22 Paved with Good Intentions: Simply Requiring Indigenous Content is Not Enough
Over the past year, the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University have mandated that incoming undergraduate students complete an Indigenous degree requirement before graduating. This requirement takes the form of an Indigenous content class chosen from a number of options relevant to the student’s degree program. Given the popular response, many other universities are following suit, a byproduct of both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s “Calls to Action” and an arms race to be at the forefront of progressive curricular reform.
Generally speaking, this is a good thing, and I believe that this is an effective strategy, especially at universities like these with substantial capacity to provide this curriculum. It is not my intent to critique those universities who have taken the lead on this, but I think that universities without this experience must move ahead cautiously. In the rush to get students learning about Indigenous-Canada relations, little friendly criticism has challenged this popular desire for curricular change. A sobering analysis by Daniel Heath Justice, however, shows just how difficult this project really is, and how poor implementation of a requirement could actually work against this goal. The stakes are high, much higher than benefiting good public relations in mandating an “Indigenization” program. In implementing an Indigenous content requirement universities need to think long and hard about how to do this effectively.
Indigenous content requirements aren’t actually new: they’ve been around for a while, in some cases, decades. Older content requirements were usually program-specific or a prerequisite for entry into a professional degree. At the University of Saskatchewan, where I work in the Department of Indigenous Studies, Education, Nursing, Aboriginal Public Administration, and Social Work students are required to take two Indigenous Studies courses to complete their degrees (all programs which train front-line workers in a province with a large Indigenous population). What these new proposals do, then, is expand the content requirement to a wider range of students—particularly into the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences—where the justification for its implementation is more intellectual (this is something you should know) rather rationalized as job training (this is something you’ll need to know to practice your profession effectively).
For the past three years, I have taught or co-taught one of these required Indigenous content courses, a class that contains students either there to fulfill a requirement or complete an interest-based elective. This class is vitally important and, when most effective, we inspire students to pursue advanced classes with Indigenous content. At its best, it has the potential to be transformative. There are, of course, students who simply go through the motions, are generally disinterested, or dislike the fact the requirement exists, but I’ve faced little outright resistance and encountered mostly open-minded individuals. As a rule, I believe that students emerge from the class with a broader knowledge base, ultimately fulfilling the purpose of the requirement. However, my department has the benefit of decades of experience teaching for this requirement, along with a longstanding normalization of this kind of class. We also have a substantial and vocal Indigenous student body at the University of Saskatchewan (roughly 12% of the student population, with three consecutive Indigenous student union presidents), and the support of deans and presidents for these requirements.
Not every university has a similar dynamic, and even here, as we envision expanding our Indigenous content requirement to every undergraduate degree at the university, we do so very carefully. I’ve been involved in several administrative processes for mandating a larger requirement over the past three years, and I believe there are three key components to effective and purposeful implementation of an Indigenous content degree requirement at a Canadian university. Universities need:
- A clear and well-articulated rationale for pursuing this course of action that is communicated to the university community and general public
- A critical mass of Indigenous content experts working as course instructors with enough job security and support to weather a potentially challenging classroom environment
- Support for existing Indigenous content programs who are already doing this work (and ensuring that these courses are relevant for Indigenous students too)
#1 – A well-articulated rationale for the Indigenous-content requirement
University administrations need to be very clear on the purpose of Indigenous-content requirements. This is easier for some programs than others: most prairie-based education or social work programs require these classes, given the large number of Indigenous youth their students will be working with. It’s good professional practice. However, explaining to a chemistry student that an Indigenous studies course will turn them into a “better citizen” is perhaps an abstract justification that requires more communication. While it is increasingly clear that Indigenous-Canada relations is the defining political issue of our time, many people don’t wish to challenge the prevailing social and political dynamic we’re living with.
Universities, then, need to do a great deal of communicating on why these new requirements are being launched. This may result in a public education campaign, but it also necessitates counteracting conservative narratives about returning to “the essentials,” by which they mean a classical European education. While many university administrators may be committed to Indigenization, they may not be able to defend it as rigorously as they need to. So, administrative education is also a key component of an Indigenous content requirement. Administrators, faculty, and staff all need to know enough about the importance of these proposals to effectively defend them. Thus, having a clear message on why this kind of curricular change is necessary (and inevitable) will go a long way in making this effective—and having administrative support at all levels is vital to its success.
#2 – Courses taught by experts
My former PhD supervisor ends each course by telling his students “now you know enough to be dangerous.” In other words, they now know enough to sound like they understand what they are talking about, but don’t yet know the limits of their knowledge. While there are many outstanding teachers out there, generally speaking, the public school system does not adequately prepare university students for critical engagement on these matters, when it does teach Indigenous issues at all. Every year, I read well-meaning essays that argue that Indigenous people didn’t understand the treaties they were negotiating (i.e. they weren’t politically sophisticated enough) or were not fluent in English so didn’t know what they’d agreed to (even though Treaty 6 was negotiated in Cree). It seems the default for unprepared instructors is to go with what they already know, and what they usually know is wrong. If anything, this sets us all back, because now students have learned misinformation from authority figures, and it would have generally been better to not teach it at all. We can’t reproduce this at the post-secondary level.
