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Mount Royal seeks to decolonize through education

Cindy Blackstock 2016 - Content
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, addressed Mount Royal students on March 16. "You are the change," she said. ~ Photo by Brendan Grenslade
High profile experts including Cindy Blackstock aim to share knowledge on indigenous issuesFollowing her morning address to a sold out crowd of Mount Royal University faculty, students and staff, Cindy Blackstock expressed one feeling: relief - relief to impart her knowledge towards the next generation.

"If what I'm able to pass along to people helps them come from a different starting place and then add in their own ingenuity and own ideas, then that's terrific. Because the kids need as many champions as they can get," said Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, who addressed a private crowd of Social Work and Child Studies students, followed by a open session for all students, faculty and staff, at Mount Royal on March 16.

Her presentation - based on indigenous child welfare, social justice and the historic nine-year battle against the Canadian government on the inequitable funding for First Nation children on reserve - is the peak in a series of sessions put on by the University with the aim to decolonize and educate the campus - aptly named the Decolonizing Canada Speaker Series.
Decolonizing Canada Speaker SeriesA joint initiative between Mount Royal's Department of Humanities' Indigenous Studies discipline and the University's Peace Studies Initiative within the Faculty of Arts, each session brings in an expert, usually an academic, on its respective topic. All sessions relate to forwarding the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) in a contemporary context.

Iniskim Centre Director John Fischer said the series is a robust approach to the TRC's work.

"I'm sure many people have heard about the TRC but really do not understand the underpinnings of it, the historical aspect of it, the impact on First Nations, Metis and Inuit people," he said. "So not having and understanding of that common experience, and not having an understanding of that call to action and why they're there."

While Fischer said the series broadly aims to address professional development for faculty and staff, Indigenous Studies faculty member Liam Haggarty notes several benefits for students who attend. Within his own classes, he's heard what he said is positive feedback on not only the wealth of content knowledge students are gaining, but the source of inspiration for indigenous students.

"Indigenous students … see themselves in the speakers we bring in - prominent indigenous academics, scholars, leaders and activists who are leaders in their fields and model some professional activities. So the work that they've done, students can certainly emulate."

Haggarty also sees the speaker series as a chance to reverse years of education based on assimilation, taking an approach of empowerment for students.

"Education for most of the 20th Century in Canada in relation to Indigenous People and topics was about vanishing Indigenous Peoples, cultures and identities," he said.

"In order to decolonize, we need to unvanish, we need to reappear, reintroduce indigenous cultures and identities into the classroom. It should be empowering if it's done right."

Attending a speaker session is not the only benefit for students. Former president of the Native Women's Association Beverly Jacobs held a workshop on the intersection of education and social activism exclusively for students in tandem her session on March 9.

Similar to Jacobs, Blackstock advocates for action. During her presentation, she called upon attendees to not just care, but take on tangible actions.

"You are the change," she said. "You are the best hope for change … you are the children's best hope for change. So knowing that, what are you going to do about it? When you learn about this discrimination, it's not caring that counts, it's doing something about it."

The Decolonizing Education Speaker Series continues at Mount Royal until April 8 following the honoring of the TRC commissioners with the Calgary Peace Prize on April 7 at the Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts' Bella Concert Hall.

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March 18, 2016 - Cameron Perrier