Based on last year’s statistics, there are 357 self-identified Aboriginal students attending Brock University. These students are a part of a diverse array of programs and faculties and engage in various extracurricular activities just like any other student. However, Indigenous students can experience barriers, difficulties and racism that others may not encounter. In order to eliminate these barriers in post-secondary education, Brock is committed to indigenizing the university.
Every student at Brock faces obstacles in getting their education, whether it be difficulties writing papers, language barriers or issues of teaching style. Indigenous students can be subjected to a large number of them that can be unique to their situation, but they can also be quite similar to that of non-indigenous students.
Dr. Gervan Fearon, President and Vice-Chancellor of Brock, says that the main concerns that Aboriginal students may have include: worries about the financial aspects of getting a post-secondary education, uncertainty about the academic services available to them, concerns about programming choices and how it could affect their future and also concerns about the size of the community. He explained that while some of these issues are experienced by many students the effects can be amplified for students with an Indigenous background.
“It is very important for us to appreciate and understand that individuals might need a bridge to be able to have a sense of connectedness, a sense of orientation when they first come to the university,” said Fearon, speaking about how disorienting it can be for those coming to Brock form small or rural communities.
Sandra Wong, Aboriginal Academic Program Support Coordinator, similarly identifies many of the concerns of Aboriginal students as stemming from outdated university policies that are not in the interests of Aboriginal students, a lack of a sense of belonging and limited space for students.
“Our kids are facing unnecessary barriers for something that is out of their control,” said Wong about Brock’s current financial policies in relation to sponsorship students. Many Aboriginal students at Brock are band-funded. This means that they have to wait for their band to get funding from the department of Indian Affairs to eventually be able to pay their tuition. The situation gets complicated when, despite having a letter on file from the band stating their intention to cover all fees, students are locked out of the Student Portal for payment delinquency. The difficult situation has been brought to the attention of upper management and they are working collaboratively with Aboriginal Student Services to update the outdated policies.
Wong also mentioned the lack of physical space specifically for Aboriginal students. While Aboriginal Student Services provides a space where Indigenous students can work or hang out, the space is very small and offers limited or no privacy. This is a problem for students when they need to discuss personal matters with elders or staff in the center. The hours of available services are also limited.
Courtney Copoc, a Brock student who comes from the Delaware First Nation, says that one of the hardest things for indigenous students is being in a system that does not understand indigenous ways of thinking.
“[The system] is very one way. And if you do not fit that one way, what do you do? You are not successful,” said Copoc, who talked about her experiences of feeling like she was dumb because she had difficulty with teaching styles at the university. Copoc also discussed the stigma associated with Indigenous students. She said that in her first year of university, she had a hard time embracing her culture and letting others know about it because she did not want to be treated differently. When coupled with her inability to find necessary resources, this made for a tough first year.
What does it mean to indigenize Brock?
“What it means to me is fundamentally what it means to be a Canadian and what it means to be a Canadian post-secondary institution,” said Fearon, adding that in order to indigenize the university, awareness of the history and the role of indigenous people in Canada is necessary and should be created.
“I think it is important for Canadian institutions, and students getting a post-secondary education in Canada, to be able to have an appreciation of how integral and intertwined the history and the way of knowing Indigenous people have been to the formation and the future of Canada.”
Fearon also noted that it is essential that Indigenous students feel a sense of welcome as well as a connection to the campus.
“Feeling welcome and included in an environment has a significant impact on student success as well as on the individuals who are faculty and staff, and I want to ensure that the university provides a clear sense of inclusion, a clear sense of welcoming, a clear sense of belonging and a clear sense of ownership that individuals feel. That each member of the community have a direct state and a direct possessiveness of the university. That this is our university,” said Fearon. “Indigenizing the university is to ensure that all members of the community have that appreciation and that sense of being included and being partners in the future of the university.”
To Copoc, indigenizing Brock means, “[removing] the divide between Indigenous and non-indigenous students.” One step toward this is bringing the culture of Indigenous people to the school by having more Aboriginal visuals around campus, by having a pow wow on campus and by introducing a mandatory indigenous studies credit.
Copoc also says it is essential to address the fact that Euro-Canadian ways of teaching may not be right for Indigenous students. She believes that our education should be expanded to include Indigenous teachings and ways of knowing in all faculties. Not only should the education include Indigenous context, but also Indigenous history.
“I just find a lot that we see in education is based on the sad history of indigenous people and sort of gives a negative focus rather than focusing on the positive contributions and how resilient we are and the positive things we have done,” said Copoc.
“I believe that education is the key to true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada,” said Joshua Manitowabi, an Odawa First Nations PhD student at Brock who shares a similar view to Copoc. “In order to create real change, we have to find ways to combat and get rid of racial injustices and racism towards the First Nations of these lands.”
Copoc would like to see an increase in the amount of Indigenous faculty and staff on campus, and the amount of space given to Aboriginal Student Services, which she says might be helpful to showcase Indigenous success stories to encourage younger students. Copoc believes even doing something small is important in indigenizing the campus, like looking at Aboriginal Student Services during campus tours so that future students know where to find these on-campus resources.
