Lessons for Decolonizing Post-Secondary Institutions

Authors: Ariane Campbell, Sharon Hobenshield, and Heather Burke

Vancouver Island University (VIU) has been partnering with the Mastercard Foundation since 2017 on the EleV Program. EleV is driven by Indigenous communities and young people and tailored to each regional context, but broadly aims to support Indigenous learners through post-secondary education and on to meaningful work, consistent with their visions of Mino-Bimaadiziwin (meaning “living in a good way” in Anishinaabemowin, the Anishinaabe language).

At VIU, EleV is focused on providing Nation-matched scholarships and culturally relevant programming and supports for Indigenous students using a co-creation approach. Learning is a key embedded component of EleV, and it takes place within an Indigenous paradigm, structured by the Co-Creating Holism model. In this paradigm, knowledge is relational, holistic, and inclusive of the spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical realms – the balance necessary for a whole, healthy student. Data is collected via relational, story focused methods, such as trauma-informed learning circles, being on the land, sharing food, conversing with Elders, and deep spiritual listening and observation. It is then analyzed based on Hobenshield’s (2016) GIFT interpretation (representing Gifts, Inconsistencies, Fears, and Teachings), inspired by the Indigenous tradition and protocol of gift giving that honors, renews and creates good relationships.

Through this powerful learning lens, some key insights and recommendations have surfaced which can inform the journey towards decolonization for post-secondary institutions:

Incorporate Indigenous values and knowledges into the classroom

Educational institutions in Canada overwhelmingly reflect Western frameworks in their structures, processes, physical spaces, as well as what is taught and how it is taught. We’ve learned that incorporating Indigenous values into the classroom can make a real difference. Indigenous students feel seen, heard, and valued.

Indigenous values can include reciprocity, whole person learning, and recognition that knowledge transcends the intellectual to the physical, spiritual, and emotional realms. Specific examples of applying these values include: acknowledging territory; demonstrating awareness of Indigenous history; incorporating culturally relevant curriculum inclusive of wisdom from communities and the land; decentering the instructor through less lecturing and more interactivity and discussion; restructuring the classroom physically to reflect equity; fostering an inclusive and safe environment; recognizing student gifts and honouring what they bring to the learning process; reciprocity in knowledge sharing; holding reflection circles; occasionally taking the learning outdoors; and co-creating projects or assignment parameters with students.

Across the board, students emphasized that it is problematic when instructors volunteer them to speak to Indigenous issues. We saw this practice causing huge anxiety and making many students feel alienated and less welcome in the classroom. This finding is also embedded in the context that racism is still overwhelmingly being felt by Indigenous students, even in progressive institutions that prioritize decolonization.

Decolonize student services by providing whole person networked support

Indigenous Education Navigators are an essential part of EleV’s successes at VIU. They provide holistic, wrap-around support to Indigenous students, including coordinating closely with their Nations and other university and social services. They “decolonize” student services by providing individualized, culturally relevant support, building authentic, trusting, and family-like relationships, and providing comprehensive outreach to understand whole-student needs and support where they are at.

Decolonizing practices employed by the Navigators include: using social media or texting outside of business hours to talk through crises with students, taking students grocery shopping, finding suitable accommodation, helping with moves, drawing in community resources when a VIU solution was not viable, and acting as an advocate for students to local utility companies, with faculty, and others. This support has led students to gain agency and confidence, and increasingly to take the lead in decolonizing their own spaces by reaching out to others to build communities of support or speaking out about post-secondary policy and process barriers. Students emphasized the importance of having a single, trusted connection in their new environment with whom they felt comfortable to communicate on issues and problems (whether a Navigator, university employee, fellow student, or cultural support outside the institution).

VIU has also seen great success with their ‘su’luqw’a Community Cousins Indigenous student mentorship program. Mentors, who are Indigenous students or shush u’yulh (graduates), build relationships with new or potential students in communities, high schools, summer camps, and on campus. This engagement helps younger Indigenous students see themselves at university through the stories of their mentors.

Another key element in decolonizing student services is recognizing the diversity of the student body and trying to build processes and services around students’ realities, rather than forcing them into a single model. For example, Indigenous students tend to be older on average than non-Indigenous students, and it is important to recognize the differing needs and responsibilities of mature learners (childcare, family housing, flexible class delivery, etc.). Also, different Nations have different funding policies and accountability requirements, so students need tailored advice and support. Indigenous students from rural and remote communities often have added challenges, including unfamiliarity with navigating urban spaces, fear of reaching out, and lack of information about where to get assistance.

Provision of holistic support to students is best done through a network. Navigators endeavour to connect across VIU services as well as students’ and potential students’ home communities, high schools, and community organizations to provide support. This comprehensive approach is essential to ensure students transition to university understanding how to navigate a new city, live away from home, manage change, ask questions, navigate institution bureaucracy, connect with available resources, etc. Program learning has emphasized that a successful university transition/preparation program for Indigenous students incorporates the emotional, spiritual, and physical as well as intellectual realms. One example is the university creating a sense of family on campus (reflecting the Indigenous philosophy of “all my relations”) by providing family style meals and cultural practices, and facilitating friendship, learning, spiritual and healing opportunities.

