead has been about sharing (in a good way) with as many people as possible what I lived, learned, and continue to experience. Lakehead has been an extraordinary ally and friend to the Indigenous peoples of northwestern Ontario. I consider it my responsibility as the Chair for Truth and Reconciliation to ensure the many commitments Lakehead has made are known across the country. I present hundreds of keynotes, workshops, discussion groups, and public education talks across Canada under the Lakehead University banner, and I speak frequently to the many firsts we have achieved – from establishing the first Vice Provost of Indigenous Initiatives position to the Indigenous Content Requirement, the Chair for TR, and the Indigenous Specialist Position, to the many relationships and MOU's we have built in NW Ontario and Simcoe County.
Q: How can Lakehead University continue to contribute to the process of reconciliation?
A: Lakehead is not going to forget or abandon its commitment to providing exceptional access to Indigenous peoples, including a new PLAR commitment being developed by Dr. Lana Ray. We have worked hard to build all aspects of Indigenous learning into our strategic and academic plans, which is reconciliation in action. Our access and mentorship programs, faculty and staff training and workshops, the creation of modules, specialist support, and our many Indigenous staff and faculty ensure we will continue to offer extraordinary access, retention, and graduation support for many generations to come.
Q: What can faculty and instructors do to work towards reconciliation, decolonization, and Indigenization within their courses?
A: Education in any field is time-consuming, and education on Indigenous history and contemporary concerns remains challenging because of the many layers and knowledge areas it covers: politics, child welfare, justice, spirituality, ethics, EDI, and on and on. The tenure of settlement is a tiny fraction of the time Indigenous peoples have occupied and utilized these lands, and the impacts of the colonial process are myriad and mostly unresolved. Faculty and instructors must be aware of the history and contemporary truths of Indigenous peoples and build critical elements into their courses. There is no expectation they must "know everything" about Indigenous peoples, but inclusion of relevant content in their course learning materials delivered in an inclusive manner can change attitudes and quell resistance to new knowledge(s). Instructors can set the stage for dialogue early in any course by speaking to the 94 Calls to Action, the 10 TRC Principles, and the 13 Universities Canada principles, especially if they are linked directly to the expected learning outcomes for each course.
Q: What, for you, would be the key message you would want to share about truth and reconciliation?
A: That it's happening. More importantly, it has prompted an Indigenous renaissance across Canada. All that truth telling, dialogue, and IRS testimony has shone an intense light on what's happening internally to our communities, and the response has been an accelerated drafting and implementing of laws and positive actions within Indigenous communities. Higher education is flourishing and becoming even more essential. Our people are entering multiple fields, our elders are re-engaging, languages are reconstituting, culture is regenerating, and there is a powerful awakening happening. It's very exciting and, although it took the revealing of some very ugly truths to prompt change, we will never get to any form of reconciliation without leveling knowledge, socio-economic, and social justice for Indigeous peoples with the rest of Canada.