Enhancing Indigenous Studies Following Lakehead University’s and the University of Winnipeg’s curriculum changes, the McMaster Indigenous Student Community Alliance is petitioning for a mandatory Indigenous education for all students

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Before we concluded our interview, Hannah Martin shared a poem from the late Mik’maq poet and songwriter Rita Joe.

“I am the Indian/And the burden/Lies yet with me.”

Martin, too, is Mik’maq. As a First Nations person, and a member of the McMaster Indigenous Student Community Alliance, she personally identified that burden as a distinct responsibility to educate, and to make real the long history of the overlooked injustices of indigenous people across Canada.

The federal government’s work in addressing the issues faced by Indigenous communities across Canada has largely been seen as inadequate. The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation commission pointed out the failure to meet proper Indigenous curriculum standards throughout the country. Education on Indigenous culture, as well as the historical atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples, is only recommended and not mandatory in the public education system, even in a time where residential school survivors and victims of the Sixties Scoop — the practice of taking Indigenous children from their families and putting them in the foster care system — are still facing the repercussions of these tragedies.

Martin and her colleagues are frustrated, but also deeply driven to promote dialogue around MISCA’s latest initiative: mandatory Indigenous courses at McMaster University.

The petition

The Change.org petition was drafted by the student community association as a means of addressing the gaps in Indigenous awareness and education. Similar student movements have been successful at implementing an undergraduate Indigenous studies credit requirement at both Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg. Preliminary discussions among the faculty of Indigenous studies have already begun taking place.

“I think a lot of what is wrong with Indigenous relations in this country is that it has been simplified for people.”

MISCA’s petition is calling for the implementation of mandatory Indigenous courses in recognition of the University’s location on historical Haudenosaunee land. The association also considers it an integral part of the reconciliation process recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Council’s Calls to Action.

Educational structure

The logistics of implementing a required Indigenous studies credit have yet to be worked out by the University, the Faculty of Indigenous studies and MISCA’s members. While the latter two are looking to the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University for guidance, the requirement will only begin for students enrolling in the 2016 fall school year, so the results remain to be seen.

In Winnipeg, students will be able to choose from a list of three-credit courses spanning across departments that will fulfill the requirement. Lakehead has offered a similarly flexible approach, as there is a significant number of pre-existing courses that have a minimum of 18 hours of content related to Indigenous issues ranging across different departments. Lakehead has explicitly committed to adding no additional costs for the students that need to fulfill this requirement.

Both universities have pushed themselves away from the implementation of a mass, one-size-fits-all course, and similar attitudes have been shared by members of MISCA and the Faculty of Indigenous studies.

McMaster’s Indigenous Studies’ Academic Director Dr. Rick Monture identified several concerns with the implementation of mandatory Indigenous courses. Monture said that the discussions have only begun to take place, and it is too early to tell where the additional resources needed to provide a greater range of Indigenous courses for different faculties could come from. Furthermore, the faculty is weary of potential tensions that could arise by making Indigenous studies a mandatory academic components, and wants to avoid creating potentially detrimental learning environments. While Monture and his colleagues are happy to be discussing the possibilities of this initiative with the University, he personally recognizes the difficulty of working with professors’ academic freedom and the limited scope of their own expertise.

“I think that sort of points to a big issue of people thinking that teaching Indigenous stuff is simple and that it’s kind of an easy fix to a big, big problem that’s been festering or has been in process for several decades now. How do you untangle all of that complex history, Canadian history and political history and social history, again, into a three unit course? Yeah, any little bit would help but I don’t want people who would be leaving that course to think that they understand these things now because I think a lot of what is wrong with Indigenous relations in this country is that it has been simplified for people,” stated Monture.

“The media has simplified things, elementary and secondary and post-secondary curriculum pays very little attention to Indigenous stuff so people don’t think that there is anything they really need to know … When you present them with something more complex, it confuses people, so we need to be very thoughtful of how we move forward with this.”

Despite the pragmatic difficulties, members of MISCA are still confident that Indigenous applications have the potential to be valuable for a wide range of disciplines under a more faculty-oriented model.

Last week, the Global Engineering Conference included a presentation from MISCA with a guest speaker that addressed the need for developers to speak with Indigenous peoples across the world about matters of land. Earlier this year, an Indigenous Health Conference united Health Sciences students and professionals to discuss some of the unique health challenges that face Indigenous communities.

“It’s my responsibility to carry that knowledge on to make sure no one forgets that it’s happened. That’s like the greatest fear of our people … we’re not mad, we just want people to be aware of what happened, we want people to be aware of the truth.” 

The petition has been received with mixed receptions from the student body, but as current MISCA Secretary Treasurer Gail Jamieson explained, the lack of knowledge that has come up time and time again in conversation has only led to the group believing more needs to be done to educate more people about these issues.

“Every city has people with addictions, but it’s funny how non-Natives will point at you, and point out everything wrong in the community, and not ask … why has this happened. I think education is a really big part of that. You can’t help anybody or support anybody unless you know why, and I think Canada really has to look at that,” explained Gail.

Three-year-long MISCA member Evan Jamieson-Eckel explained that individuals would often object to the notion of increased Indigenous education, largely pointing at a variety of real and stereotypical associations with Indigenous culture and contemporary issues. He said that the importance of this history is for all Treaty peoples, which explicitly includes non-Indigenous individuals.

“Even when treaties are being brought up, it’s not like we want these things for ourselves. The treaties are between native nations and Canada. That’s everyone, everyone is a treaty person that’s one thing you’ll hear a lot too. That’s what people need to realise too. We’re all in this together right? And that’s what we’re trying to push. We can’t get to the point of reconciliation without looking at the past and learning from it and how to best move forward with that information.”

The grade school gap

Still, the necessity of mandatory Indigenous education at the post-secondary level ultimately stems from a lack of mandatory curriculum at the grade school level. MISCA has officially supported and began to circulate a petition started by KAIROS, a human rights advocacy group, that demands more vigorous implementation of age appropriate K-12 Indigenous education in accordance to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 63. The curriculum would include studies of residential schools, Treaties, and contemporary and historical Indigenous contributions to the country.

“Maybe eventually it wouldn’t have to be mandatory once all these ones that have been taught in public school catch up to your university grade and maybe more people would love that subject and want to learn more and want to take it when they are in university as an elective. But for now, I think it has to be mandatory because there has been a lack that the government has done, and they’ve lied about the true history of Canada,” explained Jamieson.

Encouraging dialogue

While it is highly unlikely that a single, three unit course could be a satisfactory means of implementing this mandate, advocates will need to carefully look to Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg more integrated model in the coming school years to evaluate the pre-existing models.

Nonetheless, the logistical complications should not prevent serious consideration about the state of Indigenous education in post-secondary institutions and especially grade schools where this part of Canadian culture and history is actively overlooked.

Despite the frustration, and despite the determination to promote this initiative, time and time again, the members of MISCA showed that above all else, they want to be heard. They were ready for both constructive input, criticisms and concerns, but they are also bracing themselves for outrage, confusion and outright rejection.

Hannah Martin left with a final anecdote about the personal responsibility she feels to her people and culture, and Canadian society as a whole.

“It’s my responsibility to carry that knowledge on to make sure no one forgets that it’s happened. That’s like the greatest fear of our people … we’re not mad, we just want people to be aware of what happened, we want people to be aware of the truth. It’s a huge responsibility for us to try to educate people every single day, and that’s a responsibility I carry with me every day and I will until I die.”



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