Message from the President: National Indigenous Peoples Day is June 21

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photo of Chief Gould with the UPEI Senate
Chief Junior Gould of the Abegweit First Nation addressed the University Senate on March 6. Here he is pictured along with his wife Ella and members of the Senate
The following message was distributed to students, staff, and faculty on behalf of the Office of the President.

Dear Members of the University Community,

In Canada, we mark National Indigenous History Month during the month of June, and National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21. National Indigenous Peoples Day is a day for all Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures, and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.

On this eve of National Indigenous Peoples Day, I have been reflecting on the thirty-five years I have lived in Canada and the many meaningful experiences that I have been honoured to share with members of Indigenous communities here in Epekwitk, and in many other provinces and territories. There have been many poignant moments I have experienced during my time at UPEI, but I want to share three very special ones.

One memory was created earlier this year when we welcomed Chief Roderick “Junior” Gould of the Abegweit First Nation to a meeting of the University Senate. He inspired us to learn more about the Mi’kmaq and their way of life, and most importantly, challenged us to partner and work alongside Indigenous peoples to create mutually beneficial opportunities for everyone. This was the first of what I hope will be many occasions for our Senate to engage in important dialogue with Indigenous leaders.

When I look at the Mi’kmaq National Flag flying on our campus, it reminds me of when we gathered at UPEI Alumni Canada Games Place on a sunny day in May 2018. Elder Junior Peter Paul began with a smudge and members of the Indigenous community joined him in performing the Mi’kmaq Honour Song. Senator Brian Francis, then Chief of the Abegweit First Nation, and UPEI student Dawne Knockwood helped me to raise the flag, which now flies permanently with the Canada, PEI, and UPEI flags. I will never forget when the Elder gestured skyward to an eagle that appeared, as if on cue, flying directly over the flags. The crowd erupted into applause as the eagle, which is revered in Mi’kmaq culture, flew overhead. This was a truly historic moment for UPEI and, I believe, served as a symbolic reaffirmation of the University’s commitment to advance reconciliation through higher education.

I also am reminded of the generosity of Indigenous peoples when I remember my visit to Iqaluit in 2013 to attend a special UPEI Convocation ceremony for UPEI Master of Education students, who had participated in a part-time, course-based program using a combination of face-to-face and distance learning. I was welcomed into an Iqaluit home, and saw how our innovative higher learning program had opened many possibilities for Inuit educators to take on leadership and fill a need in their communities.

The healing walk for justice event that took place yesterday in Charlottetown is another example of the generosity of spirit of Indigenous peoples. With all that is taking place in the world, the Indigenous community came together in solidarity with their allies to honour the victims of racism and call for change. This event provides an important opportunity to continue the dialogue about the injustice that exists around the world.

As I stated on June 1, it is our responsibility, as members of a diverse and vibrant university community, to speak out against all racism, to dispel fears and stereotypes, and to condemn discriminatory behaviour. We all must continue efforts to seek truth and reconciliation, infuse Indigenous ‘ways of knowing’ into the academy, and reflect upon and celebrate the tremendous contributions of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples on National Indigenous Peoples Day, as well as every day throughout the year. As we declare in our UPEI Strategic Plan 2018–2023, we have started a journey of growth to promote “an understanding of Indigenous history and culture and supporting respectful relationships.” We still have many steps to take on this journey.

One positive step that UPEI has embarked on is the development of its first Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Strategy. This action came from a priority in our Strategic Plan to foster an inclusive campus culture. In the plan, UPEI commits to a number of goals, including promoting a greater understanding of reconciliation, inclusion, equity, and social justice. UPEI appointed an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer in Fall 2019 and, in partnership with the UPEI Student Union, we began campus consultations and conducted an online survey in February 2020 that was distributed to students, staff, and faculty. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted some of our in-person consultation activities, we hope to share the strategy with our campus community later this year.

In the face of the challenges created by the pandemic, I realize we will not be able to learn and celebrate on National Indigenous Peoples Day as we have done in the past. However, I am confident that we will find creative ways to reflect, celebrate, and to learn and do more.

Best wishes,

Dr. Alaa S. Abd-El-Aziz
President and Vice-Chancellor
University of Prince Edward Island

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