Office of the President

Andrew Petter, President and Vice-Chancellor

Petter's Perspective: Notes from the President

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Lessons from Australia on Reconciliation

September 25, 2017

This past week I travelled to Australia to connect with university partners, to forge new relationships and to speak at an international conference on university-community engagement.  

My trip took me to Brisbane for visits to Griffith University and the Queensland University of Technology, to Canberra for a visit to Australian National University, and to Melbourne for visits to RMIT, Deakin University and the University of Melbourne.  

While each of these institutions is different, and we explored many areas of mutual interest, ranging from student exchange opportunities to potential partnerships in big data research, I was struck by how many of my meetings included discussion of the responsibilities that universities in Australia and Canada bear toward Indigenous peoples, and of the strategies we are pursuing to support processes of reconciliation in our respective countries.

The issue of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples was also much in my mind at the Global University Engagement Summit hosted by the University of Melbourne, where I and other participants argued that true engagement with communities requires universities to accept that there are important sources of knowledge outside the traditional academy that need to be attended to and treated with respect.

Nowhere is this acceptance more relevant than in our relationships with First Nations and other Indigenous peoples. If universities are truly to become instruments for reconciliation, we need not only to welcome more Indigenous students into our classrooms, but also to bring more Indigenous history, teachings and understanding onto our campuses. It is not enough for us to share the products of our knowledge and research with Indigenous peoples and communities; we must also listen to and learn from the insights and knowledge that they have to share with us, and welcome opportunities to partner with Indigenous peoples and communities in the co-creation of new knowledge.   

This requires a major cultural shift for universities whose structures, methods and epistemologies are grounded in colonial values and practices. However, my Australian visit confirms both that it is a shift that we in Canada are not alone in undertaking, and that engagement based on mutual understanding and respect is key to our success.