University of Windsor to pursue effort to indigenize education amid tensions

The University of Windsor is looking at incorporating indigenous wisdom in classrooms and campus life, a few months after an incident created a rift between administration and aboriginal students.

Students hopeful for change in wake of relocation of aboriginal education centre

Terri Fletcher, Jessica Chenier and Rebecca Pschiwul say that the university did not properly consult with the Turtle Island Aboriginal Education Centre before relocating it to a different part of the campus at the University of Windsor. (CBC)

The University of Windsor is looking at incorporating indigenous wisdom in classrooms and campus life, a few months after an incident created a rift between administration and aboriginal students.

A university senate committee is working on a report about the best ways to make the school more inclusive for aboriginal students, as well as adding indigenous knowledge to class curricula. The report is expected in early 2016.

"This is a high priority for us," said Alan Wildeman, president of the university. "It's a high priority for all of Canada."

Some in the aboriginal community question the university's commitment to aboriginal students, and are anxious for the school to mend relations following the controversial relocation of a key cultural space.

'We're being put in a corner'

This past summer, the school moved the Turtle Island Aboriginal Education Centre from a two-storey house on Sunset Avenue to a one-room, open-concept office in the CAW Student Centre. People at the centre say they were never properly consulted about where they were being moved to despite the move being two years in the making.

One student sees disturbing parallels between this and the forced relocation of North America's aboriginal peoples.

"It's wrong," said Terri Fletcher, a second-year women and gender studies student who is part of the Missanabie Cree First Nation. "We're being put in a corner somewhere. And the comparison is exactly the way they took land and put us on reserves, and didn't let us practise our ceremonies."

Alan Wildeman, the president of the University of Windsor, says the school did consult with students about the relocation of the Turtle Island Aboriginal Education Centre. (CBC)

French and Criminology double major Jessica Chenier called the move "disrespectful," and wishes the university would have kept students up-to-date on its plans.

'I understand we're not going to get the exact same space, but that was just completely a downgrade," said Chenier, an Algonquin from Mattawa North Bay. "There's no privacy, no study area, and this is for the students of the university."

Wildeman told CBC the university did consult with students on the move.

"We do try to talk to the key players involved, and get the word out as much as we possibly can," said Wildeman. "But it's very hard to reach almost 16,000 students."

That doesn't wash with the people at Turtle Island.

"It's as easy as sending out an email and asking students for feedback," says volunteer Rebecca Pschiwul.

Wildeman also says the space is temporary, though the students wonder how long that could be.

Sacred practice barred

Another major issue is the students can no longer perform smudging, a purification ritual involving the burning of four plants known as the Four Sacred Medicines: sweetgrass, cedar, sage, and tobacco. The building code means people at the centre have to perform the sacred act outdoors, usually with much difficulty.

A move to a new building on campus has left students unable to perform smudging indoors. (CBC)

"It's a beautiful practice that we enjoy, and we need," said Fletcher. "It's a connection to Mother Earth. It's just a beautiful sense of who I am as a person, as a First Nations woman.'

Several schools allow smudging, including Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. But the University of Windsor said it's unlikely to change its policy to allow smudging.

"We have to also be mindful of the fact that there are fire code restrictions," said Wildeman, adding that some might be sensitive to the smoke. "But we certainly recognize it as being important.'

Both sides open to building bridges

Wildeman and the students both said they are willing to talk, both about the move to indigenize education and the future of Turtle Island.

"They're in the centre," said Wildeman. "So as we're talking about how we want to re-imagine what the centre will look like, everybody who is in there will be talked to."

Chenier, Pschiwul, and Fletcher are looking forward to that conversation.

"We'll keep the hope of an adequate space in our prayers and when we're smudging," Fletcher said. "We'll ask the creator to give us the co-operation with the university, and that they'll realize that we need more than what they've given us."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said that the education centre was relocated in the summer of 2014. In fact, it moved in the summer of 2015.
    Dec 22, 2015 2:24 PM ET