CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin Online
Indigenizing the academy: the way forward
The Indigenization of universities and colleges has become a key focus of discussion on many campuses in recent months. This follows on the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that called on post-secondary institutions to play a leading role to support Aboriginal languages and culture as part of a broader effort to heal the damages of past wrongs.
The challenge, however, is that Indigenization of the academy remains an often murky and even contested concept. What does it mean in concrete terms for academic staff associations and their members?
For Mi’kmaw scholar Marie Battiste, there is a critical role for academic staff associations to play in promoting Indigenization by negotiating ways to include more Aboriginal faculty in universities and colleges.
“The numbers of Aboriginal faculty across Canada is minimal compared to women and other racialized minorities,” says Battiste. “The University of Saskatchewan, for instance, set out more than 15 years ago to hire Aboriginal people to match the population in our province, then at 13 per cent. Today the numbers are less than 1 per cent.”
CAUT executive director David Robinson agrees that proactive steps are needed to hire Aboriginal academic staff, and these should be negotiated and enshrined in collective agreements.
“Beyond this, we also need to ensure that Aboriginal academic staff are provided with appropriate support to ensure their retention and promotion,” adds Robinson. “That means tenure and promotion evaluations have to take into account and recognize Indigenous knowledge and research traditions.”
Academic freedom, Robinson says, will be particularly important for Aboriginal faculty as they “begin to challenge established narratives and introduce new epistemologies.”
For many institutions, the recruitment of Aboriginal students is the main focus at the moment of their Indigenization efforts. While increasing post-secondary participation rates is vital, some critics warn it will be important that Aboriginal students not be pressured or streamed solely into “practical” or “vocational” programs for purposes of immediate employability.
“Indigenization must mean that Indigenous Peoples have the right to education that prepares the youth for life in a manner that is not at the expense of their language, culture, history, identity, safety, rights or future,” says Rainey Gaywish, a Cree-Anishinaabe scholar and 3rd Degree Midewiwin at Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig and Algoma University.
Aboriginal students, she insists, should enjoy the same freedoms as all students to select their own courses and pursue their own interests.
“The stories that are being told to us are that we are the deficit of Canada’s future. We are not. We are the hope of Canada’s future. Education must offer redress by actively sustaining our languages, identities and cultures,” adds Gaywish.
CAUT president James Compton says that the full contours of Indigenization of the academy still need to be fully traced, but we should recognize that there are potentially contentious issues ahead, particularly around the inclusion of Aboriginal content in the curriculum.
“The way forward is for open consultation with academic staff and community members to ensure that Aboriginal content and Indigenous knowledge are properly incorporated into campus-wide curricula,” he said. “Otherwise, the danger is that the exercise of including Indigenous content will simply result in tokenism, distortion, or cultural appropriation.”
For Compton, this means that significant resources must be made available to enable research and development of new approaches relating to the full diversity of Aboriginal histories, languages, cultures, perspectives and experiences.
“Throughout this process, we need to enable a full range of views and debates,” adds Compton. “For this to happen, the academic freedom rights of individual academic staff must also be respected in all cases.”
Battiste agrees that the process of Indigenization must be based on deep collaboration.
“Nothing about us without us,” she said.