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This past week saw the Fall Equinox, as students are getting settled into the new academic year. It is an exciting time of new beginnings, possibilities, and hope. Some are excited and leap right in with confidence, while others may be uncertain and a little wary. Either way, and all along the continuum, the trust that learners place in us as guides, models, and mentors, is profound.

Education is a powerful force for good in this world. We open minds and hearts, we cultivate new ideas, knowledge, and skills, and we inspire change.

Tragically, education has also enacted huge and lasting harms, specifically among survivors of Canada’s Indian residential schools, as well as across successive generations. In the fall of 1973, Phyllis (Jack) Webstad from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation was a six-year old who was excited to start school:

We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school!

When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The color orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.

Phyllis Webstad is the Executive Director of the Orange Shirt Society, and each year on September 30 we honour the experiences of the former students and survivors of Canada’s residential school system. As educators and academic leaders, we have a special obligation to Truth and Reconciliation for Education.

What can you do?

Orange Shirt Day is timed to align with the start of the new academic year when First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families. This day reminds us of our collective responsibility for Truth and Reconciliation, and that we carry these obligations throughout our work as educators and academic leaders. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report notes that while the TRC focused on the truth about residential schools, true reconciliation extends to the history of colonization, injustice and racism, and fair settlement of land and treaty rights.

We all have a role to play – The perfect place to begin is right where a teacher stands.”

Here we are the Friday before classes start for a fresh new academic year. To carry forward with my theatre analogy from last week (and hopefully not stretch it too far!), I guess we could say that the “audience” is taking their seats and waiting for the curtain to rise. Here are the “pre-show activities” among our students that we have witnessed countless times before: the searching for assigned “seats” (i.e. figuring out the online Learning Management System, ordering textbooks and other course materials, etc. etc.); looking through the programme (that would be course syllabi); along with all of the conversations, expectations and curiosity about what the shared experience is going to be like as the action unfolds.

And on the part of the cast and crew (that’s us!), there might be some pre-show jitters, lots of getting those last details right, and wondering what kind of audience it is going to be. The magic happens when the audience engages as live and dynamic partners in a shared and transformative experience for all. As an aside, despite two decades of teaching, I always had some of those “pre-show jitters” before a new semester, and then came the wonderful experience of meeting my students and finding my stride. It never gets old!

Thinking about our students’ anticipation of the coming semester also brings to mind our highly diverse and internationalized learning community across post-secondary education, and our core values of inclusion, respect, equity and social justice.  Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous Racism, and other corrosive forms of violence, colonization and oppression, are enacted in a myriad of ways – large and small (and noting that the cumulative trauma of a multitude of implicit and overt forms of racism means that none are objectively “small”). As academic leaders, we all have a stake in how we engage with our students and with one-another, with the curriculum we teach, as well as the voices we amplify and include, and the actions that we take.

This past week marked an important, national, activist response by academics: the September 9-10 Scholar Strike galvanized by Dr. Anthea Butler. As the web page states: “The Canadian action is aligned with the one in the U.S., in its call for racial justice, an end to anti-Black police violence and it adds a specific focus on anti-Indigenous, colonial violence.”

The criticality of this work is painfully amplified in numerous research papers and other reports, including the Ontario Human Rights Commission Report: A Disparate Impact: Second interim report on the inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Service.

These documents are painful to read (and see), and are also essential reading (and seeing). To know is never to un-know, and in knowing comes the imperative for action.

On the eve of this new academic year and a new semester, let’s reaffirm our resolve of advocacy and activism, reflected in all that we do as academic leaders and change-makers.

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