Universities in Ontario and across the country have, on the surface, committed to supporting reconciliation, Indigenization, and decolonization. Are those commitments helping Indigenous faculty, students, and staff navigate the postsecondary system? What should universities do to ensure Indigenous people can thrive on campus?

Through her teaching, research, and administrative work, Lynn Lavallee has dedicated her career to advancing Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledge in the academy. Her areas of expertise include Indigenous ethics, research methods including Indigenous research methods, and Indigenous health and well-being. She is a Professor in the School of Social Work and Strategic Lead, Indigenous Resurgence, at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Faculty of Community Services. Lynn Lavallee spoke to Academic Matters about her goals for Indigenous resurgence work on her own campus, the importance of Indigenous leadership at all university levels, and how universities can concretely pursue reconciliation.

Academic Matters: Please introduce yourself and your role at TMU.

Lynn Lavallee: I am Anishinaabe and a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario. It’s so important that we identify who we are, where we come from, who our relations are, and what land we come from, in part because of cultural fraud of Indigenous identity in the academy, but it’s also simply what we do. My roots come from Temiscaming, as well as the Red River and include the last names Lavallee, Labelle, Taylor, Godon, McIvor, Swain, and Lillie.

What does Indigenous Resurgence mean to you in your role?

Often, there isn’t a lot of support for Indigenous people at institutions, yet reconciliation and decolonization are noted in their strategic plans. I’ve done a lot of administrative work from the time that I achieved tenure and promotion, and I think that things need to change at institutions to make Indigenous people feel included and to do no further harm to Indigenous students, staff, and faculty. That’s the minimum, but has not been the focus for many reconciliation efforts in universities.

I think about Vern Harper, who was an Elder. He would talk about the fact that we’ve been de-feathered. Part of Indigenous resurgence is gathering those feathers, gathering our bundles, gathering our medicines, and gaining strength through community language, land, and ceremony. So for me, that’s what it [my role] is about. I want to support Indigenous people at the institution.

What should universities be considering with regards to Indigenous student and faculty experiences?

I would ask all institutions to really think: Where are their Indigenous people at, within their institutions? What is their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health like? Are we thriving within the institution?

That’s why I wanted to use the term Indigenous resurgence—to support Indigenous students, so that when they go through their four-year degree, there’s no further harm [done to them]. It sounds like a low bar, but Indigenous people are harmed in the institution all the time—Indigenous students, faculty, and staff. Harm happens in meetings, informally, formally. My role is all about supporting Indigenous people. It’s about trying to ensure more Indigenous students actually get through the institution.

My role is all about supporting Indigenous people. It’s about trying to ensure more Indigenous students actually get through the institution.

What would your vision of Indigenous Resurgence look like on a campus?

There needs to be Indigenous senior leadership around all tables at an institution. We also have to make our institutions more attractive for Indigenous people. That means looking at strategic plans and asking: are they really helping Indigenous people [at the institution]? The institution should establish Indigenous-specific representation on Boards of Governors and Senate, beyond a token individual. It’s also important to have Indigenous representation for academic and non-academic roles. We need Indigenous leadership at the school and faculty level, to design programs that do no further harm.

Academia is really grappling with the issue of cultural fraud, which is huge. Now there is more and more research being done that really talks about the harms of cultural fraud. It’s the tip of the iceberg. So who is responsible for that? With respect to reconciliation, Indigenization, and decolonization, if [administrations] can write a land acknowledgment, and deliver land acknowledgments at Board of Governors and Senate and all their meetings, they can address cultural fraud.

Universities need to change their human rights policies and their investigative policies. Human rights complaints policies at universities are often not restorative; they are very litigious. We need new policies that are restorative for complaints. Our human rights offices are ill equipped to deal with Indigenous-specific racism. They also don’t know what to do when somebody has been lying about who they are, in the case of cultural fraud. Institutions have to look at that. They have to put together policies that look retroactively at the harm done by cultural fraudsters, not just moving forward with new policies for new hires. That would be reconciliation. It’s reconcili-action to do something about that.

What initiatives might help Indigenous faculty thrive?

TMU has non-academic Indigenous leadership, which is absolutely amazing, to support Indigenous students. But senior Indigenous academic leadership should also be in place to support Indigenous faculty. Universities have to promote from within and acknowledge the Indigenous people that are [already] at our institutions. I was the first Vice-Provost of Indigenous engagement at the University of Manitoba, and I started a speaker series there that acknowledged the Indigenous people who were already working at the university. Often, institutions do not value the Indigenous people they have because these folks have been pushing decolonization before it became fashionable and were often labelled as agitators and dismissed for internal opportunities.

More and more collective agreements are including Indigenous approaches to tenure and promotion, which is phenomenal. We can’t do our work without engaging community, but oftentimes that is not weighted as heavily in our tenure and promotion files. Institutions and unions also need policies to support Indigenous faculty, and policies about Indigenous identification. Many institutions put the issue of identity fraud on Indigenous people with no support. Most unions have also not contributed to matters related to identity fraud. Unions and institutions need to do their jobs.

What do you see as the way forward?

We’re in a really challenging time. I don’t want to just be discouraging for Indigenous faculty who are new to their career in in academia—we can make a difference in the institutions. We can make a difference with Indigenous students. We know the harms we’re facing every day.

Indigenous people at universities are doing the work of pushing boundaries and as a collective, trying to move things forward.

Indigenous people at universities are doing the work of pushing boundaries and as a collective, trying to move things forward. I resigned my position at the University of Manitoba and made that statement. I wrote a letter to the university with many recommendations when I left, and they implemented many of them, which is amazing. At every university, there are some people who are seen as the agitators and some people who put their head down and do their work with students. There are many people doing different things at institutions to make change. And as Indigenous people, we need to work together, as a collective.

The colonial model of higher education doesn’t work for us, so how do we do this a bit differently? We need more Indigenous governance at multiple levels. We need more Indigenous faculty in our schools in order to get this work done. If they want to do the work of reconciliation, Indigenization, and decolonization, universities have to hire tenure-track Indigenous faculty. It is important to have Indigenization on campus, like Indigenous welcome signs, art, and greetings. And it’s important to support Indigenous students and faculty, and to ask: how are they being harmed by [an institution]? How does [an institution] actually remedy that harm? Once institutions start to look at that, then they can do a land acknowledgement.

The colonial model of higher education doesn’t work for us, so how do we do this a bit differently?

Lynn Lavallee is the Strategic Lead, Indigenous Resurgence in the Faculty of Community Services and Professor in the School of Social Work at Toronto Metropolitan University.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.