Accountability to ancestors and community key in new Indigenous leadership role

UVic’s first Associate Vice President, Indigenous, Qwul’sih’yah’maht Robina Thomas, at the First Peoples House reflecting pool. Bronze sculpture "Gray Whale Tail" by Calvin Hunt (Kwakwaka'wakw) and John Livingston. (Photo credit: UVic, April 2021)​

As the University of Victoria’s founding associate vice-president Indigenous, Robina Thomas is grounding her work in the fundamental principle of engaging in a meaningful and respectful way.

“My traditional name — Qwul’sih’yah’maht — speaks to my accountability to others including my ancestors,” explains Thomas. “I take on my new role humbly as it’s important not to come in as all knowing. Our Elders tell us we have two ears and one mouth for a reason; that you should listen twice as much as you speak. That has to be balanced with leadership but for me — how you do something is as important as what you do.”

This newly established position will carry responsibility for furthering the university’s commitment to truth, respect and reconciliation as identified in its Strategic Framework and Indigenous Plan. Development of a strategy that integrates Indigenous cultures, histories, beliefs and ways of being and knowing across all aspects of the university’s mission is central to the role.

Thomas started her new job April 1 and is initially focused on three key areas:

  • building a new Indigenous plan with a strong focus on community engagement as well as measurable goals. This will include regular consultation with local First Nations communities to help inform UVic on systemic issues like cultural competency, Indigenization and institutional barriers;
  • establishing an Indigenous strategic alignment committee designed to strategize Indigenous university priorities, break down silos, reduce duplication of work and set guidelines for Indigenous issues in various departments across UVic. As an example, providing the university with clear processes and guidelines for bringing Indigenous art to campus;
  • working closely with UVic’s Equity and Human Rights (EQHR) office on a coordinated approach in recognition of systemic issues including access barriers for students, faculty and staff and efforts to address racism.

“I want to ensure Indigenous voices, and ways of knowing and being, are prioritized and present in all areas [at UVic] and in the work I do locally, nationally and internationally with Indigenous communities and leaders at other post-secondary institutions,” says Thomas.

She believes her new position allows the community to see the importance of having an Indigenous person at the leadership table and is a message to communities that Indigenous ways of knowing and being and Indigenous education are important at UVic.

Robina’s new role at UVic means that the university is not just talking about change but showing it and living it. We want to work as a community. Essentially that’s what’s happening with Robina’s new role at UVic. Her impact on community is incredible.

—Songhees Elder Skip Dick

Thomas also stresses the university must go beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action for post-secondary institutions, noting that work on cultural competency, Indigenization and institutional barriers is ongoing and extends further than that report’s recommendations.

Before assuming her new position, which is part of the senior leadership team and reports directly to the president, Thomas was the inaugural director and executive director of the Office of Indigenous Academic and Community Engagement and is an associate professor maintaining a faculty position in the School of Social Work.

In her new role I know that Robina will be required to have challenging conversations about what we value and prioritize as an institution and how we contribute to reconciliation in a good way. That means having honest and open conversations on issues like racism. She has my full support in challenging the status quo, academic traditions and campus culture in that regard and I know her deep knowledge, experience and community connections will guide us in this important work.

—Kevin Hall, UVic president and vice-chancellor

Thomas will work closely with EQHR and other institutional leaders to help shape an equity-centred institutional action plan to advance and enact bolder equity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism initiatives throughout the UVic community. She aims to increase the visibility of Indigenous faculty and staff across campus believing it’s essential for Indigenous students to see themselves reflected at all levels of the university. This work is particularly critical in attracting Indigenous students, faculty and staff to the university.

Robina is an inspiration as she takes yet another step forward, where she will continue to guide and advocate for Indigenous students and faculty. She will continue to show the importance of the teachings of the Elders and the ancestors as a necessary part of Indigenous Education.

—Kwakwaka’wakw Elder Gerry Ambers

Less than one month into her new role, Thomas is optimistic that she will be able to effect change, adding her approach will be guided by the teaching of, /tth’ihwum tseep ‘i’m’istuhw thun’ ‘uy shkwalawvns/ — bring in your good feelings.

“I am coming with an open mind and open heart,” says Thomas, citing a Coast Salish approach about how to engage with others and with one’s work. “I am coming to [the role] wanting to do this work in a good way both for the institution but, equally important, for Indigenous communities, faculty, staff and students.”

UVic’s commitment to Indigenous students is demonstrated in the growth of academic and cultural programs during the past 10 years, including the opening of the First Peoples House in 2010 and the release of the university’s first Indigenous Plan 2017-22. In 2019, UVic launched the world’s first joint degree program in Canadian Common Law (JD) and Indigenous Legal Orders (JID). There are approximately 90 undergraduate courses with Indigenous content offered by departments and faculties across the university and since 2009/2010, Indigenous student enrollment at UVic has increased by 37%, from 888 to 1,408.

Read more in the Ring story.

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A media kit containing a high-resolution photo is available on Dropbox.


In this story

Keywords: Indigenous, community, leadership, truth and reconciliation, administrative, student life

People: Robina Thomas

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