Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Indigenous Spaces on Campus: A Right, Not a Privilege, By Katerina Richard (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “On Being Included.”

Having physical spaces available and accessible that are dedicated to Indigenous peoples is an important part of the reconciliation process. Physical spaces are symbolic for many Indigenous communities, as space is strongly connected to spiritual beliefs and teachings. Indigenous spaces are critical for Indigenous students’ experiences at university because it allows them to feel safe and supported. Universities should be striving to ensure that learning environments are culturally responsive, inclusive, and accessible for Indigenous peoples, especially because Universities operates on Indigenous land. 

Indigenous spaces could be used for classes, resources for students, and spiritual practices such as smudging ceremonies. Universities should keep Indigenous voices at the centre of decisions regarding new spaces or reutilizing old ones. Throughout fulfilling their Calls to Action, universities should respect the Indigenous right to self-determination. For example, an Indigenous centre should be a normal part of the University experience. These centres should be created to offer support for Indigenous students, staff, faculty, and community members. They can also be used to educate non-Indigenous peoples on better ways to understand Indigenous peoples, cultures, and ways of living. 

In my research at the Mississauga Campus of the University of Toronto (UTM) where I interviewed Indigenous students and staff, I asked if they had ever visited the UTM Indigenous centre, among other Indigenous spaces on campus. One student described the centre as a broom closet with a few star blankets and many Indigenous students that I spoke to have never visited the centre. I did not hear any positive comments about the Indigenous centre, except that, “At least there’s something.” Should we really settle for that? Why is it that having safe and supportive learning environments is seen as something unimportant and not a right? Indigenous students, as well as all students, should have the right to feel included and respected throughout all aspects of their University experience. Having physical spaces not just for studying, but for other things such as cultural practices, should be normalized. 

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