Indigenizing the university: The need for a stronger indigenous presence on Canadian campuses

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in Aboriginal studies from the University of Ottawa, Rebekah Elkerton still wasn’t entirely sure with what she wanted out of life.

After giving it some thought, Elkerton decided that she would return to university. In the fall of 2011, Elkerton began her new undergraduate career in the women’s and gender studies program at Carleton University.

But getting back into the academic routine and entering a new university setting made the transition for Elkerton a difficult one.

It wasn’t until when Elkerton discovered the school’s Aboriginal Centre where she said she began to feel more comfortable in her new environment.

“I knew that there was where I wanted to be because I’m indigenous and I really identify with being indigenous. For me, it was an everyday thing, and I felt like I should be around other indigenous people,” Elkerton said.

When Carleton’s new Ojigkwanong Aboriginal Centre opened in 2013, Elkerton said that the centre was the only real space where her and her peers could talk about the issues that they experienced in the classroom.

“You can’t really have that space to talk about these issues on a daily basis. You’re not carrying it around, and you have faith in your [indigenous] community on campus. It provides so much, and there’s a lot there that gives back when you’re a student.” she said.

Elkerton said that her and her peers had been in numerous situations in the classroom where a professor didn’t know how to react when a racist statement was made against indigenous peoples.

“They just brush it off and say, ‘let’s just move on.’ It doesn’t deal with the situation or make anything better, and it doesn’t make anyone who’s offended feel better,” she said.

Elkerton, who is now currently working to earn her master’s degree in the same program, said that racism and misconceptions about indigenous peoples “happens in the classroom more regularly than a lot of people realize.”

For many indigenous students in universities across Canada, their school’s Aboriginal centre acts as one of the few safe spaces that they can turn to on campus. Outside the walls of these centres, universities are lacking in their efforts to represent Canada’s indigenous population in their institutions.

In 2011, Statistics Canada found that 29 per cent of Aboriginal people aged 25 to 64 had no certificate, diploma or degree. Only nine per cent of First Nations in that same age group had a university degree, compared to 12 per cent for Métis and five per cent for Inuit.

Sébastien Pilon, an Aboriginal outreach officer at the University of Ottawa’s Aboriginal Resource Centre (ARC), said that the trauma brought upon by residential schools continues to affect the way that some indigenous communities perceive the education system.

“Education was used as a weapon. It was weaponized against us. A lot of times when I’m in communities, prospective students tell me how their parents or relatives tell them that they don’t need education. They say that they don’t need this,” Pilon said.

But with organizations and groups like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada pushing for a more inclusive Canada for indigenous people, universities are now being called upon to do their part in creating a better welcoming environment for the indigenous population.

In 2015, the TRC released their “94 Calls to Action” report, which called on all levels of government to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.”

John Kelly, an adjunct research professor and a co-director of the Centre for Indigenous Research, Culture, Language, and Education (CIRCLE) at Carleton University, said that the report is having its effects on universities at large.

“Universities are scrambling and are trying to reach the requirements that the TRC has set out as being imperative to include indigenous education to create a welcoming environment for indigenous students,” Kelly said.

A call to action included in the report asks that governments “provide the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.”

Shortly after the release of the TRC’s report, Universities Canada, an organization that represents 97 universities across Canada, created 13 principles for their member institutions to follow.

The principles were developed in “close consultation with Indigenous communities” and are dedicated to “advancing opportunities for Indigenous students.”

Principles that are outlined in the report includes recognizing the importance of indigenous education leadership at the governance and faculty levels, and recognizing the importance of indigenization of curricula.

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Lakehead University’s first chair for truth and reconciliation, said that while university presidents may be on board with the 13 principles, it doesn’t mean that all faculty members are on the same page.

“When putting the indigenous requirement into Lakehead, the engineers asked, ‘why do we need to know this stuff?’ Well if you’re going to be putting the infrastructure into the North, you should know something about the people who live there. But they don’t see that part,” she said.

Miranda Brady, an associate professor in communication studies at Carleton University and a co-director of CIRCLE, said that if universities are serious about indigenizing their institutions, they need to have more indigenous faculty to guide that change.

“The university needs to listen to indigenous faculty in order to really know what indigenization means and what it could look like. In order for the university to make itself relevant to indigenous people, it needs to make more of an effort to make itself useful for indigenous people,” Brady said.

At the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) in Saskatchewan, having an indigenized campus is vital in order for the school to meet their goal of allowing students the opportunity to “learn in an environment of First Nations cultures and values.”

Since its inception in 1976, FNUniv has made it their mandate to have a high number of indigenous faculty members, as well as to incorporate the indigenous perspective into program curricula.

Lynn Wells, the vice-president academic at FNUniv, said that the school aims “to have as many indigenous faculty as we can possibly get,” and that “everything taught at FNUniv is taught from an indigenous worldview.”

“It’s not that we take a lesson based curriculum and add a little bit of indigenous knowledge on top of it. The indigenous knowledge is actually the base from which things are taught,” Wells said. “The classes are taught with an understanding of how the world has been by indigenous people.”

Wells said that businesses classes are taught with a focus on economic development and community development rather than profit, for example.

“Everything here is to reflect that worldview. For our students, it really validates that their cultures are important. Their ways of understanding the world are just as legitimate as people from Europe or other parts of the world,” she said. “We try to give students that kind of balance here that they get the traditional indigenous worldview, but at the same time they get all the qualifications that they would need towards completing their degree.”

Wells emphasized the importance of having indigenous faculty on board in order to properly educate students on indigenous knowledge.

“If you’re going to engage in this, you should be true to the value of people whose culture you are trying to reflect. It should be respectful, and we should be respectful of the knowledge,” she said. “Any community knowledge needs to be used in a way that is best and agreed to by communities. You should have people with the appropriate expertise doing it.”

Richard Missens, an assistant professor in business at FNUniv, said that the benefits of having more indigenous faculty is that it not only educates students on indigenous issues, but it expands students’ cognitive abilities.

“When we talk about resource development, we’ll talk about it differently than how a corporation conducts. With agriculture, even our relationship with land and animals is different and we teach that in a classroom,” he said.

Missens said that incorporating indigenous thought into the curriculum adds more tools to the toolbox for both indigenous and non-indigenous students.

“We introduce a new way of thinking about things that students might not have thought about before. When applied across the academic disciplines, it’s a new way of learning for students. It really helps to broaden our perspective in the classroom,” he said.

Missens said that the majority of students who take his classes are non-indigenous students who want to learn more about indigenous history, indigenous issues and indigenous ways of thinking.

“They see creating competitive advantages for them and their companies, and opportunities for creating alliances with the indigenous community,” he said.

For indigenous students at FNUniv, Missens said that combining their culture with their education puts the student in a position that allows them to learn more about their identity.

“They begin to recognize teachings of their families and their elders. They begin to feel comfort…When we enhance that with mainstream curriculum and use indigenous examples to try and create better understanding, it really not only motivates them, but helps them in learning as well,” he said.

Wells added that if more universities are to follow this approach, it would have a healthy impact on Canadian society.

“It will reduce racism, help to improve health symptoms and help understand what the health challenges are for First Nations people, and it will encourage employment. It’s a win-win all the way around,” she said.

Wells said that with the help of the TRC, universities are starting to come to terms with what it means to have indigenous students.

“What I would like to see someday is where we don’t have to do anything special for indigenous students, because it will be just so much a fabric of university life that indigenous people are respected, that we don’t have to have all these intensive initiatives that we have right now,” she said.

“But this is a time of transition,” she added.

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