By Laura E. Young
SUDBURY – Initially Sheila Cote-Meek had not planned to renew her term as the head of Indigenous academics at Laurentian University.
Upon reflection she realized that, after 11 years in senior administration she realized she wanted to remain for another term and help ensure the changes made for the quality of Indigenous student life continue.
“I feel like we’ve done a lot of different things at Laurentian to ensure that happens,” she says.
Cote-Meek was unanimously renewed as Laurentian’s vice-president academic and Indigenous programs in April.
She expects her next five-year term will focus on the sustainability of those initiatives and to focus “on ensuring that those initiatives that are in place become part of the institutional culture,” she says.
She also sees a need on a broad, societal level to take the “really great opportunity” to change the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. She speaks of the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“But we also need to map a way forward to work together. The TRC calls to action provide us with a platform to start those conversations in a deeper way,” she says.
“I think that’s what I’d like to do, to carry on the work we’ve done at Laurentian, looking specifically at those recommendations and asking people to step up in terms of what I feel is their responsibility if you’re going to be a citizen today in Canada, going forward,” she says.
In 2016 she was talking about returning to her role as a full professor in the school of rural and northern health. She was going to teach a course on indigenous perspectives on health and wellness. She hoped to develop an indigenous PhD stream in rural and northern health.
The mother of three and grandmother of seven hails from the Temagami area. She graduated from high school in Sturgeon Falls and studied nursing in university. She has been working at Laurentian since 1993.
She loves research and still has plans to write articles based on research she has still managed to conduct during her administrative tenure.
“Sheila has been a driving force behind Laurentian’s commitment to Indigenous education and research,” said Dr. Pierre Zundel, vice-president, academic and provost, in a university press release. “Her vision, dedication and leadership have resulted in a long list of milestones for our university.”
On June 21, the centrepiece Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre opens officially, capping a decade’s worth of work for Cote-Meek and the department.
As well, Indigenous courses are mandatory across disciplines; and the number of indigenous faculty on campus increased: there are 24 indigenous faculty, including Laurentian, the three federated universities and the East campus of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.
“I’m really happy that we have all those things in place,” says Cote-Meek.
Still, work remains to be done.
Even though Indigenous issues are in the news daily – from missing and murdered women, reconciliation and residential school abuse and its fall out – she doesn’t believe yet that the ordinary Canadian has a good understanding about the colonial history behind the issues nor a good understanding of the issues.
“Reconciliation is not here yet. We haven’t reconciled anything yet, I don’t think. We do a lot of talk about it,” she reflects.
Her five-year tenure includes a year’s sabbatical which she will take to explore and research where Indigenous education is heading across Canada and globally.
She has a good idea of the Canadian picture but she also thinks it’s important to go and meet people, to talk to the leaders in the Indigenous community about where they see the next 10 or 15 years going, she says, adding, “so at least here at Laurentian I can build some foundations to do that.”