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(Re)Imagining the Future of Higher Education in Canada

From left to right: Professor Leslie Chan, Laurie Robinson, Dr. Florence Ganfield, Dr. Rajesh Tandon, Dr. Lorna Wánosts’a7 Williams, Dr. Budd Hall, and Isabella LeVert-Chiasson (Photo: FPCF)

On April 13, 2023, various higher education institutions, partners, foundations, and research councils gathered in Ottawa at the Global Centre for Pluralism for the symposium “Higher Education in Canada: Decoding, Deconstructing, and Decolonizing Our Future.” 

Co-hosted by the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO), the UNESCO Co-Chairs in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, the Indigenous Advanced Education and Skills Council (IAESC), the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation (FPCF), and the Knowledge Equity Lab (KEL), this gathering was held in the spirit of collectively deconstructing and reconstructing higher education structures in Canada to include Indigenous knowledge, cultures, values, and ways of knowing. Many speakers highlighted the need for Indigenous programming and knowledge acquisition methods (e.g., land-based education) to be integrated into curriculum design, as well as the imperative of recognizing Indigenous higher education institutions nationwide.

At the Knowledge Equity Lab, we were honoured to be part of the powerful conversations that resounded throughout the Global Centre for Pluralism that sunny Thursday morning. Our Director, Professor Leslie Chan, shared the stage with Dr. Lorna Wánosts’a7 Williams (Professor Emerita, Indigenous Education, University of Victoria & Chair, FPCF), Laurie Robinson (Chair and Executive Director, IAESC), Rajesh Tandon (Founding Director, PRIA & Co-Chair, UNESCO Chair in Community-based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education), and Dr. Budd Hall (Professor Emeritus, School of Public Administration, University of Victoria & Co-Chair, UNESCO Chair in Community-based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education) for a panel on “Indigenous perspectives, open science and transforming knowledge in higher education.” Four of our student assistants — Arushi Dahiya, Christy Lorentz, Karma Salloum, and Simran Suri — were also in the audience. Below are the students’ key takeaways from the event:

From left to right: Simran Suri, Arushi Dahiya, Christy Lorentz, Karma Salloum, and Professor Leslie Chan

Christy Lorentz

Of the many profound and powerful points that were shared during this conference, one phrase that continues to echo in my head is Dr. Florence Ganfield’s (Vice-Provost of Indigenous Programming and Research, University of Alberta) “It’s not just head work. It’s hard work and it’s heart work.”

Having been educated primarily in the tradition of Western Enlightenment, I am a stranger to the concept of incorporating — let alone foregrounding — “heart work” in academia. Yet witnessing the cauldron of emotions that bubbled within the four walls of that conference room — in which laughter was shared, tears shed, and seriousness had — made me reconsider the value of this “heart work.” I realized that the vivid emotions expressed by many of the speakers, panelists, and participants did not detract from but rather enhanced the gravity and significance of their work. Perhaps, imagining the future of higher education begins with the collective epiphany that “heart work,” when channeled productively, creates not dissonance but a fuller melody for academia’s ongoing refrain.

Another highlight of this conference was the small group time that followed the main panel discussion. In my group was a lady who helped establish Indigenous language learning programs in New Zealand and is now working to achieve the same in Canada. Listening to her story made me consider the need for a platform to connect Indigenous communities worldwide, on which these groups can share best practices in terms of incorporating their values, knowledge, and ways of knowing into their respective countries’ education systems. While each country’s situation is unique, this connectivity would prevent groups from needlessly “starting from scratch” when successful models exist and emphasize how Indigenous issues are not Canadian or New Zealander but universal.

My final key takeaway is not a specific saying or story but — in line with Dr. Ganfield’s comment on “heart work” — a general feeling from the day. Several times throughout the conference, a sense of insecurity — a paralyzing internal voice that incessantly asked, “Who are you to be here?” — crept up on me as I engaged in conversation with established academics, researchers, and community partners. Yet the more that I conversed with Roda Muse (Secretary-General, CCUNESCO), Anoush Terjanian (Fellow of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa), and other inspiring individuals in attendance, the more that this feeling of insecurity was eclipsed by one of gratitude: Gratitude for the lessons taught and learned. Gratitude for the connections forged. Gratitude for the togetherness felt. Gratitude for the mere fact and privilege of taking up space in that room as a third-year undergraduate amid a busy finals season. Given the event topic of “the future of higher education,” I hope that more students will have the opportunity to take part in future renditions of this conference.

