National Day for Truth and Reconciliation 2023
Reflections on a year of indigenization, and a look to the future
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation holds deep significance for our nation. It is a day dedicated to recognizing the painful history of Residential Schools, acknowledging the enduring trauma of Indigenous peoples, and promoting truth, reflection, and reconciliation. This day honors Survivors and remembers those lost.
It is also significant for us at Waterloo, giving us an opportunity to underscore our commitment to addressing our colonial legacy, and fostering a more inclusive and just future. We can continue the work across campus that has already begun, we can continue to find meaningful ways to advance the work through a collective commitment to engage with Indigenous colleagues on our campuses.
Roughly one year ago, prior to last year’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the University held a Commitment Ceremony, during which we pledged the University's unwavering commitment to reconciliation, indigenization, and decolonization. Now that we’re at close to the one-year anniversary of this commitment, it is worth looking back on the progress we have made so far and just how much more work lies ahead of us.
Reflecting on that day, I remember the sense of hope on the faces of those assembled for the sunrise ceremony. Nobody knew exactly what was to come next, but we all understood it was an important first step on a journey that must lead to the kinds of actions true decolonization demands.
Perhaps the most significant development since then is our announcement in May of a full tuition waiver for eligible students from the Six Nations of the Grand River and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, on whose traditional territories the University resides. Our campuses in Kitchener and Cambridge are situated on the Haldimand Tract, land 6 miles on each side of the Grand River granted to the Haudenosaunee of Six Nations.
Some of those students will have an opportunity to live in a new residence prioritizing Indigenous design principles set to open to all incoming students (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) in 2026. A partnership with Indigenous-owned architecture firm Two Row, who are advising on the construction, the 500-bed residence on our main campus will feature a community healing garden for sacred and traditional medicine plants, spaces for smudging and cleansing ceremonies, and accommodations for live-in Elders to meet with students.
One day, these students will join me on the convocation stage. When they do, they’ll be greeted by an Eagle Staff received during a wonderful celebration in March. The Eagle Staff represents our connection with Mother Earth and the Indigenous community at the University of Waterloo. It is a fitting addition alongside our mace and motto, and a tradition we will cherish long into the future.
“Gestures are important in building trust and respect, but ultimately it’s people who make decolonization possible.” — Vivek Goel
Guided by Jean Becker, associate vice-president, Indigenous Relations the Office of Indigenous Relations opened its doors this year. At an open house coinciding with the release of the Indigenous Strategic Plan, guests from across campus were treated to familiar Indigenous foods. Each guest was given a medicine pouch they filled with traditional healing plants, and instruction on their properties and significance. The celebration offered a small glimpse into the Office’s work in coordinating indigenization at UWaterloo through operationalizing the Strategic Plan, facilitating activities such as community events, workshops, seminars, and ceremonies.
Along with Jean and her team, Health’s Indigenous Knowledge Keeper, Elder Myeengun Henry, and Engineering’s Elder in Residence William Woodworth have also generously shared their knowledge and sacred symbols this past year.
These initiatives—combined with many other actions across the campus—are the beginning of what I hope is a durable foundation of indigenization rooted in policy and program changes to address the harm caused by colonization and to advance reconciliation.
As an institution advancing knowledge, fostering critical thinking, and preparing future leaders to address complex global challenges, we could not move forward in our efforts to indigenize without programs, and Indigenous representation across the institution.
One example of new programming was announced this past spring as United College launched its Diploma in Indigenous Entrepreneurship. It will focus on the unique needs and priorities of Indigenous entrepreneurs from different Nations and communities in partnership with institutions across the country.
I am glad to say that representation is increasing. We added 22 new Indigenous-focused staff hires on the main campus, six Indigenous faculty hires, bringing the total number of Indigenous staff and faculty at UWaterloo and its affiliated and federated institutions to 44.
Those new professors and staff will serve a student population with growing Indigenous representation as well. This fall, UWaterloo welcomed 289 (self-identifying) Indigenous students to our campuses—this is an increase from the 182 who attended classes here in 2020.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of these new staff, faculty, and students, and I have learned a great deal about Indigenous Peoples—knowledge that will benefit me personally and professionally.
Earlier this year Jean and I visited with Six Nations of the Grand River Chief Mark Hill and the President of Six Nations Polytechnic (SNP) Rebecca Jamison. We discussed the tuition waiver, the history of SNP, and the possibility of an MOU to work together on educational initiatives in the future. It was certainly a positive step towards building relationships with Six Nations that I look forward to following up on.
Amidst these achievements and progress, we must remember the primary purpose of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation: to honor over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children who were forcibly taken from their homes, families and cultures to attend Indian Residential Schools.
Finally, I must stress that the harm done to Indigenous peoples from colonization is centuries in the making and will take sustained effort to redress. What I’ve outlined here is just a start. And while I am proud to share these collective accomplishments, the trust we are building is perhaps the greatest achievement since that morning last September. We cannot rest on our laurels and lose momentum.
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is co-ordinated within the Office of Indigenous Relations.