StFX launches "Indigenizing the Academy" committee


After Justice Murray Sinclair released the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) 94 Calls to Action in June 2015, universities across the country have been responding with efforts to indigenize the academy.

Senator Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, will be visiting StFX from November 7-8th. Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press.

Senator Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, will be visiting StFX from November 7-8th. Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press.

The TRC’s report called upon educational institutions in particular to engage with indigenous communities in order to work towards a greater reconciliation in our society. 

This past summer, StFX launched an ‘Indigenizing the Academy’ committee chaired by Dean of Arts Dr. Karen Brebner in response to the TRC Calls to Action and the priorities outlined by the Academic Priorities and Planning Committee (APPC).  

The committee will analyze the university’s current academic offerings in regards to indigenous programming and make recommendations on improving StFX’s indigenous studies curriculum.

While early in the “information gathering” phase of the process, Brebner cited an impressive engagement by faculty, students, and staff, from all areas of campus. 

“There’s a large number of people on campus who have indicated that they want to be involved on the committee,” Brebner says. 

Currently, all four Deans sit on the committee, along with faculty from each department, representatives from the Coady Institute, as well as librarians and students. Community members from Paqtn’kek are also being asked to participate in the process.

“The committee is beginning to have what I would call a professional learning community where faculty who are interested in courses are beginning to share their knowledge,” says Dean of Education Dr. Jeff Orr, who also sits on the committee. “I think through informal ways, knowledge is being shared.”

As they map the current state of indigenous studies on campus, the committee has requested faculty reports on whether or how they include material relating to First Peoples in their courses. 

In efforts to educate all students about indigenous history and culture, certain post-secondary institutions, such as the University of Winnipeg, have passed a requirement that all graduating students take a course that focuses on indigenous knowledge. 

“I don’t that think we’re quite ready for that because I don’t think we have the faculty resources or faculty capacity to do that yet,” Orr says. “But the main emphasis right now is to think about the development of a certificate that may sit within an actual Bachelor of Arts degree structure to really look across various departments.”

Orr lists English, History, Sociology, and Anthropology as examples of courses with specific content related to First Nations knowledge, stating that the idea is to build a program that students could elect to take across various subject areas. 

“What I would like to see is indigenous programming worked into all aspects of our curriculum,” says Brebner. “Every department, every program, should be able to identify some aspect of indigenous programming. I would love to see programming that is attractive to indigenous students, so that will help their chances of success, regardless of what their area of interest is.”

Last week, The Xaverian Weekly had the opportunity to connect with Dr. Vianne Timmons, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Regina, where indigenization has been underway for multiple years.  

Dr. Timmons, who is also a former chair of the Education Department at StFX, is a member of the Bras d'Or Mi'kmaq First Nation and has a long history promoting Aboriginal education. 

After she was appointed to the position in 2008, Timmons implemented the University’s 2009-2014 strategic plan entitled ‘mâmawohkamâtowin: Our Work, Our People, Our Communities,’ which highlighted key areas such as student and employee engagement, teaching and research excellence, and the education of indigenous students.

Also introduced by Timmons, UofR’s 2015-2020 strategic plan, titled ‘peyak aski kikawinaw: Together We Are Stronger,’ is founded on the themes of sustainability and indigenization. Peyak aski kikawinaw is Cree for “We are one with Mother Earth.”

Vianne Timmons, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Regina. Photo: University of Regina. 

Vianne Timmons, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Regina. Photo: University of Regina. 

“The first step is conversation,” Timmons says. “It’s critical to have conversations with Indigenous and First Nations students and people. And to make sure they are involved in any indigenization efforts.”

In order to avoid the misrepresentation of cultures and traditions, it is the responsibility of the academy to ensure that strategies are developed through meaningful partnerships with indigenous individuals and communities.

“The knowledge that is needed at the faculty level to accurately and appropriately teach indigenous knowledge and treaty education is a specialization,” Orr says.

Orr adds that most faculty members, and most public school teachers in Nova Scotia and beyond, come from a white middle-class, privileged background with little awareness of indigenous knowledge.

“This is going to take time,” says Orr. “And the challenge is to do this in ways that honour and respect the complexity of that knowledge.”

Aboriginal representation on the committee at StFX includes Robyn Bourgeois and Tanya Wasacase, both Coady faculty, and Terena Francis, the Coordinator of Aboriginal Student Affairs. Students Jasmine LaBillois and Kashya Young also sit on the committee. 

Many post-secondary institutions are adapting their hiring procedures to ensure that those with a deep knowledge of indigenous cultures and traditions are included.

At Vancouver Island University, for example, it has been a priority to establish faculty positions for Elders to help educate members of the academy on culturally appropriate practices, provide advice on curriculum and policies, and share traditional indigenous knowledge. Meanwhile at UofR, elders are active and engaged on campus but do not hold faculty status.

“One of the Elders I work with is so engaged in our campus,” Timmons says. “My sense is that they believe this is a turning point in history, and I believe it too. We have the power to really change the lives and living conditions for so many people.”

The committee at StFX has great aspirations to include Elders in the process but lacks an immediate solution, according to Dr. Orr. 

“The biggest concern I’ve heard is that they are in such high demand,” says Timmons. “They do get stretched, but the community is so open and willing to share their knowledge.”

While the committee’s mandate is limited to addressing academic offerings on campus, the task of indigenizing StFX is much greater than simply adding indigenous content to the curricula. 

The committee has identified matters of university governance as a priority, along with being conscious of the indigenous students while the new campus planning strategy is underway. 

In an article published in 2013 by the Canadian Journal of Native Studies, Timmons reports on the perceptions of fifty-nine Aboriginal students as they reflected on contributors and barriers to success in undergraduate programs. 

Interviews were conducted with the students over a five-month period. The coding of the data identified six key areas of concern, which included the visibility and quality of services and supports provided to indigenous students.

“We found there are a lot of really good strategies universities can use,” says Timmons, noting the positive impact of transition programs, cohort groups of students, and Aboriginal student centres.

Of the fifty-nine students interviewed, 32% were not aware of the resources available to them. However, well-resourced centres and student lounges provided a sense of community to those who did access them.

“If it weren’t for other Native students and that Native student lounge, I don’t think I would’ve survived,” one student commented.

In creating a safe and welcoming environment for indigenous students, a range of other strategies have been implemented at Canadian universities that celebrate and raise awareness of indigenous cultures and knowledge.

From incorporating indigenous languages on street signs around campus to designing university logos that more accurately represent the identities of indigenous students and alumni, these are all small steps in an effort to transform the university landscape. 

“My expectation is that this will become a much larger conversation outside the academic programming,” Brebner says. 

By encouraging intercultural dialogue and the cohabitation of Western science and indigenous knowledge on campuses, we have the opportunity to foster reconciliation across the country.   

Timmons summarizes this best in an as-yet-unpublished policy brief entitled Post-Secondary Education in Canada: Serving Aboriginal Students, co-authored by Dr. Peter Stoicheff, President of the University of Saskatchewan. 

“Educating one generation will invariably lead to the education of the next, and with the TRC Calls to Action in hand, there has never been a more opportune time for us to effect this transformation. The momentum is growing, and they key is now to ensure a continued and comprehensive effort.”