Karma Salloum

Having had the privilege of attending this conference as a young person in academia, I was left feeling inspired, motivated, and filled with thoughts about how I, as a student, can take part in the larger, necessary efforts towards decoding, deconstructing, and decolonizing the future of higher education. The amazing speakers shared very valuable insights into the types of systemic changes that need to be made to transform the typical Eurocentric model of higher education into one that is more sustainable and that can better meet everyone’s needs. For instance, Dr. Lorna Wánosts’a7 Williams stressed the importance of revitalizing Indigenous knowledge systems, including Indigenous languages, and Indigenous institutions, and better supporting Indigenous people’s education, which remains neglected and underfunded. 

Dr. Leslie Chan, one of our professors at UTSC’s Department of Global Development Studies, reinforced the notion that fostering knowledge equity is not merely about improving access to education and knowledge. Rather, it should involve understanding why only certain knowledge is deemed valuable, who decides that, and who is given the opportunity to share and produce their knowledge. It is also about ensuring that people can access a diverse collection of work from various knowledge systems, not only research originating from the West and published in prestigious journals. Thus, Professor Chan reminds us that unless we think critically about the knowledge production structures that impact all these things, we cannot truly begin to transform higher education and advance knowledge equity. I felt that the conference was a really great starting point and an example of how people can be brought together to discuss these important topics and collectively reimagine higher education and knowledge systems. Taking place in a diverse and inclusive space, the conference highlighted Indigenous voices, fostered rich discussions and exchanges of knowledge between everyone present, and critically questioned the practices, policies, institutions, and systems that continue to move the world forward. 

I was also particularly inspired by a discussion I had with Dr. Budd Hall about research in academia where he offered some advice that really stuck with me. He said that it is critical to remember to be human when approaching research and knowledge production, and that means engaging with the communities that we’re interested in working with, reflecting on what type of knowledge needs to be produced and what the community wants to present, and thinking about how one’s research can create meaningful differences. All in all, the conference provided me with unforgettable lessons and sparked a sense of hope in me that positive change can be made by collectively and collaboratively working toward decoding, deconstructing, and decolonizing the future of higher education in Canada. 

Simran Suri

The conference, (Re)Imagining the Future of Higher Education in Canada, evoked a remarkable space for reflection and considerations towards imagining decolonial pedagogy. The conference not only evoked multiple opportunities for reflection upon not only positionality and privilege, yet a greater vision for how to transform this space for potential future researchers or scholars. Based on the ideas of various community practitioners, researchers, activists, as well as consultants, I learnt a lot about how to “unlearn” and what this means for future scholars like myself. I learnt how to create spaces for storytelling, which was especially expressed by community leaders who are aiming to build/set-up a school for spreading Indigenous knowledge for the Inuit groups, which was especially shared by Lorna Wanósts’a7 Williams. I also learnt about some of the concerns expressed by Indigenous populations, particularly when it comes to reforming the SDGs to include the First Nations Peoples who have been particularly absent, as well as their knowledge and practices.

Based on these ideas, I learnt that the province has been particularly absent, in shedding light upon Indigenous perspectives, as shared by Laurie Robinson. During the larger conference, I also learnt that Indigenous Institutes Act, specified the presence of First Nations by recognizing the possibilities of Indigenous institutions. This is especially considering how due to the lack of provincial support, a lot of the funding was provided through existing programs specific to Indigenous knowledge from post-secondary institutions. Based on these discussions, I especially drew upon how open dialogue is key to decolonizing pedagogy within higher education beyond including but centering Indigenous knowledge. This decolonization process has come a long way, but I still believe that we have a long way to go. I believe that a lot of these ideas became highly intertwined with the points raised by other scholars, including Dr. Leslie Chan and Dr. Rajesh Tandon, especially defining the epistemologies that are being introduced, and discussed.

Prof. Chan discussed how open science is key for open praxis, bridging positive relations, and how open science is the process of democratizing scientific findings by increasing its availability (2023). This was particularly interesting in considering First Nations Peoples knowledge as being historically and continuously excluded from science, or scientific knowledge. In my opinion, one such example of the conversations that are often considered are how various, modern medicines have been derived from Indigenous practices, which is also invalidated. This made me question whether Indigenous knowledge is truly considered as a part of science on a larger scale? How can Indigenous knowledge become considered towards validity in science?

