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Nipissing University consults on new treaty for Indigenous students

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Nipissing University Indigenous Council on Education Chair Maurice Switzer says the university has agreed to a treaty of mutual promises during a Nipissing University Indigenous Education Council meeting.

By Kelly Anne Smith

 NORTH BAY — Wearing an NHL Chicago Blackhawks knit sweater, Maurice Switzer talked not of appropriated sports icons but of the greatness of Fred Sasakamoose. Sasakamoose made it to the NHL as the first First Nations player with treaty status and was a Chief and Councillor in his community. At six years old, Sasakamoose was separated from his family and taken to an Indian Residential School.

At Nipissing University’s NUSU Centre, Switzer turned around to show Fred’s signature on the back of the jersey to members of Nipissing University Indigenous Council on Education (NUICE, pronounced new-ice). As their Chair, he addressed the gathering of NUICE as they consider the university’s new strategic plan. NUICE represents the communities – First Nations and urban Indigenous – who send their children to Nipissing University.

“It’s the lack of any knowledge about Indigenous contributions and roles in Canadian history. There are some people who don’t know what a Residential School was. But I’m equally, if not more so, interested in people knowing the contributions that Indigenous peoples have made,” says Switzer.

Nipissing University President Dr. Kevin Wamsley meets with Nipissing University Indigenous Council on Education. The Council will help develop a treaty based on mutual obligations and promises – Waawiindamaagewin.

At the table is Dr. Kevin Wamsley, the seventh president and vice-chancellor of Nipissing University. Wamsley is aiming for input from the communities and students during the strategic plan process. With the suggestion from Switzer, NUICE will help develop a treaty based on mutual obligations and promises – Waawiindamaagewin, informs Wamsley.

“We develop relationships from the beginning and we walk together through this planning process as we discover what we wish to be in seven generations.”

Switzer says President Wamsley has indicated there is work to be done in diversity, equity, inclusion as well as Indigenization. Indigenous students need a welcoming, comfortable environment for learning and critical thinking, Switzer says.

“There were some very specific TRC (Truth and Reconciliation) calls to action in dealing with education. Because for one thing, it was education that created a lot of the problems in that relationship via Residential Schools. There’s kind of an onus on our education system to start retelling the stories.”

Indigenous Student Knowledge Holder Darren Nakogee was invited to speak at the NUICE meeting. Nakogee called the strategic process positive but says there is a need for sensitivity training on cultural safety.

“They were pro on Residential Schools, saying how Residential Schools had good intentions. That was said during class. The teacher said, ‘It’s my opinion and you have your opinion and we are agreeing to disagree.’ But, there is something called professionalism. There is something called mental health, the people still have. And not only that, it’s intergenerational trauma. My kids suffer today. I’ve suffered. And it’s going to keep going on until we stop it.”

Widespread cultural training at Nipissing University is needed, says NUICE Chair Switzer.

“Everybody on campus, from the custodian to the university president, needs to have cross-cultural awareness about Indigenous peoples. For many of them, they didn’t learn anything in school.”

Indigenous Student Knowledge Holder Ivory Towegishig address the NUICE meeting.

“I come from Mushkego territory, Treaty 9. In the positions you hold, you have to ask yourself, where is the future of Nipissing? I can tell you. It’s the students. Every student that walks through that building – that’s our future. We need to be doing everything we can in order for us to succeed.”

Towegishig talked about the importance of having a Treaty relationship.

“With our partners, our community, to make sure we have those healthy relationships so we can build and move forward and make changes. This is our opportunity to dream the best community of Nipissing University, by bringing in other voices and their perspectives on this.”

NUICE member Fran Couchie was Nipissing First Nation Director of Education for almost 20 years and currently sits on the Regional Education Council of the Anishinabek Education System she advocated for.

“Even now at this point, there is a lot more going on at the elementary and secondary level around inclusion of Indigenous perspective in a curriculum. That’s really good but there’s definitely a lag at the post-secondary level. I know that Indigenous students are going to be looking for more when they come to the post-secondary institute. Non-Indigenous students as well as Indigenous students are going to be looking for more,” she explains. “That’s one of the roles of NUICE is to try to provide advice and direction to the university around what they are doing in terms of Indigenous education… We want students to see themselves in these facilities in their program. And why not? There’s so much there that Indigenous knowledge can add, such as personal growth and awareness and understanding even around topics like racism.”

Couchie says the potential for growth in Indigenous culture is exciting.

“Looking at all different aspects of the curriculum, especially for a university like Nipissing, located here in Northeastern Ontario, with First Nations all around, with the environment that we have, bringing that Indigenous knowledge into the university, in a more fulsome way, is a win-win for everyone.”

Switzer is also the President of the North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre. He thinks the joint-campus (Canadore College and Nipissing University) has the largest number of Indigenous students of any campus in Ontario.

“I think there are 900. We want that to be even larger. We want to make sure that through this process, that we can say to those communities, this is what our university has agreed to on our treaty of mutual promises,” he says. “I’ve asked. I don’t know of any other campus in this country that is doing this. I think North Bay can be proud. This is going to be one of the strongest, positive examples of reconciliation that’s happening.”

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