The need for Indigenous education of international students in Canada

Canada continues to be represented as a tolerant, progressive, multicultural land of opportunities through countless recruitment events, orientation seminars, and educational fairs welcoming international students to this country. At the same time, I’m aware that an important facet of the Canadian identity — the Indigenous community with whom we share this land — often remains unspoken.

As a former diplomat to Canada with knowledge of the historical and jurisdictional issues, I had nowhere close to a real understanding of the tragic history and ongoing impacts of the atrocities committed at residential schools until I had the opportunity to engage with Indigenous people who dedicate their lives to sharing and teaching about their individual and collective lived experiences.

It has taken a lot of strained reflection for me, like many other naturalized citizens, to evolve from a state of shock and disappointment to a realization that we have a shared responsibility to educate newer members of our community, so they know the truth, and subsequently do their part towards reconciliation.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission requires K-12 schools to incorporate curriculum on the legacy of residential schools to create cultural awareness of the true history of Canada so future generations are prepared to advocate for Indigenous rights as they progress into society. International students, an increasing number of whom become landed immigrants and adopt Canada as their home, also require support. As these students begin to shape their identities as members of this community, it is important that they understand that they have a role to play in its healing, and that we are a nation coming to terms with its past.

For years, Canadian universities have developed support services for international students, without accounting for the equally important cultural inclusion required for new immigrants to understand, acknowledge, and address the historic injustices committed against Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Given that we are now the third most popular destination for international students and continue to attract several hundred thousand students that help meet our immigration targets, there is a need for us to critically reflect on the responsibility of post-secondary institutions to educate and engage international students as they will undoubtedly be part of the long and complex journey ahead of us.

Universities have a unique opportunity to educate international students about Indigenous history, not just to strengthen reconciliation efforts, but to also better transition them in our society to which they will contribute as future citizens and leaders to address institutional racism, marginalization, and oppression. Important starting points in this regard include developing educational resources, encouraging dialogue, and creating ways to engage with Indigenous history and culture, thus inspiring international students to shift from being passive observers to active changemakers.

I am keenly aware of my institution’s own challenges with Indigenous history, and am proud to see Ryerson University taking steps toward positive change — including the historic and upcoming renaming of our institution. To forge a path toward a more inclusive future and to uphold Canada’s reputation as a welcoming and non-discriminatory society, we are working to find more ways to support international students from diverse backgrounds and equip these individuals to play their role as new Canadians to shape our future around truth and reconciliation. Those who choose to return to their home countries could further support Global Affairs Canada’s goal of deepening partnerships and advancing the rights of Indigenous peoples and around the world.

Echoing the thoughts of Chief Dr. Robert Joseph: Namwayut (We Are All One) — we need to move together to create a prosperous future for all of us. As we welcome international students to the country and continue our own reckoning with Canada’s colonial history, it is our responsibility to educate international students so they better understand the community to which they belong and participate in the reconciliation movement — supporting truth, healing, and creation of a more equitable society.

Isaac Garcia-Sitton is the executive director of International Student Enrolment, Education & Inclusion at Ryerson University, board director of the Canadian Bureau for International Education and chair of the International Network of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.