Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. has taken a step towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples that the school's president Brian Stevenson believes is a first in Canada.

On Friday, Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux was named the university's first chair for truth and reconciliation. The former vice-provost of Aboriginal initiatives will advocate for healing within the Lakehead University community and beyond.

"It's time to lay down our anger and distrust and create the kind of relationship we can all be proud of," Wesley-Esquimaux said.

She will also serve as an ambassador for truth and reconciliation issues in the northwest and Simcoe County — where Lakehead's Orillia, Ont. campus is located — as well as advocate at the provincial and national levels, the university announced.

President Stevenson said 11 per cent of the students at Lakehead are First Nations, Inuit or Metis.

Friday's ceremony at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law building was attended by a number of dignitaries, including Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day, Carolyn Bennett, Canada's Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, as well as representatives from municipal and provincial levels of government, Fort William First Nation, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and the Metis Nation of Ontario.

Chief Day called for a one-day retreat with provincial and federal Indigenous Affairs ministers — chaired by Wesley-Esquimaux — to reconcile issues around poverty, health and education.

"We are getting closer to having all the colonialist culprits corralled," he said, adding that "today is a good day for reconciliation."

The retreat is something Bennett said she's open to. She also praised Wesley-Esquimaux as "a good friend," and "a support and inspiration."

Speaking to the importance of her new role, Bennett said Wesley-Esquimaux is "in the stern of a very important canoe," for Lakehead and the country.


Canada's Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett (right) says Wesley-Esquimaux is "a good friend," and "a support and inspiration." (Jody Porter / CBC)

The new truth and reconciliation chair will also be responsible for ensuring that Lakehead University responds effectively to the recommendations outlined in the final report from the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the school said in a press release.

She will also advise the president and other school officials on provincial and national issues in regards to Indigenous peoples.

"For you spirits in the spirit world who are listening, I hope you're encouraged by this, as we move forward one step at a time," Gerry Martin, Lakehead University's Elder-in-residence said.

In a corresponding move, the university also announced Margaret Smith will take over as vice-provost of Aboriginal initiatives on an interim basis.