In August 2021, students and staff gathered to raise the University of Calgary ii’taa’poh’to’p tipi in the heart of campus—a symbol of welcome, built right outside its busy MacEwan Student Center.
There are more than 800 Indigenous students at UCalgary. They can gather at the Writing Symbols Lodge Indigenous Student Centre for academic support, advising, workshops, and ceremonies. They can learn from a small but growing number of Indigenous faculty.
But this isn’t always what Indigenous students have found at colleges and universities.
Shawna Cunningham has spent more than 25 years working in Canadian higher education. Cunningham, who is herself Métis-Cree, remembers hosting a group of 25 Indigenous students from Northern Alberta visiting a university campus. A non-Indigenous high school teacher told her “not to worry” about giving them an admissions presentation, because these students weren’t “university material.”
It was a transformative moment for Cunningham. She felt a “strong, heartfelt commitment to increase meaningful representation of Indigenous people in higher education and dedicating my career to working with Indigenous youth to create a better future.” Today, she’s director of Indigenous strategy at UCalgary.
Like other universities across Canada, UCalgary is working on reconciliation: resetting and reimagining relationships with Indigenous communities after many years of systemic inequities. Here’s how Cunningham and the UCalgary team have approached this complex, interconnected journey.