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The colleges of veterinary medicine (CVM) are engaged in the ongoing discussions about the important and evolving role of veterinarians in society (1). They have broad mandates, are agents of change, and educate many of the leaders of tomorrow. The CVM are uniquely poised to change the national discourse, and transform knowledge, which is relevant to the Government of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and its “calls to action” concerning post-secondary education (1,2).
In January 2016, the University of Saskatchewan’s University Council, the governing body that oversees all academic affairs of the University, approved a motion that “…emphatically endorses the inclusion of Indigenous (First Nations, Inuit, Métis) knowledge and experiences for the purpose of enabling meaningful and relevant learning outcomes, in all degree programs at the University of Saskatchewan” (3). Thus the question arose “What does the TRC and the associated calls to action have to do with veterinary education and the veterinary profession?” In this article possible responses and actions by the CVM and members of the veterinary profession to honor the calls to action are described as a new way forward.
The TRC was established with a mandate “to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools” (2). The chair of the TRC, the Honourable Justice Sinclair, said “For over 100 years Canada’s Indian, Métis and Inuit children were taken from their families and sent to institutional settings called residential schools, sometimes forcibly, sometimes under threat of incarceration if parental cooperation was not forthcoming, and almost always under the deception that what was being done was in their best interests” (4). There were 130 federally funded church administered residential schools that operated from 1870 to 1996, whose purpose was “to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children” in Canada (2). While the word “school” is used to refer to these institutional settings, the education delivered in these institutions was clearly sub-standard, not equivalent to, nor intended to be similar to the education delivered at non-Indigenous schools (2). There were over 150 000 child residents of these schools, and an estimated 80 000 survivors are living today (2). The TRC report chronicled the abuse of indigenous children at residential schools, which included sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and high rates of malnutrition, excessive work, over-crowding, and needless exposure to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, which lead to unacceptably high child morbidity and mortality (2,5).
Justice Sinclair said “Mainstream Canada sees the dysfunction of Indigenous communities, but have no idea how that happened, what caused it, or how government contributed to that reality through the residential school policy.” The ongoing impacts of abuse experienced at the residential schools include dysfunction from: the loss of indigenous languages and traditional beliefs, loss of parenting skills, unacceptably poor education results, despair that results in runaway rates of suicide, family violence, substance abuse, high rates of incarceration, street gang influence, child welfare apprehensions, homelessness, poverty, and family breakdowns (2). In addition, Aboriginal peoples disproportionately experience racism and are marginalized, under-educated, unemployed, and under-paid (5–7). Justice Sinclair said “… just as Indigenous children were taught that they were inferior, so were non-Indigenous children. They do not realize that for the non-Indigenous child, this teaching had an insidious aspect — it reinforced a false belief in their own superiority. This too must be addressed.”
The TRC report lists 94 calls to action regarding reconciliation (2) including 8 relevant for veterinary post-secondary education, which may serve as a starting point for the veterinary profession (Table 1). Reconciliation is viewed as a series of actions that leads to different attitudes, new understandings, new ways of relating, and mutual respect (8).
Other calls to action such as numbers 24, 27, and 28 are specific in terms of nursing, medicine, law societies, and law schools, respectively. For example it is recommended that “the Federation of Law Societies ensure that lawyers receive appropriate cultural competency” and that all medical and nursing students take a course “…dealing with Aboriginal health issues, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, and Indigenous teachings and practices. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and antiracism.” There is more flexibility for the veterinary profession to honour the TRC calls to action and reconciliation; however, similar competencies should be expected.
The Aboriginal post-secondary educational backlog and employment gap should be eliminated through the provision of sustainable funding. Equity seats for Aboriginal students at all CVM should be created to improve enrolment. Currently 16 of the 17 Canadian medical schools, but only 1 of the 6 CVM, identify a process to make veterinary medical education more accessible for Aboriginal students (9). The WCVM has 2 equity seats per class and 3.5% self-declared Aboriginal students, but an enrolment of 12% is needed to reflect the western Canadian demographic (10). Aboriginal enrolment and graduation targets at CVM should be set and progress published annually. The number of Aboriginal faculty and staff members at universities should be increased through direct action.
There is an opportunity to reimagine veterinary medical education and create transformative opportunities to repair, encourage, and develop intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples (2). This should occur through the development of: learning materials about the residential school system and the impacts; fairer representations of Aboriginal peoples, cultures, and histories; the integration of aboriginal subject matter, thought, perspectives, and knowledge across learning environments; teaching anti-racism; and funding for teachers to learn how to effectively integrate indigenous knowledge and teaching methods. There is a need to describe best practices, perform research on reconciliation, and develop respectful and reciprocal relations with Aboriginal communities, agencies, and organizations (2). Decolonizing education has been described as a cornerstone of reconciliation (11) and involves creating a new ethical space in which all good ideas, knowledge, and experiences matter, including those of Aboriginal peoples. This newly constructed ethical space would bring together Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal peoples to develop a common discourse (11).
There is a clear role for veterinary educators to instruct students about the Canadian context of the social determinants of health (SDH), and health inequalities (12). The SDH are factors such as: income and social status; social support networks; education; employment/working conditions; social environments; physical environments; personal health practices and coping skills; healthy child development; gender; and culture (12). Learning about the SDH helps a student understand the structural factors in society that contribute to health, and explains the higher rates of dysfunction and ill-health in the Aboriginal population (2,12). A revised veterinary pedagogy is required that includes the SDH of humans and animals and the barriers to addressing them, along with educational experiences to reinforce the learning.
The veterinary profession should strive to be a partner in Aboriginal community health by exposing Aboriginal students to the profession through outreach activities such as classroom visits, clinic tours, attending job fairs, and creating volunteer and employment opportunities. Many Aboriginal communities in inner city core neighborhoods, remote communities, and First Nation’s Reserves in Canada have no available, accessible, and affordable veterinary services (13). There is clearly a need for Canadian veterinarians and veterinary students to partner with communities that lack access to basic services such as: vaccinations, deworming, and spay-neuter surgeries (13). Poor communities that lack access to veterinary services are at risk for canine overpopulation (14) which has lead to aggressive pack behavior with lethal consequences for Aboriginal children (14). First Nation’s Reserves, with only 1.3% of the Canadian population, have a disproportionately high burden (39%) of fatal dog attacks (14). There are no reports in the literature of canine populations reaching sustainable levels without the provision of some veterinary services. Expecting that problems such as canine overpopulation, that are strongly connected to a lack of veterinary services, will disappear on their own, is irresponsible.
The veterinary community lacks access to Indigenous knowledge and experiences. Reciprocal experiences connected to relevant and meaningful learning outcomes for veterinary students should be arranged with Aboriginal communities. These opportunities may provide a pathway for intercultural learning and at the same time fill an education and service gap (15).
Provincial and territorial veterinary associations should be encouraged to work towards solutions to empower and assist underserved communities in the development of sustainable management plans for domestic and farm animals, recognizing the resource constraints. Veterinarians may contribute human, social, or financial capital to narrow the veterinary service gap or find placements for animals.
There are many opportunities to participate in research with Aboriginal partners while respecting their right to self-determination, treaty rights, customs, and requirements for confidentiality in the collaboration. Synergies may arise from areas such as research in One Health that links human, animal, and environmental health, and is similar to Aboriginal thought that acknowledges the interconnectedness of humans, animals and the environment (15).
In conclusion, reconciliation is viewed as a series of actions that leads to different attitudes, new understandings, new ways of relating, and mutual respect (8), meaning that the CVM and all members of the veterinary profession have a leadership role to play in honouring the TRC calls to action and finding a new way forward along the path of reconciliation.
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