VIU president installed with Indigenous ceremony, a first for Canadian universities

Andrea D. Smith, December 12, 2019

On Nov. 15, Deb Saucier was formally installed as the new president of Vancouver Island University. (VIU photo)

Nanaimo, BC — 

Vancouver Island University (VIU) made history this fall, with its ceremonial instatement of the new president, Deb Saucier.

The ceremony was conducted under the traditions of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, whose territory the university lies on.

Saucier went directly to Snuneymuxw Chief Michael Wyse months before thisto ask for permission--and his leadership--in hosting the ceremony, as part of her efforts to push harder for reconciliation in her new role. Being Indigenous herself (Metis, from Saskatchewan) she understands the importance of working relationships with local Aboriginal communities--especially communities who have had some kind of colonial institution, like a university, built over their land.

“As far as we know, this is the first time in Canada,” said Saucier. “That doesn’t mean we’ve done an exhaustive search, but these kinds of events tend to happen in a very traditional European fashion. So, it was really important to me to see if the Snuneymuxw were willing to host it as a tangible demonstration of my commitment to reconciliation.”

“And to changing the way we do business, so that we go and meet people where they live, and we go and try to respect the laws of the land,” she added. “We try very hard to make the university feel more inclusive.”

Chief Wyse commented during in his speech in the longhouse that when Saucier posed the question to him, his answer was a “no brainer.” And because the Snuneymuxw Nation had already committed to education for their young people, a request to help that along was warmly welcomed.

Some of the specific ceremonial features that happened in the event included the calling forward of witnesses from the Snuneymuxw community, the hosting of it in the longhouse, the presence of elders, drumming, dancing, beautiful regalia, an honoring of the people who gathered in the longhouse that day, and Saucier’s reading of a pledge, as well as the placing of a robe on her.

It was also mentioned during the ceremony, by Shqwi Qwal (Speaker) Darren Good, that the filming of the ceremony was specially allowed on that occasion, but normally it is not done, because it is considered a sacred space.

According to Saucier, given the history of universities, and their track record on Indigenous lands, this entire event should signify a shift that is long overdue.

“If you think about where universities come from, whether you want to take Bologna (University) in 1400, or Oxford is about 1500…they are by definition colonial institutions, with colonial practices and a privileging of European knowledge,” said Saucier. “And by virtue of how they’re set up, I would argue they do say certain types of knowledge are better than others.”

She gives the example of Indigenous knowledge of ecosystems in their territory, which nations have been studying for the entirety of the thousands of years they’ve occupied those territories (such as with the Snuneymuxw, or Nuu-chah-nulth). But the difference is they may not have been studying them with “a bunson burner and a lab coat,” she said, in reference to the rigid scientific approach universities have used as their preferred method. She notes that in the past 10-20 years, there has been some change, but not nearly enough.

Her plans for VIU throughout her five-year term are to continue expanding the kinds of knowledge, and the methods of obtaining that knowledge, which are accepted at the university. And her efforts should open the doors for even more Indigenous students.

President of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, Judith Sayers, also attended the ceremony. She found it enjoyable, as well as an example of a positive step forward for an academic institution in Indigenous relations. While there is more progress to be made, she said, this is still heading in that direction.

“I don’t know if any other president has ever even thought about that,” said Sayers of Saucier’s mindset. “I guess as an Indigenous person you automatically go to that. But for a non-Indigenous person, I don’t think that’s something they think about. But now I think they will…that they’ll honor the tradition of whosever territory the university might be in.”

“Or the Indigenous people might be going to the university and saying, ‘Hey, next time you install your president we want them done on our land in our way, along with your way,’” she added.

Sayers also feels it’s in direct alignment with at least one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations which called for universities and Indigenous people to work closer together.