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'An institutional commitment': York University appoints Indigenous advisor

Social work professor Ruth Koleszar-Green takes on the role, continuing work already started by her and others on campus.

Ruth Koleszar-Green, left, and university president and vice-chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton at the re-opening of York’s, Skennen’kó:wa Gamig or the House of Great Peace, a new centre for Indigenous gathering and ceremony.

Courtesy / York University

Ruth Koleszar-Green, left, and university president and vice-chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton at the re-opening of York’s, Skennen’kó:wa Gamig or the House of Great Peace, a new centre for Indigenous gathering and ceremony.

Schools have long been a fulcrum in the machine of colonization. But a move at York University is part of a "huge shift" towards re-balancing relationships, says the school's new special advisor to the president on Indigenous initiatives.

“I am old enough that I could have gone to the residential school system," Prof. Ruth Koleszar-Green told Metro.

And not so long ago, Canada stripped Indigenous Peoples of their status for even enrolling in university, she said.

Now the social work professor and citizen of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy from the Kanien’kehá:ka nation is leading the enactment of the school's new framework to support Indigenous initiatives on the campus.

The appointment formalizes the work she had already been doing, Koleszar-Green said.

"It creates an institutional commitment to further the spaces that I had wanted to go," she said, adding the work helps bring in more Indigenous students, build curriculum and support faculty.

Recent changes on campus include new mandatory courses focused on Indigenous issues for social work undergrads and graduate students, as well as the renovation and renaming of York's Hart House to Skennen’kó:wa Gamig, or the House of Great Peace, as a space for ceremonies and gathering.

Koleszar-Green is one of 13 Indigenous faculty members at the school, and she says the numbers are growing. On the student side, numbers are harder to come by. She says the school estimates the population at about 400, but relies mostly on self-reporting, which can leave holes in the data. (An issue across many universities at the moment, she added.)

The move comes as institutions across the country work to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action.

​“What’s happening at York is very much what’s happening across the university sector," she said, adding the truth is more relevant to her than the reconciliation.

“We've never really had a balanced relationship, so what is there to reconcile? It’s not like we’re trying to go back to a healthy balanced relationship that was there before," she said. "I actually believe we’re trying to tell the truth and build a new relationship, build new understandings of each other.”

For her, the recognition from university president Rhonda L. Lenton shows the school's dedication to that cause.

"She’s recognized that there is a longevity and a reason for Indigenous knowledges to be here," said Koleszar-Green.

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