Similarly, following discussions by Dr. Tandon, I learnt about how city settlements are often highly different for those living in poverty, introducing activists, creating dialogue, prioritizing this upon the SDG agenda, and giving the communities a voice. I also learnt how important community-building and participatory research are, especially in the context of Dr. Tandon’s work and experiences, and in higher education. I saw many similarities between the scholars, and their approaches, including Dr. Tandon, towards achieving a truly, decolonized, higher educational system. This includes foregrounding the importance of local knowledge, and engaging with the vulnerable populations, as opposed to influencing them with western findings, this is comparable to Indigenous teachings, by increasing community-centric communication/dialogue.

Arushi Dahiya

The future of higher education needs to be critically assessed and rethought if we are to reckon with the current – and face the future – challenges of society. The conference on Higher Education in Canada: Decoding, Deconstructing, and Decolonizing Our Future invited me to a renewed perspective on the potential of higher education to transform society in Canada, and by example, education around the world. This is pertinent if we are to begin reworking the systemic structures of exclusion and erasure that colonialism so deeply embedded in our institutions. By focusing on and creating actionable pathways to preserve and incorporate indigenous knowledge, learning how to operate through a framework of sustainability, and importantly – placing social justice and well being for all at the center of our mission – we can help create a better world not only through how we teach students like myself about values of inclusion, sufficiency, and knowledge equity – but then doubly so through the ways in which we carry these ideas forward in life. 

There were so many lessons to be learned from this conference but here are some of my key take-aways. Firstly, the future of higher education must be centered around sustainability and this means prioritizing indigenous knowledge. Sustainability is a central theme that is widely prevalent in higher education discourse today and in order to make our universities sustainable we need to look towards making system-wide changes that include revitalizing indigenous languages and protecting the unseated and contested land of our indigenous communities. Secondly, we must recognize the power structures within which our knowledge systems are embedded and question “Who’s knowledge are we accessing?” because at present, Western knowledge defines the status quo and this translates into the further empowerment of those already in power. This makes it pertinent to open dialogue and conceive of a new social contract for higher education that is more comprehensive and all encompassing. One that ultimately places value in all systems and models of learning because this is what can help us achieve the social transformation we need that leads to justice. 

In conclusion, the consensus echoes that we need to move away from Western normative pedagogy that is typically Eurocentric and borne out of colonial legacies. Instead, we must begin to seriously incorporate the multitudes of diverse ways of knowing and learning in education if we are to successfully confront the challenges of society today. In this endeavour, sustainability and the SDGs can help serve as a critical framework. Being a part of the undergraduate degree experience in academia made it incredible to have the opportunity to share a room, hear from, and be in dialogue with such inspirational leaders in the university landscape, members of foundations, and research councils, across Canada and the world. I am left with immense gratitude for Professor Chan at the Knowledge Equity Lab and inspiration to see the transformation of higher education for the better. 

Supporting Documents and Resources

Writer Biographies

Christy Lorentz is a fourth-year student at the University of Toronto Scarborough, double majoring in Media, Journalism, and Digital Cultures (Journalism Stream) and English. She worked as a Communications Assistant at the Knowledge Equity Lab in Fall 2022 and Winter 2023.

Karma Salloum is a fourth-year student at the University of Toronto majoring in the Specialist International Development Studies Co-op program and minoring in Political Science and Anthropology. She has been involved with the Knowledge Equity Lab since her first year and is currently working on the Open Praxis Forum, which aims to reduce the barriers that university students face in academia and provide them with a platform to showcase and amplify their work. 

Simran Suri is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto Scarborough completing a specialist in International Development Studies Co-op and minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies. She holds particular interest in knowledge dissemination and openness by increasing education, especially for third-world women and other gender identities. Throughout her undergraduate journey, she has been involved in several organizations including but not limited to communication, media and event management at the Knowledge Equity Lab, and co-founding Open Praxis Forum. 

Arushi Dahiya is in her fourth year at the University of Toronto, specializing in the Global Development Studies Co-op program and Minoring in Political Science and Anthropology. She is currently assisting the team at the Knowledge Equity Lab in reporting and devising sustainability strategies.