The absolute worst-case scenario is that Indigenous content requirements are fulfilled by any course remotely dealing with some sort of Indigenous issue, without the instructor having any particular expertise. Qualified individuals, those who have sufficient training to deconstruct historical narratives, to breakdown contemporary stereotypes, and encourage the students to undertake critical self-examination must teach these courses. One long-standing myth is that Indigenous dispossession and marginalization is the result of settler ignorance, and the corrective for this is more education. Why this solution is generally correct, the identification of the problem is not. Dispossession and marginalization are the result of colonialism not ignorance, an active process that replicates the privilege and power of some at the expense of others. The problem is an unjust and exploitative power imbalance—and the defence of it—not that people don’t realize its there. Are Canadians really that blind to the poverty, exploitation, and dispossession of Indigenous peoples? No. But most have come to accept it as part of the natural order of things and thus rationalize its existence. The problem, then, isn’t one of ignorance, but an all-to-easy justification of the social order.
Those of us who teach university-level Indigenous issues consistently face entrenched ideologies that blame Indigenous peoples for the policies thrust upon us and see us as incapable of proper social development. In introductory courses, the goal is mostly to un-teach these ideological positions. That is perhaps the most erroneous assumption of Indigenous content requirements: the goal is to unlearn a bunch of things and learn a little bit in its place. In my experience, effective learning is rarely accomplished in a single Indigenous studies course and so the goal is often to get students taking additional classes.
Because of this, every Indigenous-content course is not necessarily the right fit to fulfill this requirement. Courses that allow students to “gain a better appreciation for Indigenous culture” may not accomplish the intended goal, as it is not geared towards this vital unlearning element. Since we’re not really attempting to overcome ignorance, but to break down the rationalization of a colonial relationship, not all Indigenous content courses should be treated equally. Eligible courses for these requirements must be carefully selected, and will be much smaller in number than they first appear. Putting the right people in place, and supporting them to succeed on a larger scale than they’re currently teaching is vital to implementing a requirement effectively.
#3.1 – Support existing Indigenous programming and students
While “Indigenizing the academy” is now en vogue in academia, most Indigenous faculty have been researching and teaching these topics for a while. Rather than reinventing the wheel, expanding available resources to these programs is the easiest and most effective way to implement a new Indigenous content requirement. A lot of these programs are probably already providing courses required for other programs, like my department is. Indigenous Studies units, however, tend to be under-resourced and may suffer if they are expected to service an influx of new students. Indigenous Studies programs should not have to choose between increased enrollment and their core identities as units with majors and minors of their own. In preparing for an Indigenous content requirement, universities should be prepared to allocate additional resources to Indigenous Studies units. Without expanded resources and the capacity to provide enough student spaces to meet the new needs, many individual content requirements will fall to less qualified and less rigorous programs, which may, again, reinforce the well-entrenched mistruths of this colonial relationship.
If universities don’t have the staff in place to execute this, they need to hire them. Tenure-track experts and knowledge holders and preferably Indigenous. This is one of the few problems that administrators can fix simply by investing money. If universities hire enough Indigenous faculty and provide them the support to succeed, they’ll likely put in place the kind of programming that is required. The ongoing worry of many Indigenous faculty is that many non-expert units will begin teaching courses that qualify for this requirement as a way to increase enrollment, attempting to capitalize from more butts in seats. If English, History, Political Science, Philosophy, and Sociology units endeavour to develop courses on these topics, and they don’t have someone who can teach it, they need to hire someone who does. While many universities are now prioritizing the hiring of Indigenous faculty, these requirements necessitate further prioritization, ensuring that Indigenous faculty can support one another and be hired into academic units where they are not the lone Indigenous voice.
All of this requires an unwavering financial commitment from the higher-ups. Universities need to see this as a long-term process, as it is going to take decades for the Canadian public to unlearn colonial ideologies, and decades more to build an equitable relationship between the many peoples who now share this land. Universities need to be prepared to see this past this optimistic moment we’re living in, and recognize that the Canadian default position is one of hostility to ongoing Indigenous existence as independent peoples.
#3.2 – Make this relevant to Indigenous students, too
The unspoken target audience of Indigenous content requirements is non-Indigenous students. With the exception of First Nations University, every provincially accredited Canadian university has a non-Indigenous majority, and so this will result in an influx of non-Indigenous students into spaces that formerly were an Indigenous-centered space. If done improperly, educating a large number of non-Indigenous students can come at the expense of Indigenous ones. These content requirements cannot centre non-Indigenous students and their learning experiences, they must privilege Indigenous experiences and provide spaces for Indigenous student voices to be both heard and respected. These classrooms must be safe spaces, with seasoned instructors capable of managing the discussion of contentious or difficult topics. The comfort of non-Indigenous students cannot come at the expense of the hard-won space of Indigenous people in the academy. If universities are going to discuss this option, the conversation needs to prioritize the needs of the Indigenous student body—no matter how large or small—to avoid once again putting the needs of Canadians above those of Indigenous people. This would, again, reinforce all that we should be undoing.
Despite these challenges, we’re at a unique historical moment when profound change is possible. We have a duty to fundamentally rethink the role of the university in making positive social change. Many universities feel the need to move in the direction of Indigenous content requirements, but they need to do so effectively, and in a way that fits with the large-scale societal goals of reconciliation and restitution. We need administrative infrastructure, we need expanded Indigenous programming, and we need more Indigenous faculty. Without a firm commitment and careful implementation—backed up with the requisite funding—we risk further entrenching the kind of colonial relationship we’re now supposedly committed to transforming.
[i] At the University of Regina’s Saskatoon campus.