Saint Mary's University appoints director of Indigenous education

Saint Mary's University has appointed a new director of Indigenous education in an attempt to make the school more inviting and accommodating to Aboriginal people.

East Coast universities slow to change when it comes to Indigenous education, educator says

Trudy Sable has worked with Indigenous communities for more than 25 years. (Submitted)

Saint Mary's University has appointed a new director of Indigenous education as the next step toward the larger goal of "Indigenizing" the school and make it more inviting and accommodating to Aboriginal people.

Trudy Sable has worked with Indigenous communities for more than 25 years, originally connecting through dance with community members in Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton.

Sable told CBC's Information Morning she started going to powwows back in the 1980s, and working with elders to study "the traditional dances as a means of non-verbal communication."

"It was important to me to meet the people who were first on this land," Sable said. 

She went on to become the director of the office of Aboriginal and northern research at Gorsebrook Research Institute, an adjunct professor of anthropology and a part-time teacher in the Atlantic Canada studies program at Saint Mary's University.

Sable also works internationally as the Saint Mary's representative to the University of the Arctic's members council.

East Coast slow to change

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued its final report into the residential school system last year, "has really lit a fire under the universities," Sable said.

While many Canadian universities have already adopted new measures such as student supports, updated curricula and ceremonial elements, Sable said "universities on the East Coast are a little bit slower" when it comes to adapting.

"Different universities have done different pieces," Sable said. "Every university has different capacities, so it's not one-shoe-fits-all kind of thing."  

Sable says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has really 'lit a fire' under universites to better accommodate Indigenous people. (Submitted)

Student supports essential

"I feel like it's really important to bring the students into the study of their own culture," Sable said, especially when it comes to new research. Indigenous students also require additional supports in order to ensure they succeed in a university environment, Sable said. 

Saint Mary's already has a space set aside for Indigenous students on campus, but Sable would like to see that area enlarged and enhanced, she said. The university also plans to hire a full-time Indigenous student advisor and create an Indigenous advisory council. 

The student advisor should be in place by fall. 

'Muddy boots' researcher

Sable said Saint Mary's University is also working towards "Indigenizing" the university by integrating the ceremonial aspects of Aboriginal culture into university life, such as flying the Mi'kmaq flag on special occasions.

"I also think it's really important to get faculty on board," she said, "looking at the different ways in their own disciplines they can integrate more of a dialogue with other cultures, with other ways of knowing."

Saint Mary's is currently designing new curricula dedicated to Indigenous culture and history.

Sable has been called a "muddy boots" researcher, meaning "I've spent a lot of time on the land," she said.

She hopes to continue that work, saying in her experience with elders, it wasn't until you "got out on the land with them you really understood the depth of their relationship to the land, that isn't easily verbalized."