Many Indigenous students are first generation post-secondary learners, and it is important to engage families in their transition process and ongoing success. Families, particularly those who have not experienced post-secondary themselves, also go through a transition and have said they would benefit from more information about what to expect when their family member goes to university or college. It may be difficult, for example, to help a loved one through the challenges inherent in student life when not familiar with the institutional supports available. Students may have increased stress, less time to spend with their families, childcare needs, and may experience changes during the learning journey. All of this requires understanding and acceptance from family members so they can provide support. This dynamic can be recognized by taking a holistic approach to student support and services, especially in the beginning of a student’s learning journey.

Rethinking university accommodation/withdrawals to recognize trauma and the healing journey

One of the key findings in EleV learning has been that for many Indigenous students, completing post-secondary education is a winding path rather than a straight line. Due to the systemic inequities caused by colonialism, trauma is more prevalent in the Indigenous student population and some are going through a healing journey alongside their learning journey.

Roughly 25% of Indigenous students at VIU withdraw from their studies. There are many reasons, and some are the results of stress or trauma within the individual, family or community. However, the Navigators have supported students in the withdrawal process to ensure they have set themselves up for success should they wish to return to school in the future. This includes following all withdrawal procedures correctly (e.g. no fees outstanding, not getting to the point where an F goes on the transcript) and understanding any future funding implications.

Navigators also stay in touch with those that have withdrawn from school to ensure they can support them should they choose to return. They have seen success with this approach, with students who come back saying their pause was essential as they needed time to heal, learn how to practice self care, or care for members of their family or community.

Given this context, students that withdraw from school shouldn’t be seen as “drop-outs” – rather we can think of them “stopping out” on their journey. VIU has created a booklet for learners and their families that illustrates a winding path is completely normal. It uses the medium of storytelling to communicate that those who go on academic probation, get suspended, etc. are still smart, strong, and valuable with much to contribute.  

Intergenerational trauma and systemic inequities can also result in academic struggles for Indigenous students. Universities across the country still use the term “probation” when a student is experiencing academic challenges, which is wholly inappropriate given the massively disproportionate targeting of Indigenous youth by the justice system.

A common workaround to academic struggles is to support the student to drop a course through avenues that leave them with minimal consequences. At VIU, this happens either through gaining a medical note to withdraw from the class, or getting a one-year accommodation from Disability Access Services that enables the student to set up a plan with their professor for increased flexibility around class participation, assignment deadlines, etc. A permanent accommodation costs around $2000 via an educational assessment from a psychologist, which is out of reach for most students.

Another added challenge to course loads is the requirement under some Nation’s post-secondary funding policies that students take a minimum number of credits to stay in good standing. It is thus important for support staff to be attuned to Nation funding requirements to understand the different pressures students face.

Navigators have seen students succeed when their course load is reduced, with evidence showing dropping a course often leads to improved student retention. But these workarounds are unsustainable and temporary. There needs to be a long-term approach to supporting students with trauma and/or challenging life circumstances to succeed in school. This would involve decolonizing the notion of “accommodation” to support students holistically, respect that journeys through education are not all linear, and recognize the diverse circumstances and needs of each student.    

Building deep relationships with Indigenous communities for ongoing listening & co-creation

One of VIU’s fundamental values is working to build and maintain positive reciprocal relationships with Indigenous communities across the three language groups on Vancouver Island: the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Kwakwaka’wakw territories, as well as the Métis Nation. Through EleV, VIU’s ongoing deep listening with communities has evolved into active co-creation – where community voice is integral not only to the design but to the ongoing iteration and development of programming supporting Indigenous students. 

Co-creation with communities is essential not only for supportive programming, but for educational content and curriculum. The ḥaaḥuupa working group at VIU, focused on Indigenous student pathways through education, has found that culturally relevant curriculum (inclusive of the wisdom coming from communities and the land) is essential to healthy student transitions. For such a curriculum to exist, communities must lead this development and be comfortable in doing so working with schools, teachers, and universities to explore what knowledge can be shared in the best interests of the students.

The co-creation approach has built trust and goodwill among communities and learning partners, which collectively increases the tools and resources available to students as they Thuy’she’num (prepare to move forward). It positions all of us to work even more closely than before with Na’tsa’hmat Shq’waluwun (one heart one mind) to – slowly but surely – challenge imposed systems and change mindsets.


The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action demand the elimination of educational gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. This encompasses a call to improve educational attainment levels and success rates for Indigenous students, as well as for post-secondary institutions to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods. The rich learnings from VIU’s EleV program have illustrated four key recommendations in how these aspirations might be furthered.

And ultimately, as discovered through VIU’s EleV learning process, if we are to truly move toward Indigenization and decolonization at universities, we need to hear Indigenous voices within existing governance structures and see Indigenous people in faculty positions and leadership roles on campus. We still need Indigenous people informing university curriculum, teaching and learning, research, policies and program development writ large if we are to see systemic change impacting students.

Thirty years after Kirkness & Barnhardt (1991) wrote First Nations and Higher Education: the Four R’s – Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility we are beginning to see movement towards education for Indigenous students which “respect learners for who they are, that is relevant to their view of the world, that offers reciprocity in their relationships with others, and helps them to exercise responsibility over their own lives” (p.1); but much more momentum and faster progress is needed.

These are goals worthy of all our work and support.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Anna Wilson says:

    Awesome article!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *