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Indigenization efforts vary widely on Canadian campuses, study finds

Institutions have focused mainly on Indigenous inclusion, but that’s only one end of a spectrum of policies needed for reconciliation, researchers argue.


When it comes to Indigenization at Canadian universities, most have focused on Indigenous hiring and student recruitment, with few making progress on long-term commitments that Indigenous education experts say are key to Indigenizing the academy. That’s the overall conclusion of a survey carried out by two researchers at the University of Alberta.

The concepts of “Indigenization” and “Indigenizing the academy” have been around for several decades. However, it wasn’t until Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission published its calls to action in 2015 – with specific directives for postsecondary institutions – that the terms found wide use among university administrations in this country. In the months and years that followed the TRC’s final report, the majority of universities announced initiatives to support Indigenization. These ranged from Indigenous course requirements and the hiring of Indigenous faculty, staff and administrators, to Indigenous-run spaces for student support and Indigenous-led research centres. But the development, goals and impacts of these projects varied widely.

Like many faculty and staff working in Indigenous studies and Indigenous education in Canada, researchers Adam Gaudry and Danielle Lorenz had a sense that “Indigenization” had become a catch-all term at most university campuses. The variety of projects they were seeing seemed to reinforce that hunch. They decided to find out if others who were working in Indigenous education and Indigenous studies at Canadian universities felt the same way. The pair published their research, “Indigenization as inclusion, reconciliation, and decolonization: navigating the different visions for indigenizing the Canadian Academy,” in the journal AlterNative (vol. 14, no. 3).

Dr. Gaudry and Ms. Lorenz surveyed 25 people – Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars and academic administrators who’ve worked in the field of Indigenous studies – to gauge their perceptions of Indigenization at their institutions. They found that Indigenization initiatives at Canadian universities exist on a spectrum ranging from status quo to transformative, and tend to fall into three categories – Indigenous inclusion, reconciliation Indigenization, and decolonial Indigenization.

The faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. Photo courtesy UAlberta.

Indigenous inclusion, representation and reconciliation

The least disruptive and most popular of the three approaches, Indigenous inclusion, refers to projects that prioritize representation without structural change, particularly policies that aim to increase the number of Indigenous people on campus. The authors note that an Indigenization strategy that relies primarily on inclusion initiatives incorrectly assumes that simply bringing more Indigenous people into the academy makes the academy a more Indigenous place. This approach “ultimately expects Indigenous people to bear the burden of change.”

However, the researchers acknowledge that Indigenous inclusion is an important first step towards more meaningful change. Dr. Gaudry, associate dean of research and graduate studies in U of A’s faculty of native studies, said in an interview that inclusion policies are a way for universities to show quick results: “It means new classes being taught by new faculty, new mentors, new support people, new ideas.” Indigenous inclusion is an important part of Indigenization, he said, but the process doesn’t stop there.

At the centre of the spectrum is the concept of reconciliation Indigenization. These are initiatives that have largely been spurred by the TRC’s calls to action and focus on reconciling Indigenous knowledges with the European knowledges Canadian universities have been built on.

In this vision of Indigenization, universities see themselves as playing a role in educating the Canadian public about Indigenous peoples, their cultures and history, and about contemporary reconciliation. The authors cite Indigenous course requirements as an example. Although there is some structural change happening on this level, the authors caution that it’s undercut when universities insist on unilaterally making decisions that should be shared with Indigenous communities – they argue that this tendency simply maintains colonial relationships.

Adam Gaudry.

Overhauling the academy

The most disruptive of the three categories is decolonial reconciliation, which “envisions the wholesale overhaul of the academy.” This approach ultimately sees knowledge and power balanced between Indigenous people and Canadians. It’s modelled on treaty principles – like autonomous governance and reciprocal relationships – and prioritizes the resurgence of Indigenous communities, cultures and politics.

In practice, this means land- and community-based education, ceremonies, Indigenous language use, communal ownership of knowledge, and formal recognition of a range of Indigenous protocols and practices around sharing, evaluating and interpreting knowledge. The ultimate goals are the “redistribution of intellectual privilege” and relationships that “decentralize administrative power” – a shift that will require the contemporary university to change its expectations around timelines, permissions, research communication, data preservation, intellectual property and credentials.

There are few examples of decolonial Indigenization on Canadian campuses, but they do exist. Dr. Gaudry points to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University, and the faculty of native studies at the U of A as spaces that largely seem to operate outside of the usual university structure.

Dr. Gaudry said the key to figuring out where a project falls on the scale is to look at how the project was developed and who was involved in making decisions: “Do the local communities that the university is working with think it’s a priority?”

Adding Cree to campus signage, for example, could have a large impact if the local Indigenous communities deemed it important and were involved in making the change happen. However, if local communities were minimally involved and the priority was getting the signage up as quickly as possible, it would likely fall into the “inclusion” category.

Dr. Gaudry adds that progressing along the spectrum towards decolonial reconciliation shouldn’t be seen by university administrators as optional. In fact, power- and land-sharing are a mutual responsibility outlined in treaties and other formal agreements that Canadian universities have an obligation to meet, he says.

“What we argue for in the paper is to start to think of universities in different ways … it could be an institution where these different knowledge-systems and these different intellectual communities co-exist, but are still self-governing,” Dr. Gaudry said. “It’s also about universities thinking about spaces for Indigenous people, Indigenous communities to engage in Indigenous intellectual practices in a university context that is controlled by Indigenous people. It’s also thinking about parallel universities co-existing.”

He also noted that it’s important to make progress along the spectrum to avoid exhausting Indigenous staff, faculty and students who have been actively working on Indigenizing the academy for years. “I think there’s already reconciliation or Indigenization fatigue on campus. It takes a lot of work,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough process, I think, and the universities have to stay committed, they have to learn, and they have to think of ways that they can do this without burning out their Indigenous faculty, staff and students while they’re doing it.”

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  1. casey / April 18, 2019 at 16:42

    Wasn’t there going to be an indigenous university up north somewhere? Anyone know what happened to that project?