The Indigenous Peoples of the University of Waterloo asked Vivek Goel, President and Vice-Chancellor, for a full commitment to reconciliation, Indigenization and decolonization at the institution today.

Goel acknowledged the University’s full commitment through a formal Commitment Ceremony.

“As an institution of learning, the University has a unique role to play in working towards truth and reconciliation,” he said. “We have to ensure that Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing are represented in our scholarship, in our research and in our teachings.”

Goel acknowledged that Indigenous Peoples are the original inhabitants of this land and continue to suffer devastating cultural loss and cultural disconnect within Canadian society due to the systems built by colonialism.

Vivek Goel receiving an eagle feather from Myeengun Henry

Vivek Goel, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Waterloo, receiving the gift of an eagle feather from Myeengun Henry, Indigenous Knowledge Keeper with Waterloo’s Faculty of Health.

He committed the University to fostering a better understanding of Indigenous history, developing an awareness of the damaging intergenerational effects of colonialism and the residential school system and taking responsibility for vital components of the reconciliation process.

Goel was joined in the ceremony by Jean Becker, Associate Vice-President, Indigenous Relations at Waterloo.

“Reconciliation is more than simply acknowledging mistakes of the past, it is also about recognizing the mistakes still exist today,” Becker said. “There remains much more that we must advance to achieve Truth and Reconciliation. We must move beyond words and take meaningful action, and that is what we are doing here at Waterloo.”

Former Chief, Elder and Indigenous Knowledge Keeper, Myeengun Henry, who works with Waterloo’s Faculty of Health, said the Indigenous Commitment Ceremony symbolizes a new beginning on the path towards a genuine understanding of Indigenous issues.

“I’m really proud of today,” Henry said. “It has given us the opportunity, for maybe the first time in the history of this country to this extent, to change some of the dreadful stories from the past of residential school, the Sixties Scoop, missing and murdered women and endangering our Mother Earth.”

Sunrise Ceremony

Some of the attendees at the morning Sunrise Ceremony.

The day’s events commenced with a Sunrise Ceremony, which had some 250 people in attendance. Later in the morning, during a special Cedar Circle, more than 400 people from the Waterloo community witnessed Goel committing the University to meaningful action toward reconciliation. In attendance were several faculty deans and other institutional leaders, as well as Waterloo MPP Catherine Fife.

The commitment was formalized through a Pipe Ceremony, after which Goel was given the name “Ogiima” (meaning leader) and presented with gifts of an eagle feather and two Wampum belts. The belts will be displayed in Waterloo’s Senate and Board chamber.

The Commitment Ceremony concluded with a Round Dance and a feast, shared by all in attendance.

The day’s events will follow with several events over the next week as part of the University’s observance of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30.

Attendee reactions

In attendance at the various events were students, faculty members and staff. Many expressed their admiration for the University’s commitment and said they hope to see significant action.

“I went to the Sunrise Ceremony this morning, and I thought it was beautifully done,” said Kayla Chutter, an undergraduate student in Environmental Sciences. “I thought it was important to come today and see what Waterloo’s commitments are to Truth and Reconciliation and how they plan to Indigenize and decolonize the campus. I would love to see more Indigenized content in all classes.”

The University has specific staff members who promote equity, diversity and inclusivity as part of their day-to-day work. Many attended the various events, including Jeremy Steffler, the Faculty of Mathematics Equity Officer.

“It is an important step in the University’s journey to Reconciliation,” Steffler said. “It’s important that the University formally recognizes its responsibility, and it’s important that each of us here today also recognizes that we carry responsibilities.”

Round dance on campus

Round dance following the Commitment Ceremony. Elder Henry commented it was the "largest round circle" he had seen on Waterloo's campus.

Along with undergraduate students, many master’s and PhD students were also in attendance, including Aimee Yurris, who is working on a Master of Science in Public Health Science degree.

“I was born and raised in the Northwest Territories, and respect for Indigenous people is a big part of our lives there,” said Yurris. “For me, part of getting to know Waterloo is getting to know the traditional land we are on the Indigenous peoples. It’s great to see a ceremony like this here.”

What is the significance of September 22?

September 22 is the date of the fall equinox, when the hours of sunlight and darkness are roughly the same and the sun is beginning a new phase in its annual cycle. The equinox signifies the changing of seasons, the harvest and the abundance of Mother Earth’s gifts to us. Prior to colonization, equinox was a time when migrating people prepared to move to winter quarters. Indigenous peoples recognize the equinoxes as spiritually significant times to express gratitude and appreciate our relationship to creation and our relatives on the earth.

What is the significance of a Sunrise Ceremony?

The Sunrise Ceremony is a deeply spiritual and sacred ceremony conducted to welcome a new day. It is a celebration of the sun and an occasion to give thanks to Father Sun for all creation. The Sunrise Ceremony also represents new beginnings. Participants might smudge with sage or burn other sacred medicines like sweetgrass and cedar.

What is the significance of the Cedar Circle?

Cedar plays an integral role in the spiritual beliefs of some Indigenous peoples and is used for a variety of ceremonial purposes. Cedar is a powerful symbol of strength and revitalization. The Cedar Circle represents safety, healing and protection and is used in many different ceremonies for that purpose.

What is the significance of a Pipe Ceremony?

The Pipe Ceremony is sacred to Indigenous peoples. Historically, it was used to open negotiations between different peoples as a way to facilitate meaningful talks. The Pipe Ceremony is regarded as a way by which participants will be truthful, respectful and accept the decisions and agreements being made.

What is the significance of the flags at the event?

The Ceremony included flags representing Indigenous peoples, including the First Nations flag, the Anishinaabe Peoples flag, the Haudenosaunee flag and the Metis flag. The ceremonies also included the Canadian flag.

Indigenous Relations Commitment Ceremony graphic

Commitment Ceremony graphic from the Office of Indigenous Relations, University of Waterloo.