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Inside the Classroom

Fostering Truth and Reconciliation in Business

A unique classroom experience is allowing Commerce students to better understand the reality of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

In a second-year Commerce class at Smith a while back, students presented their solutions to a series of business cases. First, though, they took part in a smudging ceremony.

The two were, in fact, linked. A smudging ceremony is an Indigenous tradition. Smoke from burning sage is used to cleanse the spirit of negative thoughts. Each business case, meanwhile, posed an ethical challenge for companies dealing with Indigenous communities and businesses. Students, acting as if they were representing the businesses, needed to come up with solutions that took into account the needs of the Indigenous communities.

It was part of an effort by Smith lecturer Karen Humphreys Blake to address the education-related recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in her business ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) class. “I want my students to have an understanding of Indigenous matters and the ethical and CSR considerations that relate to them,” she says.

The cases presented to students went beyond theory. To make them truly realistic, Humphreys Blake enlisted Dakota Lavery, BCom’20, of the Hiawatha First Nation in Ontario, to write them. Lavery and three other Indigenous students at Smith came up with several cases based on real life for the class to work on.

One case, for example, dealt with an oil company building a pipeline through First Nations land. The dilemma? The government-recognized band council approved the pipeline. But the hereditary chiefs (who continue to hold some authority within their communities) did not. How should the oil company respond? (This business case incidentally was written and presented to students long before the countrywide protests of this past winter in support of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in B.C. and opposition within that community to an oil pipeline in its territory.) Another case Lavery and his fellow students put together dealt with an on-reserve business setting up in competition with a business off the reserve, undercutting prices. How should the established business respond in keeping with the goal of reconciliation?

From left: Carol Ann Budd, Dakota Lavery and Karen Humphreys Blake organized an Indigenous education exercise for Commerce students.

“None of these cases were sugar-coated,” Humphreys Blake says. “They are meant to show the true challenge that Canada faces in reconciliation in the business world.”

In organizing this particular class, Humphreys Blake also reached out to Carol Ann Budd, Sci’89, DSc’16, a certified financial planner in Kingston and member of the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation. Budd suggested that the students also take part in a Kairos Blanket Exercise, a workshop designed to provide a glimpse of the “physical, emotional, spiritual and economic toll the last 500 years of treaty making, laws and government policies have had on individuals, families and communities,” Budd says. “This particular exercise is extremely beneficial in helping non-Indigenous students because, for 45 minutes, they walk in the moccasins of Canada’s Indigenous people.”

Here, Humphreys Blake worked with Queen’s Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre and Ann Deer, Indigenous recruitment and support co-ordinator at Smith, among others. Allen Doxtator, knowledge keeper and culture advisor at the university’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives, performed the smudging ceremony and provided feedback on students’ case-study solutions.

The students, Humphreys Blake says, found the blanket exercise especially powerful. The business cases, meanwhile, challenged them to grasp the unique issues that can arise when First Nations communities are involved.

Since this class took place last year, Humphreys Blake has continued to bring Indigenous business case studies to her students, with the aim of promoting reconciliation. Recently she also worked with the school’s Living Case team and Lavery to develop several new cases to present to students. And through the Commerce and Dean’s offices, the Kairos Blanket Exercise has now been expanded to all six sections of Comm104, a required second-year course for Commerce students.

The reaction of students so far to this experience demonstrates that such classroom initiatives are a step in the right direction, says Humphreys Blake. After taking part in the smudging ceremony, the blanket exercise and tackling the case studies, “a number of my students said their views had been profoundly affected,” Humphreys Blake explains, “and they want to get involved to bring about meaningful change during their business careers.”