Coyote Project unites multiple TRU departments in Indigenization

Two-year project, funded $165,000 a year, helps nine faculties, TRU World and Open Learning with Indigenization

The coyote, a sculpture created by artist John McEwen, watches atop TRU’s House of Learning. (Aidan Grether/The Omega)

The Secwépemc people of the B.C. Interior tell a story about Coyote, who is known for being a powerful transformer. That story, Coyote Brings Food from the Upper World, tells how Coyote brought to Earth the plants that the Secwépemc use for food and medicine and how animals and fish got their special shape and features.

Coyote Brings Food from the Upper World ends with Coyote bringing together all the people and reminding them to enjoy and share the environment that they are in and to not ruin or destroy it.

“It is your job to care for the land and to protect all living things. You are its caretaker,” Coyote tells the Secwépemc people in the story.

The Coyote Project here at TRU is a two-year pan-institutional program meant to accelerate the process of Indigenization on campus. Funded $165,000 a year, the Coyote Project unites nine faculties, TRU World and Open Learning under the banner of Indigenization.

While TRU has been working steadily to Indigenize campus for almost a decade, the Coyote Project, in name and function, came into existence shortly after Justice Murray Sinclair, the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, visited TRU in October of 2015. Shortly after, Airini, Dean of Social Work and Education, applied for strategic priority funds from TRU to help the university further its Indigenization goals.

Executive Director of Aboriginal Affairs, Paul Michel, hopes to achieve this through a multi-faceted approach.

“Each faculty is to come up with a target of how they are going to transform change on Indigenization,” Michel said. “So they’re initiatives need to start addressing that, they can do community-wide events, it’s a broad base of how each faculty wants to take on this challenge. Some have included it in coursework, some have improved their coursework. It is broad-based and wide and that is the ultimate goal of the Coyote Project.”

While each of the nine faculties and two departments have different targets and goals, such as creating new courses and programs, altering course content or curriculum or expanding research, the overall objective of the Coyote Project will be to address recruitment, retention and completion issues for Indigenous students.

“When you look at our campus right now, Indigenous are consistently 10-11 per cent of the student body, meaning there are 2600-2800 Indigenous students,” Michel said. “We already have a solid base, but you look at the potential, the Indigenous population is the fastest rising population for our demographics. As much as we have ten per cent, which almost matches the Indigenous population surrounding Thompson Rivers University, we can do better.”

While increasing recruitment, retention and completion rates is the main goal of the project, how the various faculties and departments achieve these goals are up to them.

Over at TRU’s Faculty of Science, camps specifically for Indigenous students and run by Indigenous mentors are held over the summer. There, they are given the opportunity to learn about science as well as traditional medicinal plants.

“We’ve had a summer camp since I think 2010, where we’ve put together a spinoff of what we do with the ERUeKA! science camps,” said Tom Dickinson, TRU’s Dean of Science. “It lasts for a week, we bring in students from all around the province, they are students of Indigenous ancestry, we introduce them to the university. They live with chaperones in the residence for a week to see what the campus environment is like.”

Though the summer camps have helped increase the number of Indigenous students in certain programs, such as natural resource science, Dickinson acknowledges that in certain programs, such as respiratory therapy, the rates are much lower.

“One of my goals is to try and make sure we have a good representation and that’s not for artificial reasons. So that means two things, getting out in communities and providing the counselling necessary to make sure the students who have an interest in solving problems and designing solutions to problems,” Dickinson said. “That’s going to be the future of all of us and the more diverse group of people learning this the better because progress and innovation comes from having a bunch of people with different backgrounds.”

The Faculty of Science isn’t the only department on campus with interesting ideas of how to reach Indigenous students. TRU’s Faculty of Adventure, Culinary Arts and Tourism is currently supporting two initiatives relating to the Coyote Project.

One involves students working with the Simpcw First Nation near Barriere in developing mountain bike trails. The second project connects Indigenous youth with cultural aspects of fishing, canoeing and other activities during a daylong field course at an area lake.

Yet for professor Courtney Mason, who’s been heading the Indigenization efforts in the Faculty of Adventure, Culinary Arts and Tourism, Indigenization isn’t simply about outreach projects but changing the curriculum as well.

“[Fundamental to the Coyote Project] is having curriculum that has some entry point where Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students can come together and have a dialogue about some of the issues that Indigenous students face,” Mason said. “But it’s also about what are the ways we can move forward, build the relationships we need to build and educate non-Indigenous students as well about these issues so that when the leave our programs that they aren’t naive to the issues in our industries.”