Links between the University of Alberta and Canada’s Aboriginal community passed a milestone in early July when the university joined with a national group geared towards employment equity.
The U of A became the first Canadian university to become a member of the Aboriginal Human Resource Council (AHRC) Leadership Circle. Its mandate is to advance the full participation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
According to Tracy Bear, a special advisor to the Provost and Vice-President (Academic) on Aboriginal initiatives, the U of A’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples goes back decades — but its AHRC membership formalizes that relationship in a unique way.
“There has always been a relationship between the university and the Aboriginal community on the outside because we’ve always had Aboriginal scholars on campus,” she said.
“They reach out to their communities, and provide knowledge and working relationships.”
A major part of the university’s AHRC membership will be starting workshops and guiding circles regarding Aboriginal culture and how historical events have affected the community today.
Catherine Anley, an employment equity advisor in the U of A’s Human Resource Services, played a large part in getting the university its membership. She said the education she hopes to provide to university faculty and staff will help bridge cultural divides that influence whether Aboriginal students stay in university.
“In terms of the long term, what I’m hoping to do is create the opportunity for student advisors or supervisors to participate in the workshops, get the knowledge and then think about how they can implement this,” she added.
“If you don’t have a sense of the historical challenges, the barriers to inclusion or what the experience of an Aboriginal person might look like, how do you have a meaningful conversation with that person? These guiding circles provide the opportunity to become more aware.”
Quetzala Carson, a Students’ Union councillor for the Faculty of Native Studies, noted that although the university has made progress toward Aboriginal inclusion it still has quite a ways to go. As a Nicaraguan indigenous person, she said a large part of the progress the university can still make lies in continuing to bring Aboriginal culture to campus.
“I believe that Aboriginal nations and Aboriginal culture brings so much strength to the already existing community,” she said.
“There are so many strengths that we are missing — so many links in our chain that we are missing that Aboriginal culture can fit in there and can teach us to be a stronger nation as a university and as a country.”
Carson added that, in her experience as a U of A student, she has noticed firsthand how difficult attending the university can be for Aboriginal students. In some cases, they choose not to finish their degree due to the hardships of student life.
“It’s harder if you come from a rural area for students to stay in university and for students to continue in university because they don’t really see a future for themselves in it,” she said.
“It’s really hard when you go from being taught a completely different way to being taught here. If you come from quite a rural community where you are still being taught by elders, and you come to the U of A where there is no elder in sight, then that’s a really harsh reality for you.”
Working towards equity is something society has a major responsibility to enable, according to Anley. She explained that it will enable all indigenous peoples in Canada to fully participate in society.
“Historically and in contemporary times, there are barriers, for multiple reasons. And they are significant. This is something that everyone ought to be concerned about.”
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