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University of Manitoba Libraries Staff Build Indigenous Cultural Competency

by Camille Callison, Lyle Ford, and Christine Shaw, University of Manitoba Libraries

Reconciliation calls for personal action. People need to get to know each other. They need to learn how to speak to, and about, each other respectfully. They need to learn how to speak knowledgeably about the history of this country.
Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

In 2017, the University of Manitoba Libraries (UML) began a journey toward increased understanding of Indigenous cultures, history, and ways of knowing. The libraries established a strategic priority to guide their journey and endorsed in July 2018 the Canadian Federation of Library Associations/Fédération Canadienne des associations de bibliothèques (CFLA-FCAB) Truth and Reconciliation Report.

As an initial step to develop this understanding, the libraries established the Indigenous Cultural Competency Training (ICCT) program. The ICCT program uses a blended learning approach with three components—a combination of online, in-person, and land-based education—to foster participation and learning. UML pays for the certificate program for ICCT participants to enroll in the Indigenous Canada MOOC, a 12-week online course created by the University of Alberta. The Indigenous Canada MOOC lays a strong foundation by exploring key issues in Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective.

At the core of the ICCT is relationship-building facilitated by weekly Meaningful Dialogues, led by Indigenous Elders, leaders, traditional teachers, faculty, and staff at the University of Manitoba. Participants gather in the Migizii Agamik (Bald Eagle Lodge) Circle Room—an Indigenous sacred space—to discuss the week’s module, listen to teachings or hear about the journey of an invited guest, and participate in ceremonies and sharing circles. Migizii Agamik generously allows the libraries to use the Circle Room, which was a suggestion from Elder Norman Meade.

circular room with circular conference table
Circle Room, Migizii Agamik, University of Manitoba

The land-based component of the program is a one-day cultural immersion experience held at Turtle Lodge in Sagkeeng First Nation on the southern tip of Lake Winnipeg. This land-based experiential learning opportunity is led by Elder Dave Courchene, Nii Gaani Aki Inini (Leading Earth Man). Elders and Knowledge Keepers share teachings with the group throughout the day. The teachings are complemented by a drum group and singers of ceremonial songs. There is a traditional feast catered locally by the community, and participants are given tobacco ties during the event to be burned later in the sacred fire. The participants give Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and the drum group a gift of tobacco prepared for this occasion.

For many participants, the ICCT has been their first exposure to history and culture through a decolonizing and anti-racist lens. A survey administered to participants at the end of the program indicated an overall positive learning experience. Most participants stated that the online course content presented information that was predominantly new to them. Learners overwhelmingly enjoyed all the speakers, food, and the cultural immersion day at Turtle Lodge.

After completing the ICCT, participants indicated that they felt more comfortable learning about, discussing, and interacting with Indigenous cultures. The success of the ICCT program is built on the relationship developed over years of embedded Indigenous library service with the Indigenous faculty and staff at the University of Manitoba.

In order to strengthen the libraries’ commitment to the program, participation in the ICCT has become an expectation of all library staff and is incorporated into annual performance reviews. New staff will complete the program through the onboarding process. To date, more than half of all library staff have completed the program, setting them on a path toward understanding and reconciliation. Participants’ comments like the following indicate the success of the program: “ ‘Enjoyed’ does not capture how incredibly valuable this entire experience has been. It’s been the most incredible learning experience! Thank you! Meduh! Miigwetch!”

The University of Manitoba Campuses are located on original lands of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene Peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation. We respect the treaties that were made on these territories, we acknowledge the harms and mistakes of the past, and we dedicate ourselves to move forward in partnership with Indigenous communities in a spirit of reconciliation and collaboration.

Editor’s note: Thanks to Camille Callison for referring us to Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by and about Indigenous Peoples by Gregory Younging for guidance regarding capitalizing such terms of respect as “Elders” and “Knowledge Keepers.”