James Wilson, commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, has been involved in indigenous-based advisory boards and circles before, but says the university’s new Indigenous Advisory Circle is the first one he’s seen in an academic setting.
Initially, the university developed an advisory circle for the Master’s in Development Program (MDP), said Wilson. Now, the board of regents has approved an advisory circle for the entire university, according to a December press release.
“There’s a whole gamut of ways right from the bottom up and the top down that really need to incorporate indigenous knowledge into the system,” said Wilson. “This is one of the ways that indigenous perspective gets heard at the senior level.”
Wilson said university president Lloyd Axworthy governs the university with a cultural understanding that the university is on Treaty One territory, and the work the university does affects the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.
“When you administer based on this understanding, it ideally changes how you’re interacting with First Nations people on all levels,” he said. “It’s not just a token elder saying an opening prayer and then going to the back of the room and not contributing.”
The advisory circle is an education-focused relationship-building initiative and has no formal decision making power, said Wilson.
The circle has 15 members, including Chief David Crate of the Fisher River Cree Nation. Tobasonakwut Kinew, elder and instructor in the indigenous studies department, and Leah Laplante, education director of the Manitoba Métis Federation, also have roles.
The circle is led by Dr. Phil Fontaine, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Jennifer Rattray, associate vice-president of indigenous, government and community affairs, said the new circle met for the first time in November.
Its creation was strongly encouraged by the board of regents. It came after years of research into ways of breaking down the barriers for cultural groups under-represented at the university, said Rattray.
“Education really is one of the keys to eliminating poverty. Once you have an education you are able to make the best choices for you and your family,” Rattray said.
The circle will be consulted in matters pertinent to academic programming, student support, financial barriers and community outreach programs such as the Eco-Kids science program for inner city youth, said Rattray.
Miriam Sainnawap, a U of W student who is currently taking a year off from the English literature program, said she expects the advisory circle will be an effective communication outlet.
“It is important, especially for indigenous students, to have some sort of circle at the university, just for people to feel like they can connect to something within the institution,” said Sainnawap.
Sainnawap hopes the advisory circle will be a way to improve equality at the university.
“It’s important for people to have a voice in the institution,” said Sainnawap. “The institution has to change at some point, right?”
Published in Volume 66, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 18, 2012)