“Indigenizing the campus looks at valuing our world view. It would look at the systemic racism that we have in this institution,” said Wong. “It would look at more hiring of Aboriginal staff and faculty and at getting core dollars for the supports and services for Aboriginal Student Services [as well as] curriculum changes. It would look at everything across the whole institution. We would like to have our world view across all faculties.”
Wong stressed the fact that Indigenous world views should be valued in the same way that the western world view is valued. Students and faculty must be able to see themselves in the environment, and “they need to see themselves in the learning process on this campus.” She suggests that adding more Indigenous artwork or a picture of our Chancellor around the university would make it more welcoming.
What is currently being done to indigenize Brock?
Aboriginal Student Services is available to all Aboriginal students and provide a place where students can get support “in culturally sensitive and appropriate ways,” according to Fearon. Additionally, it provides a physical space where students can connect with their cultural identity. In fact, Aboriginal Student Services have been working towards indigenizing the campus for a very long time now.
“This is not new for us but what is new is having help to indigenize this institution and an understanding of what that means from our colleagues,” said Wong. Wong also mentioned that although working is constantly being done towards indigenizing the campus, it is a process that will never be complete. It is an ongoing process.
“We don’t just address them when they are here,” said Wong, discussing Aboriginal student services. “We address them out in community and develop that relationship and provide a community for them here, so they are successful when they come here. That is important because we want to retain them when they come here and to be able to help them succeed.”
The Tecumseh Centre for Aboriginal Research and Education focuses on “community-based curriculum models in support of Aboriginal educators,” said Fearon. It is also an additional physical space for indigenous students to go that features some symbols they can resonate with. All of the professors that fall under the Tecumseh centre are Indigenous.
Brock’s current chancellor, Shirley Cheechoo, is of Cree ancestry. In addition to her work as chancellor, she also provides a symbol to indigenous students that they are welcome at Brock. She also serves as a voice for Aboriginal peoples in administration. Cheechoo was one of the major advocates for Aboriginal Student Services relocating to Market Hall.
Aboriginal Education Council at Brock, which addresses a number of components in Aboriginal education and research, states that its mission is “to ensure that the next Seven Generations of Aboriginal people will have greater success and opportunities for higher education to the fullest extent possible at Brock University, and that decisions will be made with regard to future generations.”
The Vice-Provost position to support Indigenous education and community engagement initiatives was created in February 2018.
“I think this is a very important time for the context of Ontario, at the same time of the not too distant TRC that called on post-secondary education institutions to take specific action as it relates to supporting Indigenous initiatives and Indigenous education,” says Fearon, who created the position. “I think it is a very timely period for Brock, for us to move forward and establish this new position which is quite significant for the university. It is a significant commitment for the university but it also demonstrates and pairs with the overall commitment of the university as well.”
In establishing this new role, Fearon hopes the university will be able to “continue to support our Indigenous students in their academic and professional success here at the university.” He also noted that the position is meant to broaden understanding across the student body of the significant role that Indigenous people have played in Canada and in the formation of the nation as well as Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous ways of knowing and how that can inform the way that all of us look at our world and about the history of Canada.” Fearon also stated that the position will help build partnerships within our communities and institutions, and allow indigenous people a seat at the table when it comes to development and decision making at the university.
“The position profile and job description are currently being discussed with consultation from the Aboriginal Education Council as well as the Two Row Council and Aboriginal Student Services and the faculties and partners within the university,” Fearon explained. After decisions about the nature of the position, candidates will be sought to fill the position in the next few months.
“I think it is a real positive role on addressing indigenizing this institution. We need somebody to pull together all the small pockets of things happening across the institution as far as indigenizing this institution,” said Wong, about the Vice-provost position.
In addition, a number of memorandums of understanding have been released and several partnership arrangements with Indigenous institutions are under review. There was also the creation and introduction of the Indigenous Medicine Garden two years ago, and the creation of the Two Row Council. Copoc mentioned that through social media, Brock’s various services for Indigenous students communicate job opportunities and events that are occurring within the community.
Moving forward: What still needs to be done
Although there are a lot of initiatives to indigenize the campus, there is still a long way to go.
Full-time positions need to be created and more staff need to be hired. Such a large undertaking requires a lot of people and many of the individuals who work with Aboriginal Student Services are on a contract that is based on government funding. This means that if funding in not gained through proposals to the government, these individuals will not have a job the following year. As the university strives to become more indigenized, the people tasked with this job are not secure in their jobs.
“It would also be beneficial to start cross-listing or creating more undergraduate courses within Indigenous Studies and/or providing more Indigenous content within the existing departments,” Manitowabi explains. Fearon is in full support of the idea.
“I would like to be able to see in our academic programs that there is an opportunity to be able to ask ourselves ‘how would the same events be interpreted through Indigenous thoughts or Indigenous ways of knowing’ When we talk about critical thinking, we look as an opportunity to look at things through different ways of knowing and different perspectives,” he said.
Manitowabi also advocates for an expansion of Aboriginal Student Services and the creation of an Aboriginal Student Council, so that the voices of Aboriginal students can properly be heard. He also thinks Brock should work toward increasing Aboriginal student enrollment.
While Wong still believes there is work still left to do she believes that, “our new president has really made strides in the short time he has been here to make, and effect change, and it has been a positive move in that direction and it’s refreshing.”