‘Indigenization’ hits campuses aiming to give students ‘baseline knowledge’ about First Nations, Metis and Inuit  Banner Image

‘Indigenization’ hits campuses aiming to give students ‘baseline knowledge’ about First Nations, Metis and Inuit

Article and Photos from The National Post

More from Douglas Quan | @dougquan

Photo above: Richard Marjan / SaskatoonThe Wild Horse drum group from North Battleford performs at the 2011 powwow at the Physical Activity Centre on the University of Saskatchewan campus on June 8 in Saskatoon.

There’s a new buzzword rolling off the tongues of Canada’s university administrators: indigenization.

Campuses are looking for new ways to welcome aboriginal students, recruit aboriginal faculty members and embed indigenous content in the curriculum. Some schools are even requiring all students — no matter what their specialization — to take at least one indigenous studies course before they graduate.

While many are hailing these developments, some academics are urging schools to proceed cautiously: Don’t lose sight of the whole Canadian story.

“I feel many of our affirmative action projects have to tread lightly,” said Jill Scott, a Queen’s University professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.


Many of our affirmative action projects have to tread lightly

“In Canada, in particular, one of the things I think about is many Canadians identify as immigrants … There are many stories of survival, hardship, struggle that go with that. Turning all those people, all of a sudden, into settlers who’ve displaced indigenous peoples is tricky and quite often leads to acrimony.”

As schools contemplate ways to address long-term redress and reconciliation, they have to “find some way for all of those stories about who we are to co-exist,” she said.

In its report on the legacy of Canada’s residential school system, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the government and post-secondary institutions to address the backlog of First Nations students seeking university education and to integrate more indigenous knowledge and teaching methods in the classroom.

Some schools have begun to heed the call.

Starting next year, every undergraduate at the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., will have to take at least one indigenous studies course.

Wab Kinew, the University of Winnipeg’s associate vice-president of indigenous affairs, said the aim is to give students a “baseline of knowledge” about First Nations, Metis and Inuit people.

“Whether or not you have indigenous blood, if you’re here in Canada, some part of your identity has been formed by indigenous culture and people. Yet it hasn’t always been included or celebrated,” he said.

Kinew said students will be able to choose from a range of courses. While one student might take a history course focused on residential schools, another might delve into the Cree language.

Whatever the course, Kinew says he is “hopeful this will mean future doctors are going to have a little more sensitivity in their practice or future educators are going to know how to incorporate (awareness of indigenous issues) into the classroom or future engineers will have a better idea how to carry out local consultations when designing their projects.”

At the University of Regina, where the word “indigenization” or “indigenizing” appears 11 times in the school’s five-year strategic plan, all students in the Faculty of Arts must take an indigenous course.

Thomas Fricke for National PostPhoto:  Thomas Fricke for National PostWab Kinew outside of the Winnipeg City Hall.

The school, whose aboriginal student enrolment has shot up 63 per cent in the past five years, has also created an indigenous advisory circle to give guidance to the president and set up an aboriginal student centre.

In Calgary, Mount Royal University’s strategic plan is similarly looking to establish “aboriginal-themed coursework” as a graduation requirement. The school is also developing an indigenous research policy, a separate indigenous student recruitment plan, new aboriginal concentrations, aboriginally themed field schools and an indigenous languages curriculum.

While Scott says she is “thrilled” schools are taking recommendations seriously, she’s not convinced mandatory courses are right for every school. She fears mandatory courses will take on the feeling of being “pro forma,” like mandatory safety training classes in the workplace.

“How seriously do we take that?” she said. “You’re probably like I am, we don’t like to be told what to do.”

That said, Scott says she supports greater emphasis on indigenous recruitment and finding creative ways to incorporate indigenous knowledge in courses — not only history and literature, but engineering and the sciences.

Damien Lee, a PhD candidate in native studies at the University of Manitoba, suggested recently on his blog the universities’ approach doesn’t really meet the definition of true reconciliation — and amounts to nothing more than “learning more about Indians.”

“I therefore wonder how useful it will be to indigenous nations when students come knocking on their doors having taken a half-credit course about indigenous culture(s) without also equipping these same students with an understanding about how their approaches might perpetuate a relationship where Canada justifies its regulation of indigenous peoples, and their political and legal systems.”

Doing something in this area is better than us doing nothing

Responding to the University of Saskatchewan’s plans to “indigenize” the school, Satya Sharma, a retired professor of religion and culture, wrote in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix this summer this was “not a desirable goal at all” and likely “impossible to implement.”

“Even if it is an achievable goal, it will be something designed by non-indigenous people for indigenous people. It will smack of a different kind of colonialism, but colonialism nevertheless.”

But what’s the alternative, Kinew asks.

“Do nothing? Provide no baseline of knowledge? I appreciate the input that critical theory can make building an insight in the indigenous space, but we shouldn’t use those things as an excuse for inaction,” he said.

“I think us doing something in this area is better than us doing nothing.”